Reform of Russian Naval Aviation
Dmitry BoltenkovTwo phases of naval aviation reform
The first phase of the reform of the Russian naval aviation service, which is part of the Navy, took place in 2009-2010. It was not much different from the reforms taking place in the Air Force, and included the establishment of air bases which subsumed the existing air units and their support and logistics services. In 2009 the fighter, bomber and missile-carrier units of the naval aviation1 service were expected to be assigned to these bases - but for a number of reasons that did not happen2. As a result, the formation of several naval air bases took longer than expected.
In the first phase of the reform in 2009 some of the existing units were assigned to 13 newly-established naval aviation air bases. These were all 2nd Rank bases3, numbers 7050 to 7062. Several of these bases, however, existed only on paper, and in 2010 the MoD began their merger. By the end of 2010 only nine of the original 13 bases remained. The only unit to retain its status as an air regiment was the 279th Independent Carrier-Based Fighter Aviation Regiment, equipped with the Su-33 carrier-based fighters.
The second phase of the reform was rolled out in 2011-2012. In the summer of 2011 the MoD put into effect its earlier plans to transfer to the Russian Air Force the “combat forces” previously assigned to the naval aviation service.4 The naval missile-carrying squadrons equipped with the Tu-22M3 aircraft were reassigned to the Long-Range Aviation Command of the Russian Air Force. The Tu-22M3 units previously based on the Pacific coast were redeployed from Mongokhto deep inland, to the Belaya airfield in Siberia.5 The Air Force also took ownership of the naval striker and reconnaissance squadrons equipped with the Su-24M and Su-24MR aircraft, the fighter squadrons equipped with the Su-27 and Mig-31 fighters, and some of the helicopter units. The units based in Kaliningrad Region became part of the organizational structure of the Voronezh airbase.6 On the whole, the Russian naval aviation service lost about a quarter of its strength in the process.
The author agrees with the decision to reassign some of the naval aviation units to the Air Force. These units’ combat training programs and operational strategies are now in the hands of the more capable Air Force commanders. In the greater scheme of things, the naval aviation service has always been something of a fifth wheel in the Navy’s organizational structure, and the Navy commanders have never had much enthusiasm for that particular part of their remit. Now that these units are part of the Air Force, the number of flight hours their pilots are clocking up has begun to rise to the Air Force average.7
By late 2011 the MoD had further reduced the number of the remaining naval aviation air bases through merger.8 In a typical example of such reorganization, the anti-submarine units of the 7051st and 7061st air bases (operated by the Northern Fleet and the Pacific Fleet, respectively) were reassigned to the 7050th and 7062nd air bases. The 7051st and 7061st bases were disbanded. The 7057th and 7058th air bases of the Black Sea Fleet were merged.9 The 7055th Air Base, which took its orders directly from the center, was reduced to a single squadron; the squadron was assigned to the 859th Naval Aviation Training Center in Yeysk. As a result, the number of the remaining naval aviation air bases has been reduced to just five, with two operated by the Pacific Fleet and one apiece by the Baltic, Black Sea and Northern fleets.
The five remaining bases have also been strengthened through the inclusion of various naval aviation support units. For instance, the 7050th Air Base in Severomorsk, operated by the Northern Fleet, has gained an extra 40 per cent of its strength though the inclusion of the already mentioned anti-submarine squadron, an oxygen generation plant, a medical examination service, an engineering and maintenance company, a truck repair company, and several other units.10. As a result, the air bases now include not only combat squadrons but various support and logistics units as well.
The Navy was loath, however, to part with its transport squadrons. In order to prevent their transfer to the Air Force it renamed them search-and-rescue and command squadrons, and assigned them to its remaining five air bases.Present state of the naval aviation service
At present the Russian naval aviation service consists of five 2nd Rank air bases; the 279th Independent Carrier-based Fighter Air Regiment; and the 859th Naval Aviation Combat Training Center in Yeysk. Each of the five air bases includes several squadrons, which perform various roles and can be based at different airfields. In essence, these air bases have subsumed the entire air strength of their respective Navy fleets. Only the Pacific Fleet has retained two air bases, owing to the fact that the fleet has always had two major hubs, one in Vladivostok and another in Kamchatka.
The 7050th Air Base in Severomorsk serves the Northern Fleet. It operates an anti-submarine squadron equipped with Il-38 aircraft (including one upgraded Il-38N plane11); two helicopter squadrons (Ka-27PL, Ka-27PS, Ka-29, Ka-27E, and Mi-8 helicopters); and a search-and-rescue and command squadron (An-12, An-26, Il-18RT, Il-20RT, Il-18D, Il-22 and Tu-134 aircraft).12 All these units are based at the Severomorsk-1 airfield. The air base also has an anti-submarine squadron stationed at the Kipelovo airfield; it operates Tu-142M and Tu-142MR aircraft.
The 7054th Air Base in Chkalovsk serves the Baltic Fleet. It has a transport squadron (An-26 and Tu-134 aircraft) and two helicopter units (Ka-27PL, Ka-27PS and Ka-29 helicopters), stationed at the Chkalovsk and Donskoye airfields in Kaliningrad Region.
The 7057th Air Base in Kacha serves the Black Sea Fleet. It has a combined aircraft squadron (Be-12 and An-26) 13 and a combined helicopter squadron (Ka-27PL, Ka-27PS, Mi-
, both stationed at Kacha airfield. It also has a striker squadron (Su-24, Su-24MR and Tu-134) stationed at the Gvardeyskoye airfield in Crimea. 14
The 7060th Air Base in Yelizovo is one of the two air bases serving the Pacific Fleet. It has a combined aircraft squadron (Il-38, An-12 and An-26) and a combined helicopter squadron (Ka-27PL, Ka-27PS, and Ka-27TL), both stationed at the Yelizovo airfield in Kamchatka.
The 7062nd Air Base in Nikolayevka is the second of the two bases serving the Pacific Fleet. It operates an anti-submarine squadron (Il-38, Il-22, Il-18) and a helicopter squadron at the Nikolayevka airfield; a transport squadron (An-12, An-26 and Tu-134) at the Knevichi airfield; and an anti-submarine squadron (Tu-142M and Tu-142MR) at the Kamennyy Ruchey airfield.
The 859th Naval Aviation Combat Training Center in Yeysk was set up in 2010 at the Yeysk airfield on the Azov Sea coast. The center operates a training helicopter squadron (Ka-27PL, Ka-27PS) and a training aircraft squadron (Tu-134UBL, Il-38 and L-39), both based in Yeysk. It also has other units, including a transport squadron (An-72 and An-26) at the Ostafyevo airfield near Moscow, whose main role is to shuttle around senior officers from the central Navy command.
The 279th Independent Carrier-based Fighter Air Regiment in Severomorsk-3 is part of the Northern Fleet. The regiment consists of two Su-33 carrier-based fighter squadrons and a combat training squadron (Su-25UTG and Su-27UB), all of them stationed at the Severomorsk-3 airfield.
There is every reason to believe that at some point in the future the MoD will either disband or sharply reduce the size of the naval aviation command headquarters at the individual Navy fleets. All the naval aviation air strength will be controlled directly by the air base commanders of the respective Navy fleets, who will be subordinated to the fleet commanders.
According to an interview with Gen. I. Kozhin, the Russian naval aviation service now has about 300 aircraft and helicopters, some of them mothballed.15
The MoD has launched large projects to modernize the naval aviation airfields in Yeysk, Severomorsk-116 and Chkalovsk.17 At some point in the future the Chkalovsk airfield may host a large force of aircraft (up to a hundred) operated by the Air Force and the Navy.18 Upgrade projects are also under way at the Yelizovo19 and Knevichi airfields.The 859th Training Center in Yeysk
After the transfer of naval aviation pilot schools to the Air Force in 1959 the Soviet (now Russian) naval aviation service was left without any schools of its own. This is why the future naval pilots are trained at the Air Force schools, and then receive additional training at the naval aviation combat training centers.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union both of these centers (the 33rd and the 1063rd) were left in Ukraine. To replace them, in 1994 Russia set up the new 444th Naval Aviation Combat Training Center at the Ostrov airfield in Pskov Region. The choice of the site for the center had proved to be very unfortunate: it is far from the sea, and the weather conditions are not conducive to pilot training. As a result, according to unofficial reports, 20 the center had failed to assume any significant role in the naval aviation training programs before it was eventually disbanded.
The Black Sea Fleet’s naval aviation service still operated the small 859th training center in Kacha (Crimea), which specialized in training crews for Russian-made naval helicopters destined for export. In 2009 the MoD decided to disband the 444th Training Center in Ostrov and to replace it with a new naval aviation training center to be set up in the south of the country using the personnel of the existing 859th center. The facilities used by the center in Yeysk were previously operated by the local aviation institute, but the institute was disbanded as part of the military reforms, to be replaced by the new 859th Naval Aviation Combat Training Center. Officially the Naval Aviation Center in Yeysk commenced operations on February 1, 2010. 21 In addition, the MoD has chosen the Yeysk center to operate the new carrier deck simulator now being built there to replace the NITKA simulator in Crimea.
The MoD has allocated an impressive 24bn roubles for a project to build the deck simulator and renovate the Yeysk airfield. Deliveries of the equipment for the NITKA simulator in Yeisk began in April 2012; the first stage of the project is scheduled for completion by the year’s end. 22 The whole naval aviation complex in Yeysk should be completed in 2015. 23
Once the 859th center is fully up and running, the MoD will probably implement a new training schedule for naval aviation pilots and ground personnel. They will take their initial and basic course at the Air Force training facilities in Krasnodar and Voronezh, and then complete their qualification at the naval aviation training center in Yeysk.
Although Russia is now building a carrier deck simulator on its own territory, the MoD has no intention of abandoning the existing NITKA simulator in Ukraine’s Crimea. The Ukrainian facility will mainly be used to train Indian Air Force pilots as part of the export contract for the Vikramaditya aircraft carrier.24Combat training
One of the problems the Russian naval aviation service shares with the Air Force is recruitment and retention of pilots and other qualified specialists. At present the average age of the Russian naval aviation pilot is about 40 years.
The timing of the reform of the Russian Air Force and the naval aviation service coincided with the retirement for reasons of age of many highly trained pilots. As a result, naval aviation is facing an acute shortage of personnel. The Air Force has a similar problem, but it has the first choice of the available new pilots, so the situation in the naval aviation service is even worse. To illustrate, it has been four years since the Northern Fleet’s aviation service last received any young pilots.25 The naval aviation command is therefore doing its best to retain the pilots it already has. One of the measures has been to push back the retirement age for pilots from 42 years to 45. The MoD is also considering a proposal to recruit those pilots who have already been demobilized and use them to fill civilian instructor vacancies at the new training center in Yeysk. For all these reasons the main emphasis of the training programs is currently to bring the young and middle-aged pilots up to speed.
The naval aviation service is also facing a shortage of aircraft maintenance personnel - here too it gets whoever is left after the Air Force has had its pick of the graduates.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic crisis the level of combat training in the naval aviation service fell off a cliff. In the past five years, however, there has been a very notable rise in the intensity of combat training programs. The number of flight hours naval aviation pilots are clocking up began to rise even before the rollout of the military reform in 2008.
For example, in the early 2000s the average naval aviation pilot would spend about 18-20 hours in the air per annum. By 2008 that figure had increased to more than 70 hours. In the anti-submarine squadrons it was as high as 100 hours, although in the helicopter units it was a lower-than-average 50 hours. In recent years, however, that growth has slowed. In 2011 the Pacific Fleet’s naval aviation service failed to reach its target of 100 hours by some 40 hours. 26 In the Baltic Fleet the helicopter pilots also clocked up an average of just 60 hours. The situation is somewhat better in the Northern Fleet. In 2011 the pilots of its Il-38 anti-submarine aircraft spent 35 per cent more time in the air than the year before. 27
The average figure for the naval aviation service still remains well below the Air Force levels - but the gap is gradually closing.
Programs to train carrier-based aircraft pilots were stepped up in 2002, and the MoD is making great efforts in this area. Russia’s only aircraft carrier, the Soviet Navy Admiral Kuznetsov, has made five outings to the Atlantic and the Mediterranean in recent years. The carrier aviation squadrons are regularly receiving new pilots. For example, in 2011 three new pilots made their first solo landings on the carrier’s deck. During the last mission by the Admiral Kuznetsov in 2011 pilots made about 150 landings of the Su-33 fighters on its deck, conducted more than 20 simulated air fights, and flew about as many target intercept missions. In 2010 and 2011 pilots of the 279th Independent Carrier-based Fighter Air Regiment clocked up an average of 80-90 flight hours. The figure for the regiment’s flight instructors was 120-150 hours. 28 The main task currently facing the regiment is to retain and develop Russia’s carrier-based aviation expertise.
One of the goals of Russia’s “New Look” reform of the Army and the Navy is to step up combat training programs. The MoD is trying to make these programs less conventional and more varied. In recent years exercise scenarios have often included redeployment of naval aviation strength between the individual Navy fleets. For example, during the Ladoga-2009 event the Northern Fleet’s Il-38 aircraft and helicopters were redeployed to airfields operated by the Northern Fleet in Kaliningrad Region. During the Vostok-2010 exercise a group of Il-38 and Tu-22M3 aircraft were redeployed to the Far East. In August 2008, Il-38 aircraft took off from the Anadyr airfield to provide air cover to the Ryazan missile submarine during its redeployment to the Pacific Fleet. The Tu-142M long-range anti-submarine aircraft are flying regular patrol missions over the North Atlantic, the Arctic and off the Alaskan coast. In 2009 the Tu-142M aircraft flying long missions began to refuel in mid-air.
The Russian naval aviation service is regularly taking part in the Navy’s combat training events. In 2011 the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft airlifted marines from Vladivostok to Kamchatka, provided anti-submarine cover to Navy ships, and flew aerial reconnaissance missions. On several occasions they detected foreign submarines. For example, during a flight to Kamchatka anti-submarine aircraft spotted two foreign subs in the Sea of Japan and one near the Kuril Islands.
Sometimes, however, the anti-submarine aviation service’s training programs are held back by the problems affecting the entire Navy. It has been reported, for example, that the command of the Pacific Fleet seldom allows its submarines to be used for the training of the fleet’s own pilots. 29
In the Navy’s marine units the intensity of combat training programs has also increased sharply following the rollout of the reform. The programs of all the reconnaissance and airborne assault units include parachute jumps. In 2011 the Northern Fleet’s marines made over a thousand jumps.
roper attention is now being paid to training the parachute rescue groups at the air bases. Rescue operations at sea also feature prominently in the day-to-day operations of the naval aviation service.
In recent years the Russian Navy’s ships have been spending a lot more time at sea on various combat training missions. The Russian Navy maintains a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean as part of the efforts to ensure the security of shipping lanes and combat piracy. Naval aviation helicopter crews always take part in these missions.Conclusions
For a long time after the break-up of the Soviet Union the Russian naval aviation service was struggling with three main problems: a very limited fuel allowance, obsolete and decrepit hardware, and a shortage of qualified pilots and ground personnel. In recent years, however, the service’s combat training programs have intensified very sharply. Its pilots are spending a lot more time in the air than in the previous years, and the figure continues to rise. The MoD is gradually refreshing the service’s fleet of aircraft and improving its maintenance standards. For now, problems remain with the recruitment and retention of pilots and other personnel. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that the Russian naval aviation service has exited from its post-Soviet nosedive, and is steadily gaining altitude.
1. The Soviet Union could afford to have two duplicate aviation services, the Long Range Aviation and the Naval Missile-Carrying Aviation. As Russia is currently trying to optimize its armed forces, such duplication is unnecessary and makes no sense. There were two possible solutions - to transfer the Tu-22M2 units from Naval Aviation to Long Range Aviation, or to do it the other way around. The MoD chose the first option.
2. According to unofficial reports, having looked at the state of the aircraft to be transferred from the naval aviation service to the Air Force, the Air Force generals said, “We have enough scrap of our own”. Pictures of some of the Tu-22M3 aircraft made at the abandoned airfield in Vozdvizhenka and posted on the Internet confirm the generals’ assessment: http://www.kfss.ru/index.php/component/content/article/469-vozdvizhenka.html.
3. A 2nd Rank air base consists of several squadrons stationed at one or more airfields; support units such as communications and radio-electronics, security and maintenance; training ranges; command headquarters; and airborne weapons bases.
6. Such an arrangement is not new for Russia. It has already been used for the airfield in Budennovsk, where the strike air group of the 6972nd Air Base is supported by the helicopter base which shares the same site.
7. It has been reported that compared to 2011, the intensity of the flight training program of the 7th Air Group’s bomber squadron (the Su-24Ms previously assigned to the Navy) has increased by an average of 40 per cent. // http://www.redstar.ru/index.php/newspaper/item/1965-romantiki-neba.
8. In late 2010 the Air Force’s air bases were also merged; in that respect the reform of the naval aviation service lagged behind the reforms in the rest of the armed forces by about a year.
9. The merger came shortly after both of the Black Sea Fleet’s air bases that existed at the time were given new standards in August 2011.
12. The former transport squadron was renamed to a search-and-rescue unit so as to avoid its transfer to the Air Force. http://www.redstar.ru/index.php/component/k2/item/988-kryilya-nad-morem.
18. Strazh Baltiki newspaper - http://sc.mil.ru/files/morf/military/archive/27%2004%202012.pdf.