Why do Russian planes and helicopters crash and submarines sink? There have been a series of tragedies in the past few weeks. First two Mi-24 combat helicopters crashed while landing during tactical exercises in the Far East and the Pacific Fleet, killing eight officers. Then a K-159 nuclear submarine sank off Kildin Island in the Barents Sea while en route to be scrapped, leaving nine submariners dead. And lastly, a heavy strategic Tu-160 bomber, called the White Swan in Russia and Blackjack in the West, crashed outside Saratov while making a flight after one of its four engines had been replaced.
The latter was the most symbolic accident, as one could blame the crashes of the two helicopters and the sinking of the submarine on the human factor. But the crash of the Tu-160 encouraged the Russian military to start speaking about the need to review state attitudes to financing defence.
The investigation of the Tu-160 catastrophe is not over yet, but it is clear that the crew was not to blame, if only because it was one of the best. Lt.-Col. Yuri Deineko, deputy regiment commander for flight training and the pilot of the unlucky plane, flew the supporting aircraft of the bomber on which Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov went to the Russian Far East in early September.
The crew of the Tu-160 managed the virtually impossible, when they flew the dying plane as far away as possible from Europe's largest underground gas storage, which holds 8 million cubic metres of methane. If the Tu had crashed over it, the consequences of the environmental disaster would have been unimaginable.
Unlike the helicopter crashes and the K-159 sinking, Sergei Ivanov did not hurry to publicise his verdict on the reason of the Tu-160 crash. But whatever conclusions are made on that and the other catastrophes, it is clear that the root cause of these tragic developments in the Russian armed forces is the systematic crisis that cannot be overcome by sackings and court hearings alone.
Anatoly Kvochur, Hero of Russia and merited test pilot, had the following to say about the Tu-160 crash: "When planes remain on land for years and then flight training gathers momentum (as is the case now), we should not expect miracles, as some thing has remained unused for too long, other things rusted, and still others malfunction. Aviation is a complicated mechanism where any element can lead to a catastrophe. We first built the planes, then wrote rules, and then we started breaking them. What can one expect from equipment in this situation?"
The statistics quoted by Lt.-Gen. Sergei Solntsev, head of the flight safety service of the Russian Air Force, are truly appalling: with the norm of annual minimal flight time being 150-200 hours, the real average figures in the armed forces are only 15-20 hours. Lt.-Col. Yuri Deineko, Major Oleg Fedosenko, Capt. Sergei Sukhorukov and Capt. Grigory Kolchin - the crew of the crashed Tu-160 and the best crew of the 22nd Guards Aviation Division of Heavy Bombers - had only 30 hours of training flight time this year and 50 hours last year.
Everyone knows why our pilots spend so little time flying. There is not enough fuel. The 2003 defence budget allocated 2.2 billion roubles less on combat training (including aircraft flights, ship cruises, and the driving of tanks and other combat vehicles) than is needed. In fact, the allocations suffice for only 30-40% of the requisite volume of training, in particular barely enough for 25-35 hours of fight training and just 50km of practical driving for vehicle drivers (the norm being 450km).
According to the defence ministry conclusions on the 2004 draft budget, which has been forwarded to the State Duma, the shortage of funds for fuel and lubricants in the army and navy will not be solved next year. Allocations will suffice only to increase the flight training to 32-35 hours per pilot and 16-20 days of sea training per ship (the minimum being 40 days). Moreover, with such a crisis in funding, the first to seize the chance to train are majors and lieutenant colonels, who have some flight experience already under their belts, says Sergei Solntsev. As for the young lieutenants, who did not have enough flight training in their military schools, they are frequently not allowed to fly at all. Unless we do something now, we will soon have no pilots to fly our aircraft.
The trouble is that aviation is short not only of fuel and lubricants but also of spares and repair and maintenance funds.
The statistics of air crashes with casualties in Russia and the USA is approximately the same, one tragedy per 20,000-22,000 hours of flight time. But experts say that such crashes, which are often a result of the human factor for other countries' armed forces, are a technical regularity in Russia.
Viktor Litovkin, RIAN