Is Russia the World’s Leader in Combat Aviation?

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On August 22nd Russian President Vladimir Putin made the latest of several bold claims regarding the state of Russian military aviation  at a meeting with representatives of the ruling United Russia Party. “As for combat aviation, the whole world is well aware that we are the undisputed leaders in the field of combat aviation. Our combat vehicles are not only competitive, they are the best in the world. I say this without any exaggeration, but also with a sense of pride in our aviators and aircraft manufacturers,” he said. Elaborating on the history of the relationship between civil and military aviation, Putin stated that since the Soviet era civil aviation was developed based on the needs for combat aviation, rather vice versa as was seen abroad, and that as a result “often civil aircraft were military transport vehicles adapted for civilian purposes.” He highlighted that this was the cause for historic difficulties in the Russian civil aviation industry, but claimed the situation had changed “undoubtedly for the better, Russian civil aviation is becoming a part of world civil aviation.” The president named the Sukhoi Superjet 100 as an example of a civilian aircraft that “worked very effectively.” “These are the first machines that were entirely designed in digital form. This aircraft is actively used and will be used in the future. But this is not enough, and now we need a medium-range aircraft,” Putin added.

Sukhoi Superjet

President Putin previously claimed that Russia’s Su-57 was the best fighter jet in the world, although only one aircraft is known to be in service in the country’s air force with 76 to be deployed by 2027. While the Soviet Union had previously been expected to be the first in the world to field fifth generation fighter aircraft with its promising MiG 1.44 program, Russia fell to third place behind China and the United States which have for years fielded next generation fighters of their own analogues to the Su-57. The Su-57 does enjoy a number of advantages over its Chinese and U.S. rivals the J-20 and F-22, including superior manoeuvrability, a higher weapons payload and access to long ranged missiles and a unique laser defence system – but it is also thought to be considerably less stealthy. Russia is considered to have a qualitative lead in several areas of military aviation, however, including fielding the world’s two most capable attack helicopters the Ka-52 and Mi-35, as well as the world’s foremost heavy bomber the Tu-160. 

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Russian Tu-160 Heavy Bomber

The Russian president’s statement was hardly his first regarding the close ties between the country’s military and civil aviation. In January 2018, addressing officials at the Gorbunov Aviation Factory in Kazan, Putin raised the question as to whether a civilian aircraft based on the Tu-160 Mach 2+ intercontinental range bomber could be a viable idea, highlighting that “big companies have appeared which could have used this aircraft” and could be willing to cover the costs of expensive flight tickets. Such an aircraft was considered a possible means to integrate Russia’s western and far easter expanses, which are so far apart they cross 11 time zones. Further comments regarding the viability of such a program to adapt the Tu-160 were not forthcoming. The future of Russian civil aviation remains highly uncertain despite considerable investment, with the possibility remaining considerable of a joint airliner developed jointly with China under the CRAIC CR929 program. 

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