Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Russian Air Power* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) with Guy Plopsky: Part 1- How good is Russian air force training?

How good is Russian air force training?

A good question. It’s a complex topic and it is difficult to give a straightforward answer given that detailed data often isn’t available. The average number of flight hours per year per Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) pilot pales in comparison to that of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in the late-2010s, but it markedly exceeds the abysmal yearly flight hours that Russian Air Force pilots averaged in the early and mid 2000s. It is also higher than Russian numbers from the late 2000s. The marked increase in average yearly flight hours in the 2010s certainly helped improve pilot proficiency. Recent statistics released by the Russian Ministry of Defense show that VKS pilots averaged “over 100” flight hours during the 2018 training year (junior pilots averaged “over 120” flight hours). In the 2020 training year, Military-Transport Aviation pilots averaged “over 140” flight hours (junior pilots averaged “approximately 120” flight hours), Long-Range Aviation crews averaged “over 100” flight hours, and Army Aviation pilots averaged “approximately 100” flight hours. It is important to note that average yearly flight hours for Russian pilots have differed substantially across Russia’s four (now five) military districts. Pilots in the Western Military District have typically averaged more flight hours per year than those in other districts. For example, according to Russian Defense Ministry statistics, during the 2012 training year, pilots in the Western Military District averaged 125 flight hours (Military-Transport Aviation pilots based in the district averaged “no less than 170” hours).

Going over the various training activities that Russian airmen conduct during VKS exercises would take up too much time, so I’ll only very briefly mention several things with a focus on combat aviation. VKS exercises vary in size and complexity. Some exercises are conducted at night and/or in adverse weather conditions (particularly in cold temperatures). Exercises can, among other things, include relocating and operating from alternative airfields. For some aircraft types, exercises can also include operating at very high altitudes and speeds or at low and/or very low altitudes (including in mountainous terrain for some units). In air-to-ground training, many VKS long-range aviation, operational-tactical aviation and army aviation units train to employ both guided and unguided weapons (some long-range aviation units train to employ only guided weapons). However, air-to-ground training for operation-tactical and army aviation is still heavily focused on executing missions with unguided bombs and rockets given that these weapons are expected to be used extensively in the event of conflict due to the limited availability of guided weapons. There are inherent disadvantages to conducting suppression/destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD) and other missions with unguided weapons even if crews are well trained in their employment. As for air-to-air training, fighter aircraft crews practice air combat maneuvering, carry out interceptions of targets flying at various altitudes and speeds (including conducting simulated/live missile launches), practice escorting other platforms, etc.

Larger VKS exercises can include two or more different types of aircraft, including supporting platforms such as airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and tankers, giving crews the opportunity to practice aerial refueling and train with/against other platforms. They can also include VKS ground-based air defenses, which allows aircraft to train alongside air defenses to repel adversary air attacks and/or to practice air defense suppression and penetration. The VKS also participates in joint exercises with other Russian military service branches and/or the air arms of a number of other nations. Aggressor training for the VKS is done by the 116th Combat Employment Training Center, which is part of the VKS’ 185th Combat Training and Combat Employment Center. The 116th operates MiG-29UBM trainers and relatively capable MiG-29SMT (9-19R) fighters. Lastly, it’s important to note that the war in Syria has allowed many VKS air and ground crews to gain experience operating under real combat conditions and has led the VKS to implement changes in training. One apparent change includes greater focus on the employment of unguided weapons from medium altitudes by operational-tactical aviation during exercises. This change was driven by combat experience in Syria, which showed that Russian operational-tactical aviation largely had to avoid carrying out tasks at low altitudes due to the threat of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) and air defense artillery.

Given that information about VKS exercises provided by Russian Defense Ministry media outlets and press releases is typically quite vague, it’s difficult to assess how good and realistic Russian Air Force training is. Based on what we can gather from press releases and media, the Russians appear well-trained in attacking pre-planned stationary targets. Training to conduct dynamic targeting – traditionally, a weak point for the Russian Air Force – is improving as well, in part due to the integration of relevant new technologies into training exercises. The Russians also seem well-trained in ground/air controlled interception; however, training to intercept a large number of targets without the support of ground-based assets or AEW&C aircraft has traditionally been another weak spot for them and the extent to which this has improved is unclear.

What about the quality of Russian air force student pilot training?

Today, the average flight time that a Russian cadet accumulates prior to graduation is drastically higher than in the early-mid 2000s, and considerably higher than in the late 2000s. In the case of the VKS’ Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots (fixed-wing aviation) this number is “over 200” fight hours per graduate, including, on average, 60 flight hours as part of the advanced flight training program (“over 200” flight hours is similar to USAF numbers from the mid 2010s). In the case of the VKS’ Syzran Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots (rotary-wing aviation), this number is “no less than 150” flight hours per graduate. Looking solely at these figures, however, will tell you little about the actual training quality of Russian cadets. Indeed, while flight hours are much higher than a decade ago, there are several major interrelated issues concerning the state of Russia’s trainer aircraft fleet that have hampered the quality of Russian cadet training over the past decade. These include a relatively limited inventory of trainer aircraft (particularly modern trainers), and low availability rates (even for modern trainers).

Credit: on image

News about Russian trainer aircraft availability issues occasionally surface. There are examples from the early 2010s and from more recent years. Notably, in December 2019, it was revealed that the availability rate of the VKS’ Yak-130 fleet at the time was a mere 56%. The Yak-130 is the only modern advanced/lead-in fighter trainer in use with the Krasnodar Higher Military Aviation School for Pilots (KVVAUL). The school has also been using it as a basic trainer aircraft (it is the only modern jet trainer available for this role, too). Due to the Yak-130’s low availability rate and small fleet size (The VKS’ entire Yak-130 fleet totaled only about 100 aircraft at the time), the school was still using its aging Aero L-39Cs jet trainers for its 4th and 5th courses (basic and advanced flight training programs, respectively). This was negatively impacting the quality of training that many cadets were receiving.

Why is that? Can you elaborate on the situation with Russian air force trainer aircraft?

You see, the L-39C has long been considered grossly inadequate for the 5th course; its avionics are rudimentary and dated (it lacks a glass cockpit), and its performance is lacking (for example, it is incapable of supersonic – or even transonic – speeds). Due to the absence of modern avionics, the L-39C has also been viewed as ill-suited for the 4th course. Consequently, cadets who got little or no flight hours in the Yak-130 ended up graduating pilot school inadequately prepared for subsequent combat training on modern high performance combat aircraft (Su-30SM, Su-34, Su-35S, etc.), with some graduates reportedly requiring a long time to qualify on their assigned aircraft type. To alleviate this problem, KVVAUL has been introducing modern simulators; however, these cannot fully replace real flying. The school also still operates a relatively small number of high performance jet trainers such as the MiG-29UB and Su-25UB which are used for the 5th course, but only the top performing cadets get to fly them. Moreover, like the L-39C, they, too, lack glass cockpits.

At present, it is unclear whether (or to what extent) L-39Cs are being utilized for the 5th course, but they certainly continue to be widely employed for the 4th course due to the ongoing shortage of modern trainer aircraft. Indeed, although the current availability rate of the Yak-130 fleet has not been publicized, the total size of the fleet has increased only marginally. In 2020, only four additional Yak-130s were delivered to the VKS and, according to some reports, these four were still not being employed for flight training as of early 2021. The Yak-130 was initially intended to replace Russia’s aging fleet of Aero L-39C jet trainers. It is a much more capable machine than the L-39C, and its service life is more than double that of what the latter was designed for. To replace the L-39C fleet, the Russian Defense Ministry previously planned to procure some 250 Yak-130s; however, just over 135 have been ordered to date, of which a little over 110 have been delivered since deliveries commenced over a decade ago.

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How many more Yak-130s might be ordered in the future is unclear. Whereas the twinjet Yak-130 is well suited for KVVAUL’s 5th course, it has long been deemed too complex and expensive to replace the single-engine L-39C in the 4th course. The aging L-39C fleet, however, has also seen low availability rates. Notably, in September 2019, Izvestia reported that aviation repair plants were struggling to repair L-39Cs in a timely manner, and that components were not being supplied on time in the required quantities. According to Izvesita, just one out of every three repaired L-39Cs was being delivered back to the VKS within specified timeframes. Based on various estimates, the number of L-39Cs in service with the VKS at the time stood at only 120-150 aircraft, with many not available for use at any given point in time.

Concerned by the situation with L-39Cs and other trainer aircraft, Russia’s Defense Minister instructed the problem of low availability rates to be resolved. Already in early April 2020 he announced that the availability rate of the VKS’ trainer aircraft fleet had risen from “about 50%” in September to “almost 90%,” noting that cadets will now be able to receive quality training. However, this should be taken with a grain of salt. Indeed, no details were provided as to what specific measures were undertaken to increase the availability rate so rapidly. It’s quite possible that, as some in Russia have suggested, in addition to improving the state of the aviation industry, many unserviceable trainers were simply written off. They were likely also stripped for parts.

In any case, to provide cadets with quality training, Russia will need to procure additional modern trainers, including new aircraft that are more suitable for replacing the L-39C in KVVAUL’s 4th course than the Yak-130. Aware of this, the Russian Air Force has been looking at options for a modern basic trainer aircraft for some time now. In the mid-late 2010s there was quite a bit of talk about the possible procurement of the forward-swept-wing SR-10 developed by Sovremennyye Aviatsionnyye Technologii (SAT) Design Bureau. A prototype of this modern single-engine jet trainer first flew in 2015; however, the Russian Defense Ministry hasn’t placed an order for the SR-10 and it’s unclear if it will. Indeed, in mid 2020, Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation announced that work was nearing completion on a modernized L-39 which features modern Russian avionics, so it is possible that the L-39C fleet will be modernized to this standard instead if testing is completed successfully.

In addition to having a shortage of modern trainer aircraft for the 4th course, KVVAUL is also still waiting on a modern replacement for the L-39C in the 3rd course (primary flight training program). It is planned that this role will be fulfilled by the Yak-152 primary trainer. The Yak-152 is a single-engine piston aircraft with a low operating cost (notably, its fuel consumption is far lower than that of the turbofan-powered L-39C). Unlike the latter, the Yak-152 also has a glass cockpit – a feature which will enhance the preparation of cadets for the transition to the Yak-130 (and to other modern trainers that may be introduced in the future). According to reports from the mid 2020, deliveries of the Yak-152 to the VKS are supposed to commence this year. It is not yet clear how many will be procured; however, this figure is likely to be in excess of 150 aircraft.

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As part of other efforts to improve the efficiency and quality of training at KVVAUL, the school has taken delivery of modern, glass cockpit-equipped Austrian Diamond DA42T piston twin trainers (assembled in Russia) and decided that some cadets will begin flight training at an earlier stage. Training at KVVAUL lasts five years and, until very recently, all cadets began flight training only in their third year (3rd course). In the 3rd course, cadets fly on either the L-39C or the twin-turboprop L-410. They then progress to the 4th course in which they fly on either the L-39C and/or Yak-130, or the L-410 and/or the twin-turboprop An-26, respectively (the An-26, by the way, is also used for the 5th course). Recently, however, the school has decided to begin flight training for some cadets (such as those training to become Military-Transport Aviation pilots) on their second year (2nd course) using the new DA42Ts. This approach allows for much more efficient use of time and funds because initial flight screening can now be done on the second year using the DA42T rather than on the third year using the much larger L-410, which has a higher operating cost. It also increases the availability of L-410s for other training tasks. So far, two contracts for a total of 55 DA42Ts have been signed by the Russian Defense Ministry. The first – for 35 aircraft – was reportedly completed in 2020, and training on the type at KVVAUL likely commenced that same year.

Guy Plopsky is the author of a number of articles on air power and Russian military affairs. He holds an MA in International Affairs and Strategic Studies from Tamkang University Taiwan.


  1. Hugh Bacon

    Seems the now Russian Airforce has learned that flying by numbers and limited monthly flight hours leads to higher accident rates as well as low competency. Too bad!

  2. M Brueschke

    Something I’ve long wondered about the VKS is that when you read about long-range missions, or see press releases about something the air force has done, the officers are all higher ranked (majors and colonels), is there a top heavy approach to these missions which is keeping lower ranked aviators from getting those “real world” experiences? Like in the recent Tu-22M accident, the commander of the plane was a regimental commander, commanding a training mission.

  3. Pingback: Thursday NatSec Roundup - Lawyers, Guns & Money

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