FOR decades the West has mocked Russia’s military as an aged, low-tech throwback to a defunct Cold War. But a new air campaign in Syria and a swath of fresh technology is turning that notion on its head.
Despite an economy choked by fresh international sanctions and low oil prices, Russia is continuing to produce new combat aircraft, tanks, submarines and missiles.
Put against a Western military industrial complex that has a growing litany of failure, this is a major achievement.
In the past two decades the West has abandoned billions of dollars worth of failed or challenged programs: Seasprite helicopters, Zumwalt stealth destroyers, Crusader mobile artillery, expeditionary fighting vehicles, Future combat system tanks, airborne lasers, Comanche attack helicopters. Now the next generation of US super aircraft carriers seem set to continue that trend, with untested fundamental aircraft operating equipment producing dangerous results.
In that time Russia has quietly fielded a variety of new state-of-the-art types specifically designed to counter what the West has to offer.
So what do the pilots, drivers and commanders of the West’s rapidly ageing weaponry fear the most?
Air strikes on Raqqa and Aleppo
NOW: Sukhoi strike fighters
The Flanker family of fighters has proven an incredibly successful airframe since it was introduced as the Su-27 fighter in 1985. It has since evolved into the Su-30 multi-role fighter, the Su-34 fighter-bomber and again as the Su-35 interceptor. Many fear these are more than a match for current-generation Western aircraft, such as F-15 Eagles, F/A-18 Hornets and Eurofighter Typhoons. The Sukhois are an incredibly agile aircraft, capable of stunts that would throw Western pilots into a spin. But, more than that, it has suitably advanced electronics and weaponry to make it a real threat — even at a distance. Just as importantly, it’s fast enough to outrun just about anything it is likely to come up against. It’s also now proven itself on the battlefield: Brand-new Su-34 ‘Fullbacks’ have been putting smart weapons on target in Syria for several weeks — much to the surprise of many defence analysts.
- NEXT GENERATION: Sukhoi T-50 PAK-FA stealth air superiority fighter
This dedicated interceptor aircraft seems likely to enter active service before the aircraft it was designed to hunt-down and destroy: The F-35 stealth strike fighter. Designed and built by a consortium of Russian companies as their first fifth-generation aircraft, the PAK-FA is likely to be something of a game-changer once it enters service. If it lives up to its promise, entire Western air forces could suddenly become obsolete.
The PAK-FA has been given enough stealth characteristics to make it difficult to spot approaching a target, and powerful enough sensors and weapons to overwhelm its opponents. It is designed to achieve this while still offering great speed and range, large payloads and extraordinary manoeuvrability: All characteristics the F-35 stealth fighter have sacrificed in order to maintain its low profile.
- NEXT GENERATION: Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Radar
Most existing aircraft radars rely on a dish to constantly move about, scanning the sky with its pencil-like beam. AESA radars have a solid-state projector that can broadcast in different directions thousands of times each second. It can even adjust its radar beam to become a jamming device. It is technology Lockheed Martin pins its hopes on to give the F-35 the combat edge it desperately needs. But Russia is already catching up. It’s building several versions of its own. It knows AESA is particularly good at seeing through stealth, especially when more than one unit is conducting a search. If detected by a T-50 PAK-FA fitted with this radar, the diminutive F-35 is not likely to come out on top.
Russia’s new Supertank
- NEXT GENERATION: T-14 Armata Main Battle Tanks
In March this year, a strange camouflaged shape was spotted rolling down the streets of Moscow. Until it broke down and had to be hauled away on the back of a truck. But it represented the first sighting of a new tank which represents the future of Russian tank design. The T-14 Armata is a lightweight, low-profile, highly automatic vehicle protected by advanced new armour and carrying a highly accurate new cannon. But it’s also reported to be just the start of an evolutionary process that will see the chassis become a semi-autonomous artificial-intelligence, dropping its three-man crew for complete automation. Russia plans to buy 2300 of them.
- NEXT GENERATION: Yassen Attack Submarines
Anti-submarine warfare went out of fashion in the West’s navies after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was intensely difficult. It was also immensely expensive. Once again the West has received a wake-up call with new Russian and Chinese nuclear-powered submarines suddenly lurking off sensitive shores and beneath incredibly expensive aircraft carriers. The old Akula class attack submarines of the 1980s have been upgraded to keep them quiet enough to stay on the frontline. Their torpedoes and cruise missiles have also been updated. But Russia has begun to rollout advanced new submarines in the form of the cruise-missile carrying Yassen class attack boats. Once the bugs are ironed out, these ultra-quiet submarines will even threaten US aircraft carrier strike groups.