Russian Navy

Aviation - Navy’s Stepdaughter

Already during the Second World War, aviation gained a clear role as the principal combat force in sea warfare. But the overwhelming majority of the USSR Navy admirals proved unable to fully grasp this fact.


Due to the necessity of fighting aircraft carrier groups before the enemy reached striking range frontiers, naval missile-carrying aircraft (NMCA) was created and a new task was formulated for the long-range aviation (LRA) of the Air Force to attack enemy’s squadrons. With the introduction of airplanes Tu-22, Tu-16K-26, Tu-22M equipped with anti-ship missiles X-22, KSR-5, the NMCA became the Navy’s strike force in the execution of operations in the oceanic theater of operations (TO).

Joint salvo of the NMCA and the LRA was about two times greater than the joint salvo of the sea-going forces in the number of operational anti-ship missiles. By the end of the 1980s (the peak of the Navy’s prowess), these numbers came up to approximately 1300 operational anti-ship missiles for the delivery aircraft and 600 operational anti-ship missiles for the vessels (surface ships and submarines).

The NMCA presented a special danger for the NATO navigation in the oceans. The large number of targets that could not be adequately covered (at least not on the level of aircraft carrier groups and forces) and the possibility to strike them repeatedly – it’s this component of the Navy’s combat potential (and not the submarines) that posed the greatest threat for ocean communications of the Western block.

Placing 2/3 of the Navy’s strike potential on carriers with excellent operational maneuverability allowed concentration of the strike power along the key axis, provided that refueling could be done in air - redeployment from the North to the Pacific Fleet of the NMCA unit (40-60 Tu-22Ms) on the northern route took 42-45 hours. The preference was always given to maneuvers with external weapons.

The question of aviation’s combat resilience was answered by mass use of electronic warfare (EW). For example, the 1st air squadron of the NMCA wings was an EW squadron. Efficiency of EW against the aircraft “air-to-air” GMs with radar guidance was quite high, but against the ship’s multi-missile launch and control facility it was much lower. Unfortunately, active means of defense (guided “air-to-air” missiles with radar and infra-red guidance and the aircraft-borne radar systems (RS) necessary for their use) were absent on the NMCA – a fact with no justification.

Purchasing price of a heavy combat aircraft is less than one fourth of the purchasing price of a fleet destroyer, and the running costs for the latter are much higher. Now, compare the combat capabilities of the four missile carriers Tu-22M and a Project 956 destroyer: 12 anti-ship missiles with 350-500 km range against 8 anti-ship missiles with 110 km range; on-shore capabilities: destroyer – 2000 HE fragmentation shells weighing 33.4 kg (66.8 metric tonnes), four Tu-22Ms – 276 non-fragmentation bombs FAB-250 (69 metric tonnes). The destroyer has a multi-missile launch and control facility Uragan, but the aircraft will still sink it – it’s only a question of allocation of forces (for example, four Orions launch 16 anti-ship missiles Garpun). As for an NMCA, it’s possible to create for it a “local (with respect to the time and space) zone of air domination” even with the limited forces of fighter aircraft, and the high battlefield mobility allows the Tu-22M, in contrast to the destroyer, to use this zone for missile launch.

However, the prowess factor of the NMCA did not bring about any change in the traditional regard of the Navy’s aviation as something secondary.

“In all of the time serving in both the Northern and the Baltic Fleets, I, unfortunately, failed to teach the admirals two basic things: first – don’t give me an order to lift off for the strike, instead, define the mission by its target, place, and time of the strike, and I will calculate the flying time to the target and will make a decision on when the wings should lift off. And second – if the wings already lifted off, don’t change the strike time: first of all, this is strictly forbidden for an aircraft after takeoff; secondly, it cannot be done, because as a rule, flights are planned out for the full radius of action and after the landing, even without your change of strike time, the airplanes have, as the pilots joke, “two buckets of kerosene” left,” writes Lieutenant General (Reserve), Viktor Sokerin, commander of the naval aviation of the Baltic Fleet in 2001-2004.


Fighter aviation emerged as a part of some of the USSR Navy fleets only in the 1980s; before that, the country’s AA defense systems were supposed to do the task of covering ship groups and shore installations of the Navy, and the quality of interaction between them left much to be desired. Recreation of the ground attack air force in the 1970s sharply increased the strike capabilities of the fleets in the inner maritime zone. By the end of the 1980s, the maritime ground attack air force consisted of more than 300 airplanes of class Su-17, MiG-27, Su-25, Su-24 and their revisions, armed with high-efficiency (thanks to the limitations of the ship’s AA defense systems) anti-ship weapons, such as anti-radar missiles X-58, anti-ship missiles X-31A, GM missiles X-29 and X-25. It was now possible to provide effective fire support for the landing forces.

By the end of the 1980s, the maritime ground attack air force, while inferior to the joint missile salvo of the ships and the motor boats equipped with tactical anti-ship missiles, in reality was superior to the Navy’s ship group of the inner maritime zone as far as its capability for concentrating forces, mobility, ability to strike the target repeatedly, and versatility of operation both against ships and against shore objects.

Unfortunately, the principle born during the Second World War – that if opposition in the air makes it impossible for an aircraft to stay in the region then a ship will definitely not survive there - was never learned.

Construction of a mass “mosquito” fleet (missile boats) for the USSR Navy, at least in the 1980s, was a clear mistake. It would have been much more effective to direct the allocated funds to strengthening the naval aviation, and purchasing of fighter planes and guided weapons.

It’s important to note also the general technological lag of the USSR industries from the international level; in particular, of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry. Our airplanes were noticeably inferior to analogous machines of the enemy in their avionics equipment capabilities, guided missile weapons, firing range, combat load, and resources. Huge efforts were made to close the gap, and in a whole range of cases we not only caught up with the “opponents,” but in some directions surpassed them considerably (for example, in the introduction of our helmet-mounted target designation system Schel in the 1980s or the coastal radar station Zaslon with a phased array antenna). Overall, though, there was a lag - most of all, with regard to directing the aircraft activity in air. Unfortunately, we never succeeded to come up with a system of airborne early warning and control (AEWC) comparable to the enemy’s (most importantly, in the number of tracked targets).

Hence, for the same number and combat characteristics of our aircraft groups, our combat capability was much lower due to less ability to direct the aircraft. The often criticized installation of long-range anti-ship missiles on our aircraft carriers by request of the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, Sergei Gorshkov, in reality had as its goal limiting the potency of the enemy’s fighter aircraft in an aerial combat by the effective threat of an anti-ship missile strike.

Today, the gap in combat capabilities between the aviation complexes of Russia and those of the probable enemy grows critical, in effect bringing into question the ability of aviation to solve any kind of problem. Unfortunately, we still haven’t appreciated this fact; an opinion stills reigns in our social consciousness (including that of the military professionals) that our airplanes are the very best, totally disregarding that this applies only to the aviation complexes developed before the beginning of the 1980s.

Even disregarding the AEW and EW factors, in the overwhelming number of cases our airplanes will be brought down by AIM-120 missiles equipped with active radar homing eyes. Considering that a number of countries have aircraft equipped with this air-to-air GM, we can forget about our fighter planes dominating the aerial combat. The 1990s stood in the way of our air force getting an analogous GM R-77.

The condition of the Navy’s reconnaissance aviation is a serious problem. It is aggravated by our bad habit of counting and comparatively analyzing our forces against the enemy’s by “head count.” For example, we estimate the joint missile salvo not taking into account the probability of survival of the carriers themselves until the moment of the salvo and of the missiles on the trajectory path, and, most importantly, not considering how well we detect the enemy in the first place, convey data about the target, and coordinate the strike by means of the command facilities.


The principal strike power of the Navy should consist of an aircraft group (NMCA, fighter aviation, EW, AEW, reconnaissance planes, means of aerodrome support, including AA defense, that can be operationally redeployed by means of military transport aviation) under central control (of the Navy), that for the period of military operation should be transferred to the command of the TMO (fleet/flotilla).

We also need to modernize the fighter aircraft-borne RS that allows the use of GMs R-77, and to purchase a sufficient number of these missiles. Principal direction of modernization of the fighter aviation (including the Navy) should be the restoration of its capability to engage a modern enemy in an aerial fight. We should arm with ultra-long-range GMs KS-172 to be able to bring down the AEW airplanes of the enemy, and we should have new AEW airplanes. All of the combat airplanes of the Navy should have the ability to refuel in air, and the Fleet needs to include a standard aviation group of tankers. We need the Navy to take an active interest and participation in the development program of a 5th generation fighter airplane coupled with creation of next-generation AEW and EW airplanes.

One absolutely cannot agree with General Sokerin, who suggested to “without delay transfer the command of the Air Force of the fleets to the Commander-in-Chief of the Air Force and the AA Defense Systems of the nation. It is evident that there exist a huge number of interaction and understanding problems between the leadership of the Navy and that of the naval aviation. However, these problems must be solved, not avoided. There will be no fleet without aviation. Just as there will be no effective fleet unless the Navy realizes that aviation plays a principal, leading role in modern sea warfare.

In this regard, the heavy aircraft carrier Admiral Flota Sovetskogo Soyuza Kuznetsov (Admiral of the Soviet Fleet Kuznetsov) is the hope for the future. It’s not about the ship’s significance as a single combat unit, but about the principle of “aviationization” of the fleet, whose remainders we managed to preserve.

Source:, author: author: Maksim Aleksandrovich Klimov – Captain of the 3rd Rank.

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