The inter-theater redeployment of aircraft during Vostok-2010 was one of the key events of the strategic war games, which end today. The Su-24 Fencer and Su-34 Fullback tactical bombers used midair refueling to fly to the Russian Far East.
In-flight refueling, routinely used by the world's leading powers, including the United States and NATO countries, allows for the quick build-up of air power in a given zone of conflict.
To efficiently implement that maneuver, a country should have a sufficient number of flying tankers, combat aircraft equipped for midair refueling, transport planes to carry auxiliary personnel and cargo, and crews capable of fulfilling such missions.
None of these elements are sufficient in Russia.
The Il-78 (Il-78M) Midas, based on the Il-76 military transport plane, is Russia's only flying tanker. Russia has 19 such planes equipped for midair refueling of the Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers and the A-50 Mainstay early warning and control planes. This is certainly not enough.
The U.S. Air Force has 250 KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker air-to-air tanker aircraft and there are more in-flight refueling planes in the National Guard and in reserve. This allows the United States to project its military might by quickly redeploying large Air Force units from one theater of operations to another.
Russia also lacks aircraft capable of being refueled in midair. For example, the Su-27 Flanker and the MiG-29 Fulcrum multipurpose combat planes are not equipped for this, mostly because in the Soviet era there were enough military airfields with a large number of aircraft in all the strategic locations.
Modern Russia cannot keep so many planes at so many airfields, which is why it is becoming critically important to equip fighter planes for midair refueling. All new and all modernized planes have such equipment, and some tactical aircraft can be used as flying tankers. In particular, the Su-24 Fencer has outboard fuel tanks and a refueling system.
But this is not a good solution as these planes usually have a shorter range and cannot be used as bombers, which would undermine a bomber squadron's potential.
The Tu-22M3 Backfire-C long-range bomber has no refueling equipment for political reasons: if it had a flight refueling probe, this would have made it an intercontinental plane and hence subject to START reductions.
Equipping a bomber with midair refueling equipment is fairly simple.
But the biggest problem concerns the crew. The most responsible missions in Russia are still assigned to crews led by senior officers (majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels) who have considerable practical experience. The ability of other pilots to fulfill such missions is not assured.
Another problem concerns transport planes, something the Air Force needs to support distant operations that involve the redeployment of combat planes. Russia has one of the world's largest fleets of transport aircraft, but they are still not enough given the country's huge territory and the need to transport a large amount of military cargo.
These problems can only be resolved comprehensively; a simple supply of flight refueling probes will not do. The country's leadership and military should approve the production of refueling planes and the training of the necessary crews for the Air Force. Taken together, this should increase the number of planes capable of long-range missions.
At the same time, the Il-78 Midas is too big for refueling tactical aircraft, which need a smaller, cheaper plane, possibly based on the civilian Tu-204 medium-range airliner. A few dozen such planes in the Air Force would dramatically improve its position.
Besides, the purchase of large batches of flying tankers based on the Tu-204 would save the airliner, which is breathing its last breaths.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik)