Economic Statecraft
The Moment of Truth for Combat Aviation: Old Fighters and a New Arms Race
Valdai Club Conference Hall, Tsvetnoy Boulevard 16/1, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

On June 23 the Valdai Club hosted a discussion dedicated to the release of the new Valdai Paper “There’s a Country for Old Planes: Why Cold War-Era Fighter Jets Do Not Retire and Are Set to Share the Skies With Drones”. The discussion moderator Ivan Timofeev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club, noted that we are now at a historical point; a moment of truth is coming that will show which of the competing approaches to the development of aviation systems were right and which were wrong.

Aleksei Bulatov, Deputy Chief Designer of the Su-75, PJSC United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), emphasised that one of the key qualities of a modern combat aircraft is the ability to adapt the project to rapidly changing conditions. The level of requirements for the fifth generation is such that it is impractical to implement them for one aircraft. It is necessary to create a modular platform that can be adapted to the tasks of a particular customer. The UAC has created the scientific and technical capacity for just such a combat system. Fourth generation warplanes have the minimum sufficient functionality to meet the needs of the operator, who in most cases does not have serious opponents; however, there are no offers on the market of modern combat systems with the qualities of the fifth generation at affordable prices for customers. “We think one step ahead and offer comprehensive solutions that meet the needs of tomorrow and the next several decades, with the possibility of flexible adaptation to customer requirements – from the simplest aircraft to a multifunctional fighter,” Bulatov said.

Alexander Yermakov, a Russian International Affairs Council expert and the author of the Valdai Paper, called the situation on the fighter market unique – as if the leading countries at the end of World War II, would start producing biplanes simultaneously with the first jet aircraft. Key players simultaneously produce modernized fourth-generation fighters and fifth-generation fighters, while at the same time developing a new generation of fighters. The expert connects this, firstly, with the end of the Cold War and the arms race, and secondly, with the transformation of fighters from aircraft into a complex and expensive set of weapons and equipment, which has led to an increase in the cost of developing new machines. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, the “new Interbellum” between the cold wars ended. The arms race revived, prompting demand for a new generation of combat systems to intensify.

Ilya Kramnik, Researcher at the Centre for North American Studies at the IMEMO RAS identified four consumer groups in the global combat aviation market. The first group is the United States and its closest allies, the second is the relatively wealthy “second world” countries, which, for one reason or another, cannot afford to purchase fifth-generation fighters and actively purchase fourth-generation warplanes. The third group consists of buyers of used equipment, sometimes quite modern; the fourth is comprised of the poorest countries that buy used aircraft with older modifications. It is the countries of the last two groups that will for a long time serve as a source of demand for fourth-generation fighters, especially cheap ones, and this market is really important, the expert emphasised.

Sameer Patil, Senior Fellow at the ORF Mumbai, outlined the Indian approach to the issue. He noted that India is the only power which retains both third-generation and fourth-generation fighters. “In this decade, we will acquire fifth-generation fighters, but we are, in general, behind the advanced countries by twenty to thirty years,” admitted Patil. He added that India now assigns a key role to manned systems, but there is an understanding in the country that drones should also be developed in the future.