Monday, July 13, 2015

Dear God, is he still talking about military stuff?

UPDATE: Another Tu-95 Bear crashed in Eastern Russia today. Not looking good for the maintenance department.

Yeah, having just posted a "War and Peace" bit about the F-35, I am a little reluctant to go this way, but I saw an article a couple days ago in The Week claiming, rather convincingly, I thought, that Russia's air force is overworked, unready and dropping from the skies at an alarming rate. While most of the points made in the article are correct, I disagree with the conclusions drawn. But first, a little of the factual background:
The flights began last year. The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin, eager to send a message, began flying nuclear bombers on training missions near the United States and its allies around the world.
The message was one of intimidation and defiance: Russia is still a power to be reckoned with, and meddling in the Ukraine, Syria, and Russia itself — particularly on human rights issues — is not appreciated.
Now, after months of aggressive flying, Russia's overworked air force is falling out of the sky. On July 5, a Su-24M tactical bomber crashed during takeoff at Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East. The plane banked sharply after takeoff and hit the ground. Both pilots were killed.
Five Russian combat planes have crashed in the past month. Russia's attempt to demonstrate strength has backfired spectacularly and demonstrated weakness instead.
Five crashes in a month is a lot, especially of front-line aircraft. In a situation like that, you have training issues, maintenance issues, or both. I suspect maintenance is the main problem here, although training in how to deal with mid-air equipment failures would be a natural suspect, as well. in one instance cited in the article, a Tu-95 Bear overshot the runway and crashed after an engine fire. The fire would not have caused the crash -- the Tu-95 is a multi-engine bomber capable without at least one engine. Overshooting the runway is pilot error. In this case, the error killed the pilot and co-pilot.

As you can see, the Tu-95 has four turboprop engines, each with dual propellers. It can stay in the air for as long as aerial refueling is available. While The Week article refers to the Bear as a "nuclear bomber," the Tu-95, while originally a strategic bomber in the 1950s and 1960s, has long since been relegated to a reconnaissance role. It is loaded with electronic surveillance equipment, which is why it was chosen to run mock attacks on the U.S. -- it recorded our reactions to the Russian test of U.S. air defenses.

I don't think there's any question that the Russian air force is overworked, undertrained and undermaintained. Russian President Vladimir Putin is testing the West all over the place with aggressive aerial intrusions:
Russia's Air Force has been run at a high tempo, and the pace is catching up with an already-weary aircraft fleet. The toll in just the last month has been extraordinary: In addition to the fatal Su-24M accident, two MiG-29 fighters have crashed. Less than three hours after the second MiG crash, a Su-34 strike fighter flipped over while landing and went down south of Moscow.
The problem I find with the article is in its conclusions. Essentially, the author dismisses Russia as a genuine threat:
President Vladimir Putin has decided to mount frequent shows of force to remind other countries of Russia's military power. Unfortunately for him, all of Russia's options for a show of force are dicey. Russia's military suffered from neglect during the 1990s and early 2000s, the result of a weak economy that was unable to properly fund the armed forces. Armored vehicles, ships, and planes were inadequately serviced, and even fell into disrepair.
The Russian Army, being what it is, can't mount an effective show of force beyond the country's borders. The Russian Navy can't send its remaining aircraft carrier and cruisers abroad without an oceangoing tugboat shadowing them — in case one of the ships breaks down.
That leaves the Russian Air Force. The vast majority of Russia's Air Force was built and operated by the Soviet Union, making the youngest of these planes 24 years old. The Tu-95 "Bear", MiG-29 "Fulcrum," and Su-24 "Fencer" fighters and bombers that crashed in the last month were all inherited from the Soviet Union.
I think it is pretty clear that Russia can, in fact, project force effectively. The author seems to equate projection of force with challenging the U.S. and Europe, particularly Western Europe. Ask Ukraine how well Russia is projecting force. Half their country is occupied by Russia -- and if you believe those "pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists" spontaneously rose up, complete with modern military equipment that they apparently organically were trained to use, I have a bridge you might be interested. Yes, Russia armed locals, but the fight against Ukraine has been waged by Russian military pretending not to be Russian military.

Do the Baltic states -- Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia -- think Russia can't project power? Do you think they are comforted by the paltry U.S. effort to intimidate Russia by sending a battalion of troops to scatter all over Europe? I think maybe not. To argue that Russia can't project force -- or even conquer another country -- is to ignore against whom Russia is projecting force. Further, the NATO members in Europe lack the capability to respond, and the U.S. lacks the will. I think Putin knows exactly what he can get away with, and a few plane crashes are a small price to pay.

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