Russia Can Hold a Parade or Invade Ukraine—But Not Both

Victory Day celebrations reveal Moscow’s air-power limitations

Russia Can Hold a Parade or Invade Ukraine—But Not Both Russia Can Hold a Parade or Invade Ukraine—But Not Both

Uncategorized June 15, 2014 0

Russia Can Hold a Parade or Invade Ukraine—But Not Both Victory Day celebrations reveal Moscow’s air-power limitations On paper Russia possesses the world’s second-largest... Russia Can Hold a Parade or Invade Ukraine—But Not Both

Russia Can Hold a Parade or Invade Ukraine—But Not Both

Victory Day celebrations reveal Moscow’s air-power limitations

On paper Russia possesses the world’s second-largest aerial arsenal after the United States—2,855 military aircraft including 1,237 jet fighters and 177 medium and heavy bombers.

But in practice, only a tiny percentage of these warplanes and helicopters is combat-ready. This has huge implications for Russia’s ability to project meaningful military power beyond its periphery.

A pair of celebratory air shows in May inadvertently illustrated the limits of Moscow’s air-power capacity. One hundred and fifty of Russia’s best planes and hundreds of its most experienced air crew were so busy practicing for the annual May 9 Victory Day flights over Moscow and the newly-annexed Crimean peninsula that they weren’t available for combat missions.

As it happened, Russian president Vladimir Putin chose not to expand his annexation of Crimea into eastern Ukraine, as many observers feared he would. Putin instead opted to support a violent insurgency by pro-Russian Ukrainians.

But if Putin had wanted to invade eastern Ukraine, he would’ve had to choose between the Victory Day flyovers and sustained air support for the invading Russian troops. One expert maintains that Moscow’s air forces couldn’t have done both.

According to Stefan Buettner, writing in the latest issue of Combat Aircraft, the aerial displays commemorating the anniversary of Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II “required a long period of preparation” stretching back to at least early April.

Seventy planes and copters practiced coordinated, parade-style overflights of Moscow’s Red Square and, on somewhat shorter notice, Crimea’s main naval base at Sevastopol. The tight formations, coming one after another in quick succession, demanded skilled flying. “A small error in the exacting schedule could result in tragedy,” Buettner wrote.

Since every formation also had backup planes—ready to take over for any aircraft suffering a malfunction—the 70-plane parades actually tied up 150 aircraft in total. They included some of Russia’s best and most in-demand warplanes, such as brand-new MiG-29SMT fighters and Su-34 fighter-bombers, Tu-160 heavy bombers, modernized A-50 radar planes and specialized An-22 wide-body transports.

In fact, both of Russia’s flightworthy An-22s—which haul helicopters between combat zones—were involved in the parades and thus were unavailable for real-world operations.

The two Tu-160s that took part in Victory Day represented a large proportion of the flightworthy heavy bombers. As recently as 2011, just four of the 16 intact Tu-160s were ready for combat, although the number of ready bombers has probably more than doubled since then.

“From the beginning of intensive training, there was little capacity left for a military intervention,” Buettner wrote. Of course, Putin could have cancelled the parades in order to focus his forces on, well, actually fighting.

But the Victory Day celebrations weren’t just for fun. They “demonstrated a return to Soviet traditions within Russian.” The aerial displays were, in other words, political acts—arguably as important as any small-scale military operation.

More to the point, the May air shows represent a reality check for outside observers of Russia’s strategic ambitions. The United States possesses more than 14,000 military aircraft—and around three-quarters are combat-ready at any given time. Russia’s aerial arsenal is much smaller and also much less ready.

If assigning 150 aircraft to parades precludes a simultaneous invasion, then the overall capacity of Moscow’s air forces clearly is adequate for just one modest operation at a time.