For all too many Western analysts, the Soviet tactical
fighter force apparently has become a military riddle wrapped in a strategic
mystery locked inside a readiness enigma.
Misreadings of Soviet airpower are widespread. The illusion
that the Kremlin has built a ramshackle force of second-rate fighters masks the
disquieting reality that Moscow's air arm fits its war plans with great
Western skeptics seeking to make the case against Soviet
fighters cite very high overhaul rates as "Exhibit A." This, they
conclude, can only mean that the aircraft are of inferior quality.
In fact, close examination reveals such maintenance to be
deliberate, the key to a highly unusual war-readiness system. Far from failing
to achieve high peacetime fighter durability, the USSR keeps its planes in
constant repair to ensure their reliability in wartime. Benefits that flow from
this system are many:
• High warplane availability, with some ninety-five percent
of frontline, deployed fighters ready for war on Day One.
• Low vulnerability, with forces able to move to and operate
from austere, dispersed bases devoid of maintenance facilities.
• Extensive reinforcement powers, with thousands of
warplanes in reserve for swift deployment to forward locations.
The system that produces these benefits is complex and alien
to Western thought. But an analysis focused on the aviation support system of
a Frontal Aviation air regiment illustrates the point that Soviet fighter
readiness procedures mesh well with Soviet objectives.
Those objectives are based on elements of surprise. In the
Soviet view, this requires the ability to launch or respond to an attack from a
"standing start," without mobilization; the ability to protect
Soviet forces by dispersing them widely across European bases; and the ability
to exploit initial successes of a swift attack by rapidly bringing back-up
forces to bear on the main action.
The Soviet Union's unusual and much-misunderstood
maintenance cycle provides the key to all three objectives. In fact, the
frequent overhaul of Soviet fighters is the basis of the Soviet operational approach
In simplest terms, the cycle can be broken down into three
distinct segments: operational aircraft deployed at the main base, a complex
of large overhaul and repair facilities based in the rear, and a material reserve
stockpile of refurbished weapons.
The cycle works this way. When an operational aircraft comes
due for an overhaul, it is withdrawn from action and replaced with a new or
totally refurbished fighter drawn from the strategic stockpiles. The inactive
fighter is then shipped to an overhaul facility for a thorough rehabilitation.
Once that is complete, the renovated warplane is itself transferred to the
stockpile, available for future deployment as a replacement for some other plane.
When that happens, the cycle begins again.
In stark contrast with Western maintenance practice,
however, overhaul takes place after an aircraft logs only a few hundred hours
of flight time. The figure in the West is usually several thousand hours.
This short cycle for Soviet aircraft, however, stems not
from the failure of Soviet components. What needs to be understood is that the
Soviet equipment is returned for overhaul at the peak of its reliability. The
Soviets have determined how many hours each weapon can be expected to last in
war. By subtracting that number from total hours of reliable life in an
aircraft, they determine the time at which an overhaul must be performed. This
takes place even if the aircraft happens to be working extremely well.
The overall system ensures that aircraft equipment goes to
refurbishment immediately when its allowable peacetime flight hours have been
accumulated. This overhaul-before-needed philosophy is in keeping with the
Soviet dictum that all fighter equipment provided to the regimental commander
must be reliable for a specified period.
With so much Soviet maintenance being performed at rear installations,
the Soviet military has developed a gargantuan, highly organized, specialized
system to carry it out.
The Soviets maintain a single logistics support
organization, known as "Rear Services" or, in Russian, "T'yl."
It supports all five of the Soviet military services. Rear Services functions
are divided into two principal areas: the Military Central Support System and
the Field Logistics Support System.
Each Rear Services support level provides repair
installations for Soviet fighter aircraft. However, because of differences in
service equipment, each branch has separate engineering support units—troops
who actually perform maintenance. In the Soviet Air Force, Aviation
Engineering Services (IAS) is responsible for all levels of aircraft
At the highest, "national-strategic" level of
organization, the Military Central Support System is responsible for material
acquisition, through either the civil economy or military procurement agencies.
This system is also responsible for maintaining strategic reserve stockpiles.
Soviet storage depots stock 13,000,000 metric tons of arms and ammunition and
60,000,000 metric tons of fuel, oil, and lubricants. This is enough reserve war
material to support intense offensive operations for up to ninety days.
It is at this strategic level of organization that total
fighter overhauls are performed. The Soviets maintain entire facilities, known
as "overhaul factories," to carry out this task. These factories,
located primarily in the Soviet Union, employ more than 100,000 IAS workers,
most of them former aircraft maintenance troops.
The principal function of these centralized, air-army-level
overhaul factories is to renew airframes and aircraft components. In most
cases, overhaul facilities are former production plants with machinery for the
same models still in place. In some cases, current production plants are used
to overhaul aircraft on lines even as new production models continue to roll
from adjacent assembly areas.
The Field Logistics Support System functions below the
national level. It is responsible for operational and tactical-level support
of the armed forces. One half of the Field Logistics Support System, called the
Operational Logistic System, supports fronts, armies, corps, and divisions.
Operational reserves—stockpiles of combat-ready weapon systems—are positioned
at this level.
Within this system, the IAS operates Air Division repair
depots, which perform major maintenance tasks just short of complete overhauls.
Most weapons parts needing repairs are crated and sent to rear-echelon depots
rather than to facilities at a forward operating base, as would be the case in
The other half of the Field Logistics Support System, the
so-called Tactical Logistics System (TLS), supports smaller units such as air
regiments and battalions. War reserve stockpiles at this level include
expendables such as fuels and lubricants, munitions, food, water, and material
goods. These are stored on motor transports or in containers sized for truck
and train transport. The TLS directly supports air operations, a task critical
to readiness of Frontal Aviation units.
How does this extensive Soviet maintenance activity affect
the Kremlin's ability to carry out its wartime objectives? Clear-cut results
can be seen in aircraft avail ability—the pivotal factor in Soviet planning for
"standing-start" air operations in event of war.
Unlike his Western counterpart, a Soviet commander does not
have to worry that many of his planes are nearing the end of their reliable
combat lives. The replacement cycle, if it does nothing else, ensures that all
or virtually all deployed Soviet aircraft are available for combat right away
and have the staying power to last for some time.
If strikes originate from the main bases, the aircraft will
be launched very rapidly, alternating from both ends of the runway to minimize
exposure time and maximize deployment rate. When the sorties start, the
expectation is that at least ninety-five percent of the combat aircraft on each
air base would be flying.
In peacetime, only a small percentage of Soviet fighters is
used for training, the bulk of the training taking place on simulators. The
training aircraft never dip below wartime service hours. Unused standby aircraft
are maintained in a "run-in" state, keeping Soviet air squadrons at
almost full strength on a constant basis.
Reinforcing the inherently high availability of Soviet
fighters is another factor: The Soviet Air Forces, to a degree not seen in the
West, design their fighters to be able to operate efficiently in war's harsh environment.
Their very simple designs tend to keep support requirements
to a minimum. Soviets believe that weapons must be supportable in the fog of
war. In practical terms, this means that aircraft are designed to last only for
a postulated combat life and with sophistication commensurate with the
technical qualifications of the maintenance personnel who are operating under
the stress of war.
For example: On every Soviet fighter, one can remove the
afterburner without having to disconnect fuel and electrical lines—a great advantage
when it comes to wartime repairs. Realizing that this is the most frequent
maintenance task, the Soviets have simplified it.
Soviet military planners have enhanced operational
effectiveness by carefully balancing performance against readiness. Without
doubt, readiness is the primary consideration, a fact reflected in the ruggedness
of Soviet planes. In the words of one analyst: "The Soviets can 'turn'
these aircraft [for combat] while they are being bombed, strafed, gassed, and
snowed on in below-zero weather. Their aircraft may not be the best performing,
but they're certainly not delicate."
Equally great is the impact that the Soviet maintenance
cycle has on the ability of a Frontal Aviation regiment to disperse—yet another
of the Soviet Union's wartime requirements.
In peacetime, it is true, the maintenance procedure becomes
a complicated task requiring long-distance transport and time-consuming
repair cycles. But in wartime, the much smaller number of base-level
maintenance troops and equipment greatly reduces the support "tail"
and allows more flexibility in aircraft deployment.
Soviet aircraft appear well suited to combat operations from
austere dispersal bases lacking repair facilities. The Soviet view is that an
abundant supply of virtually new aircraft will display few of the routine
maintenance problems that would occur in equipment that has been ridden hard in
peacetime. With little need for repairs, the jets can operate from a wide
variety of strips.
The Soviet embrace of dispersal as a major wartime objective
has had an impact on USSR base structure. The Soviets have decided that
base-level, or intermediate-level, maintenance and its accompanying facilities
only complicate the task of building combat readiness. Maintenance is
minimized and in most cases eliminated. Most main base repair tasks are of the
"remove and replace" type.
The configuration of the Soviet base reflects this. While
the American air base is a stand-alone fortress from which to launch
multimission air operations, operating in much the same way as an aircraft
carrier, the Soviets see their typical base as a combat deployment fire base.
In a sense, the Soviets operate their main operating bases as the US Air Force
operates its dispersed bases. The USSR air base, in wartime, would serve one
function—that of launching combat sorties, not that of a major maintenance
The Soviets believe that major repairs and overhauls should
be conducted at rear-echelon facilities where skilled labor and precision
machinery can be concentrated efficiently. These high-value facilities would
be less vulnerable in those locations.
At a main base, virtually all aircraft support equipment is
mounted on trucks. Thus, this important equipment can be transported quickly to
dispersal sites. Entire tactical aviation units, including flight-line support,
medium-level repair shops, inspection and armament vans, and flight operations
control vans, can be convoyed to remote bases without breaking radio silence.
In sum, it appears that Western aircraft could attack all
Soviet main operating bases and their limited repair facilities and still have
little or no effect on the overall readiness of Soviet fighter regiments.
In addition to the contribution it makes to wartime fighter
availability and dispersal operations, the unique Soviet maintenance cycle
ensures that military commanders will have sufficient reserve forces to exploit
The Soviet Union has built a substantial stockpile of
reserve weaponry—from aircraft components to entire, battle-ready aircraft—and
constantly replenishes it. It is estimated that well over half of all fighters
the Soviets produce are stored in material reserves. The constant inflow from
the overhaul factories prevents any diminution of the reserves.
War reserves are maintained separately from other weapons,
in what the Soviets refer to as "full readiness" for immediate use.
In peacetime, replacement of such emergency material reserves takes place
when their "shelf lives" have expired. In wartime, these emergency
material reserves are used for the specific purposes of equipping
high-readiness units and replacing combat losses.
The war reserves would also greatly reduce the need for base
maintenance. Malfunctioning aircraft parts would be replaced from war reserve
stockpiles, eliminating the need for repair depots. Such a procedure would be
especially necessary in the initial period of the conflict, when the Soviet
economy would not yet have converted to wartime production to replace forces
destroyed in battle.
As might be imagined, the unorthodox Soviet maintenance
cycle requires the Soviets to deploy a unique support organization with each of
its air regiments. This air base support group, known as the Aviation Technical
Battalion (ATB), is a separate and distinct unit that combines several
One ATB subsection, the Independent Air Field Technical Support
Group (OBATO), handles the traditional Rear Services functions on base
premises. Primarily responsible for upkeep of the airfield, OBATO personnel
maintain runways, taxiways, and hardstands. The group uses specialized runway
maintenance vehicles, which in wartime would also aid in preparing austere
strips. OBATO is responsible for fuel dumps, motor vehicle refueling points,
portable pumping stations, and other logistics enterprises.
All the aircraft servicing and maintenance on a base,
however, remains the domain of the Air Force engineering service, organized in
an ATB subgroup known as the Technical Exploitation Unit (TECh). It has
responsibility for the operation, maintenance, and repair of aircraft,
helicopters, aircraft engines, weapons, and equipment.
The TECh manages transfer of equipment to overhaul factories
for scheduled maintenance; transfer of equipment to repair depots for unscheduled
maintenance; and inspection, minor repair, servicing, and arming of aircraft.
It is also responsible for replacement and calibration of repairable items.
Mobile Repair Shops
Virtually all of the TECh is mobile. The TECh provides the
personnel and equipment to inspect and replace components and conduct repairs
using truck-mounted specialty service equipment called mobile repair shops or
"PARMS." The units are designed specifically for dispersal
All services can be provided in the field from these
portable truck-mounted facilities. Each aircraft is assigned to a specialized
support truck. It provides AC and DC power, compressed air, simple inspection
equipment, and an auxiliary fuel pump. It also has a communication link with
the IAS duty officer.
This truck actually tows the aircraft. In fact, the fighter
and its truck together form an aircraft "system." The truck becomes
the principal means of wartime dispersal because it can tow an aircraft to a
dispersal airstrip and then maintain it at that site.
Armament and external store service are also provided by
the TECh. This job is relatively simple because there is little or no assembly
of bomb, rocket, or external tanks on a Soviet air base. All stores are
delivered to the base crated and ready to load.
In all its features, the peacetime Soviet tactical aviation
support organization is designed for efficient and rapid transition to war.
How would the various components of Soviet readiness come into play in a
If Soviet leaders choose to conduct operations from the
main base, the entire system would function much as it does in peacetime. It is
in a dispersal operation, however, that the true strength of the Soviet system
would become apparent. Even after a Western attack that disables the main base
runways, the Soviets would be able to rebound and keep fighting. All evidence
indicates that such an operation might resemble the following scenario.
At the main operating base, the first step is the immediate
dispatch of an advance airfield-activation unit to planned dispersal areas.
Work begins on preparation of deployment sites for dispersal of aircraft and
aircraft-support units that are to follow within hours.
These would prepare at least three dispersed airfields in
each dispersal area. Runway clearance, support-area preparation, and setup of
command and control areas and regimental headquarters all would take place
swiftly. Activities at the regimental headquarters would include preparation
of the central command and control system, an intermediate-level maintenance
center, helicopter pads, and garrison areas.
While the advance units are en route to the deployment
sites, other support teams at the main operating base load mobile aircraft and
airfield service equipment onto trucks. Strict radio silence is maintained
during performance of all these tasks.
When the loading is complete, a convoy of the mobile
garrison and support units, led by the regimental commander and his staff,
leaves through several different exits and proceeds to the initial checkpoint.
At this time, even the commander is unaware of his destination. The convoy
receives directions en route, either from highway control troops or from a
series of beacons.
In this convoy, each aircraft-servicing vehicle is towing a
high-performance aircraft. Speeds on the highway reach up to twenty kilometers
per hour. The remote sites, only a few kilometers from the main base, are
reached quickly. Throughout, the regiment succeeds in masking its
redeployment to new locations.
At the dispersed base, elements of Soviet remote-site
philosophy are apparent—mobile flight operations control towers, camouflaged
shelters, mobile pipelines and roadways, and simple power support equipment.
The advance units are finishing the preparation of the
airstrip, a highway section about 2,200 meters long and twenty-two meters wide.
In the "runway" portion of the airfield, the median strip has been
paved over, with an apron at either end, measuring 100 meters long and thirty
meters wide. Automatic landing systems and crash barriers are deployed at both
ends of the runway.
In less than eight hours after the regimental dispersal
began, the unit launches its first combat sorties.
Support depth is minimal, with the fighter unit having
access to only the most critical parts, basic repair and inspection equipment,
fuel bladders, and ammunition. As the war continues and the stockpiles are
depleted, resupply of certain critical materials and cadres for both the ground
and air forces are provided by air transport, which use the dispersal bases to
stage their operations. The largest aircraft in the world, the An-l24 Ruslan
transport (whose NATO code name is Condor), can operate from the highway
strip and appears frequently.
Such is the style in which the Soviet Union has planned to
go to war. While the Kremlin's ways may be mysterious to many in the West, the
problems they pose are only too apparent.
As a Project Engineer
at General Dynamics Corp. in Fort Worth, Tex., Richard D. Ward leads the
Comparative Systems Analysis Group of the advanced-design section. His career
in aviation has included work at Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas. He has
participated in the X-15, XB-70A, F-4, F-15, and F/A-18 programs. His most
recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, "MiG-2000," appeared in the
March 1985 issue.
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