Russian naval aviation is in critical condition, particularly the aviation units of the Black Sea Fleet, which may lose most of their fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters in the next five to six years.
This problem demands a rapid solution. Otherwise the new warships ordered under the 2011-2020 state rearmament program will be useless.
So far there are no official plans for equipping the navy with new fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. There have been no public reports or official statements regarding the purchase of new aircraft for the navy citing specific figured or parameters, except for the announcement of the purchase of 26 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 Fulcrum carrier-borne fighters.
Off-the-record comments and articles by experts indicate that Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-38 May and Tupolev Tu-142 Bear F/J maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft are currently being modernized, and that the navy will receive new helicopters under a program to provide a thousand new helicopters for the Russian Armed Forces between 2011 and 2020.
The navy has endured across-the-board cuts for the past 20 years, with naval aviation being the hardest hit. Long-range bomber units essentially no longer exist, and the number of combat-ready ASW planes has dwindled.
The air wing of Russia's sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, and helicopters deployed on cruisers, ASW ships and frigates also face major problems.
The Black Sea Fleet is in a particularly bad state, as this was the only Soviet fleet that did not receive next-generation warships and aircraft in the 1980s before the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, its aviation units still operate four Beriev Be-12 Mail flying boats, which were decommissioned elsewhere long ago. The fleet operates rapidly aging Kamov Ka-27 Helix and Mil Mi-14 Haze, which are the main helicopter models in use in other fleets.
Russia can replace these obsolete helicopters. Each year, Russia manufactures 100 helicopters for export and for its own needs. Considering the ambitious helicopter procurement plans under the above-mentioned federal rearmament program, the navy is entitled to its fair share.
Replacing ASW aircraft is even more critical. Russia now has an estimated 40 long-range aircraft, including 26-28 Il-38s and 15 Tu-142s in use in the Pacific and Northern fleets, while the Baltic fleet lacks any long-range aircraft.
Ground-based ASW planes have come a long way in the past few years. Owing to recent advances in airborne radio-electronic equipment, most industrialized countries have started converting these planes into multi-role maritime patrol aircraft.
The U.S. Navy's upgraded Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion anti-submarine and surveillance aircraft, the peer of the Soviet Il-38 plane, is a classic example.
Over the past 30 years, these planes have gained a number of new capabilies. They can attack ships with the help of new anti-ship missiles; they can function as AWACS-type early-warning aircraft; and they can patrol exclusive economic zones and territorial waters in search of smugglers and poachers.
The Russian Navy also plans to overhaul its 40 ASW aircraft. But 40 aircraft are clearly not enough to police Russia's coast. Russia has the longest maritime border in the world, a problem compounded by the melting polar icecaps. Although the United States has 130 planes of this class, many U.S. analysts also believe their number should be increased.
Russia cannot compete with the United States in terms of the number of naval aircraft, but it can certainly afford to make more of this class of aircraft, particularly the A-42, an advanced version of the Beriev A-40 Albatros/Mermaid flying boat, developed in the 1980s, which can fly patrol and rescue missions.
The Russian Defense Ministry has already announced plans to purchase these aircraft. However, a 2008 plan to purchase four A-42 search-and-rescue planes, as well as their multi-role versions later on, never materialized.
Lieutenant General Valery Uvarov, former commander of the Russian Navy's air-force and air-defense units, said the navy needs 15-20 new flying boats to meet the demand for search-and-rescue aircraft and to significantly enlarge the ASW plane fleet.
It is impossible to replace all obsolete aircraft with A-42 flying boats because it would take about 20 years for the Taganrog plant that manufactures them, as well as the smaller Beriev Be-200 planes for the Emergencies Ministry, to fulfill the contract for at least 40 such aircraft.
A good replacement would be the Tupolev Tu-204-P multi-mission maritime aircraft, which was developed on the basis of the Tu-204 medium-haul airliner. It resembles the state-of-the-art Boeing P-8 Poseidon, a converted B-737.
This aircraft could be mass-produced if the Russian Navy were to order a sufficient quantity, unlike the A-42 flying boats. This would provide much-needed support to the Tu-204 program, which has essentially no commercial orders.
It would be possible to assemble 50-60 such aircraft in the next ten years, along with a small number of A-42 search-and-rescue planes. This would alleviate the problem and form the foundation for the subsequent development of Russian naval aviation.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.