The Ulan-Ude Aviation Plant (UUAZ) in Eastern Siberia could resume production of Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot strike aircraft on orders from the Russian Defense Ministry and the United Aircraft Building Corporation. How likely is the country's Defense Ministry to purchase them? What are their strengths and where could they be used
A real order or wishful thinking?
It was in Ulan-Ude on November 23 that the CEO of the United Industrial Corporation Oboronprom, Andrei Reus, first raised the possibility that the plant might put the Su-25 back into production (http://vtinform.ru/vti/142/50092.php). Reus gave no indication of specific deadlines but stressed that the Defense Ministry was backing the project. "Rosoboronexport says the warplanes have a good export potential," he added.
So far, there have been no official reports of any plans to purchase the Su-25UB/UBM under the 2011-2020 state rearmament program.
Well-informed sources in the aviation industry say that no final Su-25UB production decision has yet been made. Reus' statement merely implies that both UUAZ and the Air Force are interested in resuming production of these planes.
This decision has its advocates. Although production ceased in 1992, single-seat Su-25 planes remain popular among Russian military pilots. The Air Force is currently upgrading and re-designating them as the Su-25SM.
If the Ulan-Ude factory were to go ahead and resume production of the Su-25UBM, they would primarily be used for training Su-25SM pilots but they would be capable of much more. Its crew can also command entire Su-25 and Su-25SM formations.
The Su-25UBM benefits from a second crew-member, state-of-the-art radio-electronic equipment and high-precision weapons enabling it to hit targets in short-range dogfights, as well as targets located over 20 km away. In some cases, this plane can replace more sophisticated and expensive heavy supersonic fighters. Future Su-25 contracts depend on several factors.
The 2011-2020 state rearmament program's allocations for military equipment have increased from 13 trillion rubles ($416.6 billion) to 19.5 trillion rubles ($625 billion), making it possible to expand product range and to buy additional strike aircraft.
But UUAZ primarily manufactures helicopters and has numerous contracts to fulfill over the next few years, as Russia's Armed Forces are slated to receive about 1,000 new and upgraded helicopters under this rearmament program.
This raises doubts as to whether the Ulan-Ude plant will be able to produce both helicopters and strike aircraft simultaneously.
As recent combat experience shows, the Su-25 is a key element of the Air Force's military potential, and maintaining an adequately sized fleet of these battle-ready strike aircraft is vital if that military potential is to be retained.
The fickle fate of strike aircraft
The first specialized strike aircraft for close air-support missions appeared during World War I and won wide acclaim during World War II. The Ilyushin Il-2 Flying Tank, which served with the Soviet Air Force, is regarded as the best ground attack aircraft of WWII.
In the post-war period development of these strike aircraft slowed because the major powers prioritized multi-role fighter-bombers that carried a broader range of armaments (such as guided weapons) and that could operate day or night whatever the weather. But these expensive planes eventually began to be replaced with cheaper light-weight strike planes developed from combat trainers. These strike aircraft were more vulnerable to enemy fire and carried small bomb loads. The helicopter gunships that first came on the scene in the 1960s could not take their place entirely.
The Vietnam War proved that this decision not to develop new specialised strike aircraft had been premature. The United States was forced to use the Cessna T-37 Dragonfly, or Super Tweet, and the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, which had been developed back during World War II. Due to their high speeds and poor maneuverability, the advanced fighter-bombers were unable to pinpoint and attack small targets effectively. Their turnaround time was also quite long and since their cockpits and vital components were unarmored they were highly vulnerable to damage from small-arms fire and small-caliber artillery. Against this backdrop, the light-weight and highly maneuverable Cessna T-37 and the A-1 Skyraider allowed their pilots to locate and hit small ground targets promptly and effectively and enabled them to keep them in their sights during subsequent bombing runs.
The Soviet Union came to a similar conclusion in the late 1960s when the obsolete Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17 Fresco subsonic fighters turned out to be their best option in terms of close air-support aircraft.
During the late 1960s, the Soviet Union and the United States simultaneously started to develop new-generation specialized strike aircraft. Mass production of the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II and the Su-25 Frogfoot began in the mid-1970s and late 1970s, respectively.
Although these planes did not look alike and even had different specifications, they embody one and the same concept. Both the A-10 and the Su-25 are, in fact, extremely maneuverable all-armored subsonic planes kitted out with powerful guns, missiles and bombs.
This approach proved its worth during the 1979-1989 Afghan War when the Su-25 became the most popular plane to serve with Soviet forces, carrying out numerous close-support missions in the most difficult situations.
The Su-25s conducted effective air strikes while heavy supersonic warplanes ran the risk of causing collateral damage (friendly fire incidents) and when helicopter gunships were deterred by the Mujahedin's short-range anti-aircraft weapons, which included modern 40-mm anti-aircraft automatic guns, machine-guns and Stinger man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS).
America's A-10 passed with flying colors in Kuwait and Iraq in 1991 during the First Gulf War, also earning a reputation as an effective close air-support aircraft.
New stagnation, new revival
Strike-aircraft programs began to stagnate worldwide throughout the 1990s. The end of the Cold War saw numerous strike-aircraft and other aviation projects grounded. High-precision weapons, supersonic fighters, light-weight converted combat trainers and strike aircraft quickly took priority.
It took new wars to revive the reputation of these strike aircraft. For Russia, this meant the two Chechen campaigns, the five-day Russian-Georgian conflict and combat operations in Central Asia. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq prompted the United States to draw the same conclusion.
Armored close air-support planes flew numerous combat missions during all of these conflicts and proved more effective than any other fixed-wing aircraft or helicopter.
Consequently, both Moscow and Washington virtually simultaneously decided to upgrade their strike aircraft. While retaining their main specifications, these planes will benefit from new equipment enabling them to operate at night, in bad weather and to fire high-precision weapons. This modernization is possible thanks to a technological revolution: electronic systems today are significantly smaller than they were 30-40 years ago.
These new revamped strike aircraft will retain the traditional features on which their reputation was built. After major upgrade they will be fit for use in just about any situation.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.