Air Defense: Russian Production Problems


October 4, 2023: Another casualty of the Russian war in Ukraine is that Russian commercial airliner manufacturers saw their production fall sharply in 2023. Production won’t recover until the economic sanctions are lifted and the Ukraine War ends. The manpower demands of the war made the existing shortage worse. The production workforce is aging and Russian universities are not producing enough graduates to replace those who are retiring. Many of those new aircraft engineers and maintenance personnel migrated to find better paying jobs elsewhere and to avoid getting mobilized into the army. Many Russian industries complained to the Defense Ministry that their technical people were being taken by the military and that was hurting aircraft production and maintenance. The shortage of production and maintenance personnel is expected to get worse, even after the war ends. The economic sanctions blocked the import of components and equipment needed for aircraft production. This, even without the shortage of production and engineering personnel, limits production of new aircraft needed to replace the older aircraft that are retired. These problems also occur for the military aircraft production industry.

Russia used to be a major producer of military aircraft. Late in the Cold War the Soviet Union was still producing several hundred combat aircraft a year. The Soviet Union collapsed and dissolved in 1991. So did Russian production of combat aircraft. During the 1990s, production of a hundred combat aircraft a year was only possible by obtaining many export sales. Twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian warplane production was increasing because exports were still strong and Russia could afford to buy more aircraft for itself. The Soviet Air Force had 10,000 warplanes in 1991 and most of those went to the fourteen new countries where they were based. Russia could not afford to maintain the few thousand combat aircraft it was left with after 1991 and, by 2000, found it could not maintain more than a thousand combat aircraft. Another loss during the 1990s was the ability to design and build new aircraft. Most Russian defense firms went out of business in the 1990s while some managed to switch production to items that were still sold. In the last decade most Russian producers of military aircraft were merged into one state-owned UAC (United Aircraft Corporation). A similar merger created a similar company for helicopters.

UAC had a lot of work to do producing new model aircraft as well as older designs that were still popular, especially with export customers. UAC could produce over a hundred aircraft a year and until 2014 it looked like the Russian demand for military aircraft would keep growing along with export sales. UAC had to be profitable and achieved that by shutting down many of the facilities it acquired via all those mergers. Aircraft design and production was concentrated in three facilities and MiG finally disappeared, leaving only Sukhoi (Su) warplanes in production. The Su-27 and MiG-29 appeared late in the Cold War and while the Su-27 kept evolving and improving, the MiG-29 did not. That eventually put MiG out of business.

The United States still has two major producers of war planes and there are several in Europe. Japan and South Korea have begun designing and producing modern combat aircraft. Japanese and European firms have formed a consortium to design and build Tempest, a next generation, after the F-35, warplane. China has two firms producing modern warplanes. All this is more competition for Russia, which, because of sanctions and canceled export orders, was able to deliver only 27 aircraft (four Su-30SM2s, ten Su-34Ms, seven Su-35Ss, and six Su-57s) last year. That was below average for UAC but not by much. From 2008 to 2021 UAC delivered about 40 aircraft a year. Production was disrupted in 2022 because of the sudden and massive economic sanctions imposed on Russia after Ukraine was attacked. Export sales were hurt by the poor performance of UAC aircraft in Ukraine. So far Russian forces have lost 322 military aircraft in Ukraine. This includes transports and helicopters as well as modern combat aircraft. These losses include seventeen Su-34s, eleven Su-30SMs, one Si-35S, twenty-five Su-25s and nine Su-24s. Ukraine has lost 142 combat aircraft. The higher Russian losses were due to the unexpectedly effective Ukrainian air defense system. The Russian air force was unable to shut down the Ukrainian air defenses and had to halt operation of Russian aircraft inside Ukraine. The Ukrainians were using older models of Russian designed air defense systems and combat aircraft to defend their air space. Some Western air defense systems were available at the start of the war and more kept arriving to supplement and then replace Ukrainian losses. Russian occupied Ukrainian territory is defended by Russian anti-aircraft systems which have proved effective enough to reduce Ukrainian air operations in these areas. The air war in Ukrainian was a revelation because, if both sides use modern warplanes and air defense systems, the result was expected to be stalemate rather than air superiority for the side with more combat aircraft and lots of air defense systems. The American air forces have maintained air dominance wherever they have fought since World War II. A lot of American aircraft lost over Vietnam in the 1960s into the early 1970s but American air superiority was still achieved.

During the Cold War the NATO alliance, especially the United States, expected heavy aircraft losses if the Russians attacked. The Americans and their NATO allies expected to prevail but that battle was never fought. That had to wait until 2022 when a version of that NATO/Russia air campaign took place in Ukraine.

Warplane production is only one of several types of weapons production that Russia is trying to sustain and increase under all the sanctions. This includes tanks and other armored vehicles as well as artillery and electronic warfare systems and UAVs. Russia ended up buying UAVs from Iran and artillery ammunition from North Korea. Cut off from key Western suppliers of components, Russia has to set up production of some of these items or smuggle some of them in. No matter how energetic these Russian efforts are, it takes time to restore pre-war production levels and that may not be possible for anything requiring sophisticated Western electronics.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close