Attrition: A Russian Impossible Dream


September 23, 2021: During August 2021 the Russian Air Force lost five aircraft due to accidents in a two-week period. Four of them were in the air and one on the ground during maintenance. The lost aircraft include two MiG-29 fighters, a Su-24 fighter-bomber, an IL-112V twin-engine turboprop transport and a Be-200 twin-jet amphibious maritime patrol and transport aircraft. The MiG-29 was undergoing maintenance when it caught fire and was destroyed. Age, poor design and insufficient maintenance make Russian air force loss rates much higher than in the West. Clusters of losses like this are unknown in the West but not in Russia, where the reporting standards for civilian and military aircraft accidents and losses are different from the rest of the world. Since 1945 the United States, with the largest number of commercial aircraft has had the most crashes but because it has the highest level of commercial aircraft usage the losses per million flight hours were the lowest in the world.

Until the 1990s Russia did not publish similar statistics. For Russian airlines to operate outside Russia they had to provide standard loss statistics and have their airliners certified. During the Cold War few Russian airliners operated outside Russia and those that did were maintained and operated with exceptional care to avoid accidents. Inside Russia was another matter and commercial aircraft safety statistics were a state secret. Western intel agencies, using reports from diplomats and Russians who got out and settled in the West could only confirm that commercial air travel in Russia was a lot more dangerous. After the Cold War ended in 1991 Russian airlines were able to purchase Western airliners and components for existing airliners. It was also possible to obtain data on commercial aviation losses from 1945 to 1991 and Russian airliner users could talk freely about their experiences, which were largely negative. As Russian airlines and airliners received certification, their loss data has shown that Russia has one of the worst accident rates in the world. On a regional basis Russia ranked behind everyone else except many African airlines. In 2011 Russia was rated the worst in the world in terms of flight safety. Most Russian domestic airliners don’t even bother to get their operational record certified. They only flew in Russia and customers reported that it was safer than during the Cold War, but still more dangerous than in the West. Russians flying to foreign destinations preferred foreign airliners.

There was a similar situation with military aircraft and while Russia sought to build Western type military aircraft towards the end of the Cold War, these “Western designs” were safer but still much more accident prone than their Western counterparts. Western counties, like India, that used a lot of Russian warplanes noted that even using Western standards for pilots and maintainers, Russian warplanes were more accident prone. India has been slowly moving to the more expensive, but safer and reliable Western aircraft. Even so the differences in loss rates compared to Western air forces and airlines was still stark and seemingly intractable.

In the West, particularly the United States, military aircraft flew far more often, especially in terms of flight hours and kept better records. Each new generation of aircraft were more complex and expensive but had lower losses. In mid-2017 American F-35 fighters completed their first 100,000 flight hours. That is the point when a new aircraft is seen as mature. The F-22 reached that point in 2010. But the F-35, unlike earlier jet fighters, reached 100,000 flight hours without any crashes. However, the F-35 did suffer three “Class A” accidents. These are defined as an aircraft incident that killed someone or cost at least $2 million to repair. That’s a record low accident rate for a new aircraft, but it was expected to increase before settling down. F-35s entered service in large numbers after 2017 and spent a lot more time in the air. The historical loss trend continued.

Even when there is no war going on, flying warplanes, especially jet fighters, is dangerous. This is the case even when no one is shooting at you. Over a century ago, during World War I, pilots of fighters were more likely to die in an accident than from enemy fire. There have always been accidents and as aircraft got more expensive, the U.S. Department of Defense came up with a more organized way of tracking aircraft mishaps. One big innovation was the different categories of accidents. Class A accidents included everything from total loss of the aircraft and the deaths down to just very expensive damage. The lower range was an accident that cost a certain amount of money that could be adjusted for inflation and such. Until 2010 a Class A accident repair costs had to be at least a million dollars. That cost has gone up over time. The high cost of building, and repairing the F-22, and most other new warplanes finally triggered a 2010 change that required repairs worth at least two million dollars to be considered a Class A accident.

Even with that, by 2012 the F-22 accident rate was six per 100,000 hours flown, including some crashes but the rate came down year by year, as they always do. What was learned developing the F-22 was applied to the F-35. Among the aircraft the F-35 is meant to replace, the new fighter's safety record is par for the course or an improvement. The Navy's F-18 has averaged 2.84 Class As per 100,000 hours since 1990, while the F-16 lifetime rate is 3.45 per 100,000 hours.

New aircraft always have higher accident rates, which is how many hidden, at least from the design engineers and test pilots, flaws and technical problems are found. The F-35, like the F-22, was expected to eventually have an accident rate of 2-3 per 100,000 flight hours and this is part of a trend. There are exceptions, like the AV-8 Harrier vertical takeoff jet, which has a rate of 11-12. The F-35B version of the F-35 is replacing the AV-8 with the intention of having a much lower accident rate than the AV-8, but probably higher than the F-35A, which only operates from land bases and the F-35C, which operates from carriers using a catapult, not vertical takeoff and landing. Only about 700 F-35s have been delivered so far with the F-35B entering service first in mid-2015 with the F-35A following a year later and the F-35C in early 2019. So far F-35s have about 450,000 flight hours and are following the historical trends for new aircraft in terms of declining costs and accidents.

Combat aircraft are becoming more reliable, even as they become more complex. For example, in the early 1950s, the F-89 fighter had 383 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. A decade later the rate was in the 20s for a new generation of aircraft. At the time, the F-4, which served into the 1990s, had a rate of less than five per 100,000 hours.

Combat aircraft have gotten more reliable and easier to maintain, despite growing complexity, for the same reason automobiles have. Better engineering and more sensors built into equipment makes it easier for the user and maintenance personnel to detect potential problems. Aircraft used computerized maintenance systems, currently common on new aircraft, long before automobiles got them. Unless you have a much older car that still runs, or a really good memory, you don't notice the enormous increase in automobile reliability. But older pilots remember because such changes are a matter of life and death if you make your living driving an aircraft. And commanders know that safer aircraft give them more aircraft to use in combat and more aircraft that can survive combat damage and keep fighting.

Most Russian pilots never flew a Western aircraft but the few who did were impressed with the differences. After the 1990s Russia had problems recruiting and retaining military pilots because of higher loss rates in military aircraft. Russian military pilots who wanted to keep flying left and became commercial pilots. Still dangerous by world standards but a lot safer than most Russian built warplanes. It is estimated that Russian military loss rates are similar to Western aircraft rates fifty years ago. With existing aircraft a lot of accidents could be avoided if Russia were able to obtain more aircraft maintainers. These require longer training and OJE (on-the-job-experience) than the Russian air force budget and recruiting efforts can provide. Most of the Russian military is still conscripts, who serve only twelve months, versus two years in the 1980s (three years for the navy). Most combat aircraft were built for this but even then the quality gap in aircraft maintainers compared to the West was important and became more so as the Russians built more Western type combat aircraft. The Russian military eliminated NCOs (sergeants and petty officers) a century ago because the communists noted that many revolutionary leaders during the French and Russian revolutions were experienced NCOs. Post-communist Russia has been trying to revive its lost NCO tradition, but after three decades have learned that progress is slow and costly. Western maintainers are largely veterans or volunteer recruits who serve four years initially. Enough of them remain in uniform to give Western air forces a major edge in aircraft reliability, readiness and low loss rates.


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