- Russia lost several fighter jets in accidents in the last months of 2022.
- Some of those losses reflect the toll the war in Ukraine has taken on Russia’s air force.
- Others, involving jets not used in war, may reflect the toll of Western sanctions.
Militaries expect to lose planes in combat, and even in peacetime there will be accidents flying the fast, complex jets, but a series of downings of Russian fighter jets may indicate that Western sanctions are reducing Moscow’s ability to maintain its warplanes.
“The sanctions imposed on Russia by the West could affect Russia’s ability to produce and maintain parts necessary for aircraft safety,” Michael Bohnert, an engineer and analyst at the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, wrote in an essay in November.
Bohnert pointed to at least six accidents between September and the end of November.
The accidents involving the older Su-25 attack aircraft, the newer Su-34 attack aircraft that crashed into a residential building in Russia, and the MiG-31 fighter that crashed on takeoff are not all that surprising. These models have been flown extensively in combat over Ukraine, so the incidents may reflect their wear and tear.
However, two of the accidents involved aircraft not used in Ukraine. In mid-October, an Su-34 crashed into a residential building in the city of Yeysk. A week later, a Su-30 fighter jet crashed into a residential building in Siberia.
The initial investigation into the Su-34 crash “pointed to a technical failure of the aircraft,” according to Russian authorities.
“It is interesting that even planes that were not involved in the Russian invasion are crashing,” Bohnert wrote of the October crashes. “These aircraft have been used as training platforms and their fighter counterparts have limited use in the current war.”
Crashes of multiple types of aircraft, including combat and non-combat jets, suggest a pattern. “While mechanical failures in aircraft are expected over time, a rapid increase in mechanical failures across the fleet may indicate that something fundamental has changed,” Bohnert wrote.
The question is what has changed in the reliability and maintenance of Russian aircraft? In particular, are the Western sanctions that have denied the Russian Air Force imported parts to blame for this? Russian airlines are already cannibalizing planes for spare parts made unavailable by sanctions.
At the same time, there are indications that Russia is suffering from a shortage of qualified military pilots, as well as sloppy ground crews.
Bohnert sees three possible causes of accidents: a lack of qualified mechanics, not enough third-party companies to manufacture or repair aircraft parts, or a lack of tools and materials to make or repair those parts.
However, Bohnert does not see any of these explanations as sufficient on their own. For example, while Western experts cite sloppy maintenance practices such as ground crew not removing sensor covers before takeoff, Bohnert thinks a lack of competent mechanics is unlikely.
“Although Russian air bases were attacked, the damage was not extensive and those maintaining them would probably not have been transferred to forward combat units,” he wrote.
The mobilization affected small and medium-sized companies that make aircraft parts, but the accidents began before Putin ordered the mobilization on September 21. This leaves a shortage of production tools and raw materials due to Western sanctions.
This still leaves the problem of precisely attributing the reasons for the declines. “We have seen continued and possibly increasing mechanical failures of Russian military and civilian aircraft,” Bohnert told Insider. “It was difficult to determine why.”
For example, it is difficult to measure the impact of the mobilization on Russian production, as well as to determine how many aircraft parts Russia is secretly importing. Details of transshipments to Russia may appear in trade flow reports or company annual reports, but it can take months or even years for this information to surface.
In the end, Russian aircraft maintenance could face a number of problems. “The likely causes of failures remain some combination of personnel, tooling and increased demand for domestic manufacturing that limits the supply and/or quality of replacement parts,” Bohnert said.
As the war in Ukraine continues, the fighting will wear down aircraft and trained pilots. Pre-war stocks of spare parts will be exhausted, especially imported components and materials.
Substitutes might help a bit: Iran, for example, has been adept at secretly procuring or producing US-made parts for its 1970s F-14 and F-4 fighters, or cannibalizing parts of some planes to keep others flying. But that’s not a reliable way to maintain an air force.
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He has a master’s degree in political science. Follow him further Twitter and LinkedIn.