While Moscow’s T-50 stealth fighter prototype remains the center of attention, the Russian air force recorded a second milestone event. The first delivery has been completed of a sophisticated trainer that will form the core of a new program to prepare pilots for advanced combat aircraft designs. The Yak-130 Mitten, which arrived at Lipetsk air base on Feb. 18, is the first new fixed-wing combat trainer to enter the Russian air force inventory in nearly five decades. If acquired in adequate numbers, the Yak-130 will give the service a valuable tool for transitioning pilots to the fifth-generation PAK FA and the Sukhoi Su-35S fighter, as well as the Su-34 strike aircraft.
Lipetsk, which is 270 mi. southeast of Moscow, is the air force’s tactical aviation combat training, type conversion and tactics development center. As such, the base is home to all of the air force’s main fighter and strike aircraft types. Prior to the Yak-130, the most recent additions were the first production-standard models of the Su-34.
An initial batch of 12 Yak-130s is being built this year at the Sokol production facility. Four have already been completed (the first of which is at Lipetsk), and all are expected to be handed over by year-end. The Yak-130 program has taken more than two decades to come to fruition. The air force requirement for an L-29/L-39 replacement stretches back to the late 1980s, but development and procurement ran afoul of the economic turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Mitten’s introduction, combined with the likely revamp of the training syllabus, is part of an effort by the air force hierarchy to address long-standing operational capability and training shortfalls. In the training sphere, however, problems will remain even if the Mitten is purchased in significant numbers. The air force still relies on obsolete piston-engine aircraft for initial undergraduate pilot training. And it is unclear if the service intends to acquire the training support infrastructure and aids needed to fully exploit the Yak-130’s advanced capabilities.
The first aircraft was flown from the Sokol plant to Lipetsk, where it was “welcomed” by the base’s commander, Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Kharchevskii, flying an Su-34. Kharchevskii won fame in the U.S. when he visited Langley AFB, Va., in the early 1990s and scored “victories” in simulated combat with F-15s. U.S. defense analysts say the new trainer’s introduction has profound implications for the Russian air force’s tactical capabilities; it is an indicator of reforms to the entire pilot training process. “The Russian air force is working to close the glaring gaps between its antiquated trainers and advanced front-line aircraft, but it also may be attempting to elevate the entire training paradigm,” says a Washington-based defense planner.
The Mitten delivery comes about three weeks after Sukhoi completed the first flight of the T-50 – a prototype of the air force’s future fighter aircraft. The service intends to buy at least 72 Yak-130s, enough to equip four training regiments. The aircraft is also cleared for weapons delivery (the Lipetsk aircraft notably had weapon pylons), with Russian state trials concluding at the end of last year. This may allow for initial weapon training to be carried out using the aircraft, rather than on a front-line type, with the associated cost savings.
This Mitten also marks the first domestic-production jet combat trainer for the Russian air force. Previously, it relied solely on Czech-produced L-29 Delphin and L-39 Albatros trainers, which began entering the inventory in the 1960s.
The Mitten is a generational leap over the Albatros, providing digital avionics, large liquid-crystal cockpit displays, a wide variety of weapon-employment capability and ease of operation, say U.S. analysts. Russia has already secured initial export orders for the type. The Algerian air force will start taking delivery this year of the first of 16 aircraft on order. Another North African state, Libya, has signed for the aircraft as part of a wider arms package. Russia is also angling for exports of Mitten’s advanced electronics packages. Meanwhile, U.S. analysts have pointed out a recent report from the Kaluzhskii
Scientific Research Radio-Technical Institute that showed an assembly line producing SAP-518 and SAP-14 jamming pods for foiling enemy air defenses that are to be installed on new Sukhoi aircraft such as the Su-30. Descriptions of their capabilities sound much like standard jamming techniques offered by the U.S.’s ALQ-99. The equipment imitates the electronic signatures of various aircraft and generates false targets within enemy sensors.
Another export customer is the Indian air force. New Delhi is thought to be a buyer of centerline electronic warfare pods for its newest Su-30MKI fighter.