Russian Warplanes Crash Only Slightly More Often Than American Planes Do
But yes, six crashes in a month is worrying
by DAVID AXE
It’s true — the Russian air force is having a bad summer. On July 14, a Tu-95 heavy bomber tumbled out of the sky in Russia’s Far East. Two of the seven crew died.
In all, six Russian warplanes have crashed so far in June and July, killing at least four aviators. A MiG-29 and Su-34 — both fighters — crashed on June 4, the crews ejecting safely. A Tu-95 lit on fire on June 8. Its crew escaped.
Another MiG-29 fell to Earth on July 3. Again, the pilot ejected. But the two crew members of an Su-24 attack plane were less fortunate. Both perished when their plane plunged to the ground on July 6.
But even after all these accidents, the Russian air force is only slightly less safe than the U.S. Air Force. It’s probably not fair to describe the Kremlin’s summer crashes as a crisis — unless the American air arm is also in crisis.
Maybe it is. Both the U.S. and Russian air forces still fly thousands of aging warplanes dating back to the 1980s or even earlier. Both are struggling to acquire new planes while also paying for intensive and prolonged combat operations.
In 2010, the Kremlin boosted air ops following a long period of relative idleness resulting from the collapse of the Soviet Union 19 years earlier. Russian planes have been especially busy the past 18 months, supporting the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in early 2014, probing NATO air defenses and and intercepting the Western alliance’s own aerial probes.
Since the 2010 air-power revival, 30 of the Russian air force’s 3,200 warplanes have crashed — an overall crash rate of .94 percent. In the same period of time, the U.S. Air Force lost no fewer than 46 of its 5,200 warplanes — a crash rate of .88 percent.
Now to be fair, six crashes in a month represents a huge spike in the accident rate for Russia. Prior to this summer, the Kremlin lost just one air force plane a month, on average. If the June and July incidents represent the new normal, then it’s clear the Russian air force is in trouble.
And there are reasons to believe this summer’s accidents could signal a dangerous new era for Moscow’s air arm, as inexperienced pilots fly aging and badly-maintained planes harder and harder in pursuit of Moscow’s escalating ambitions.
“Russia wants to be viewed as a global power and they are certainly making great strides in that area, but they also have an aging air force,” points out Brian Laslie, author of The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam.
“Beyond the aging airframes there are the problems of logistics, sustainment and maintenance of the aircraft. There is also the issue of pilot training which is something they haven’t been terribly proficient at since the fall of the Soviet Union.”
So yes, it’s been a bad summer for the Russian air force. And if the crashes continue and a bad summer turns into an equally awful fall, it might be time to call it a crisis.