Russia Mulls Maintenance Work for Military Planes Amid Recent Crashes

Sukhoi Su-34 (Vitaly V. Kuzmin)
Sukhoi Su-34 (Vitaly V. Kuzmin)

PARIS -- Russian defense giant United Aircraft Corp. is in talks with the country's defense ministry to provide more maintenance work to military aircraft after a spate of recent crashes.

The president of the Moscow-based company, Yuri Slyusar, said the agreement would involve providing full life cycle support for various military planes, beginning with the twin-engine Su-34 heavy strike fighter made by Sukhoi, a United Aircraft subsidiary.

"We're discussing with our client, the ministry of defense, the full life cycle support, from the first day to the last day," he said through a translator during a briefing with reporters at the Paris Air Show. "We will start with the Su-34 aircraft to start this full life cycle support."

The talks for the maintenance program come amid a spate of recent accidents involving Russian military aircraft, including the Tu-95 "Bear" strategic bomber, the MiG-29 fighter and the Su-34 Fullback.

Earlier this month, the entire Tupolev Tu-95 fleet was grounded after one of the Cold War-era, four-engine, long-range bombers caught fire while trying to take off from a base in the country's southwest region of Amur, killing at least one crew member, according to news reports.

On June 4, a MiG-29 crashed near the coast of the Caspian Sea and an Su-34 went down the same day in Voronezh -- not far from the Ukraine border, according to reports.

The translator for Slyusar said the maintenance program had nothing to do with the recent mishaps. The talks began "months ago, if not a year ago," he said. The timing of the events, he added, is "pure coincidence."

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Russian air force has been flying more missions in support of forces near the Ukrainian border and elsewhere. In April, a pair of Tu-95s flew into U.S. airspace in Alaska. This month, Su-24 fighters buzzed U.S. Navy warships and intelligence aircraft as the service conducted training exercises with NATO allies in the Black Sea.

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The accidents have led some to question whether the aging Russian fleet is equipped for the quickening pace of military operations. Igor Sutyagin, a Russian military expert at the U.K.'s Royal United Services Institute, has said the additional missions are taking a toll on Russian aircraft.

"This could be an interesting sign of the overstretching of Russian armed capabilities, because the maintenance template for these vehicles does not take into account the much higher operational tempo they have been operating under lately," he told Newsweek magazine.

There are approximately 70 Su-34s in the Russian fleet, though that number is expected to climb to around 200 aircraft by 2020, according to a figure cited years ago by Vladimir Mikhaylov, the former head of the Russian air force.

The potential life cycle maintenance program is expected to cover 140 aircraft, though that number could increase over time if the work improves the reliability of the planes, the translator for Slyusar said.

-- Michael Hoffman contributed to this report.

-- Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com.

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