Readiness, Soviet Style

March 1, 1989

For all too many Western ana­lysts, the Soviet tactical fighter force apparently has become a mili­tary riddle wrapped in a strategic mystery locked inside a readiness enigma.

Misreadings of Soviet airpower are widespread. The illusion that the Kremlin has built a ramshackle force of second-rate fighters masks the disquieting reality that Mos­cow’s air arm fits its war plans with great precision.

Western skeptics seeking to make the case against Soviet fighters cite very high overhaul rates as “Exhibit A.” This, they conclude, can only mean that the aircraft are of inferior quality.

In fact, close examination reveals such maintenance to be deliberate, the key to a highly unusual war-readiness system. Far from failing to achieve high peacetime fighter durability, the USSR keeps its planes in constant repair to ensure their reliability in wartime. Benefits that flow from this system are many:

• High warplane availability, with some ninety-five percent of front­line, deployed fighters ready for war on Day One.

• Low vulnerability, with forces able to move to and operate from austere, dispersed bases devoid of maintenance facilities.

• Extensive reinforcement pow­ers, with thousands of warplanes in reserve for swift deployment to for­ward locations.

The system that produces these benefits is complex and alien to Western thought. But an analysis focused on the aviation support sys­tem of a Frontal Aviation air reg­iment illustrates the point that Sovi­et fighter readiness procedures mesh well with Soviet objectives.

Those objectives are based on elements of surprise. In the Soviet view, this requires the ability to launch or respond to an attack from a “standing start,” without mobi­lization; the ability to protect Soviet forces by dispersing them widely across European bases; and the ability to exploit initial successes of a swift attack by rapidly bringing back-up forces to bear on the main action.

Unusual Maintenance Cycle

The Soviet Union’s unusual and much-misunderstood maintenance cycle provides the key to all three objectives. In fact, the frequent overhaul of Soviet fighters is the basis of the Soviet operational ap­proach to readiness.

In simplest terms, the cycle can be broken down into three distinct segments: operational aircraft de­ployed at the main base, a complex of large overhaul and repair facilities based in the rear, and a material re­serve stockpile of refurbished weap­ons.

The cycle works this way. When an operational aircraft comes due for an overhaul, it is withdrawn from action and replaced with a new or totally refurbished fighter drawn from the strategic stockpiles. The inactive fighter is then shipped to an overhaul facility for a thorough re­habilitation. Once that is complete, the renovated warplane is itself transferred to the stockpile, avail­able for future deployment as a re­placement for some other plane. When that happens, the cycle be­gins again.

In stark contrast with Western maintenance practice, however, overhaul takes place after an air­craft logs only a few hundred hours of flight time. The figure in the West is usually several thousand hours.

This short cycle for Soviet air­craft, however, stems not from the failure of Soviet components. What needs to be understood is that the Soviet equipment is returned for overhaul at the peak of its reliability. The Soviets have determined how many hours each weapon can be ex­pected to last in war. By subtracting that number from total hours of reli­able life in an aircraft, they deter­mine the time at which an overhaul must be performed. This takes place even if the aircraft happens to be working extremely well.

The overall system ensures that aircraft equipment goes to refur­bishment immediately when its al­lowable peacetime flight hours have been accumulated. This overhaul­-before-needed philosophy is in keeping with the Soviet dictum that all fighter equipment provided to the regimental commander must be reliable for a specified period.

With so much Soviet mainte­nance being performed at rear in­stallations, the Soviet military has developed a gargantuan, highly or­ganized, specialized system to car­ry it out.

The Soviets maintain a single lo­gistics support organization, known as “Rear Services” or, in Russian, “T’yl.” It supports all five of the So­viet military services. Rear Ser­vices functions are divided into two principal areas: the Military Central Support System and the Field Lo­gistics Support System.

Each Rear Services support level provides repair installations for So­viet fighter aircraft. However, be­cause of differences in service equipment, each branch has sepa­rate engineering support units—troops who actually perform main­tenance. In the Soviet Air Force, Aviation Engineering Services (IAS) is responsible for all levels of aircraft maintenance.

At the highest, “national-strate­gic” level of organization, the Mili­tary Central Support System is re­sponsible for material acquisition, through either the civil economy or military procurement agencies. This system is also responsible for maintaining strategic reserve stock­piles. Soviet storage depots stock 13,000,000 metric tons of arms and ammunition and 60,000,000 metric tons of fuel, oil, and lubricants. This is enough reserve war material to support intense offensive opera­tions for up to ninety days.

How “Overhaul Factories” Work

It is at this strategic level of orga­nization that total fighter overhauls are performed. The Soviets main­tain entire facilities, known as “overhaul factories,” to carry out this task. These factories, located primarily in the Soviet Union, em­ploy more than 100,000 IAS work­ers, most of them former aircraft maintenance troops.

The principal function of these centralized, air-army-level overhaul factories is to renew airframes and aircraft components. In most cases, overhaul facilities are former pro­duction plants with machinery for the same models still in place. In some cases, current production plants are used to overhaul aircraft on lines even as new production models continue to roll from adja­cent assembly areas.

The Field Logistics Support Sys­tem functions below the national level. It is responsible for opera­tional and tactical-level support of the armed forces. One half of the Field Logistics Support System, called the Operational Logistic Sys­tem, supports fronts, armies, corps, and divisions. Operational re­serves—stockpiles of combat-ready weapon systems—are positioned at this level.

Within this system, the IAS oper­ates Air Division repair depots, which perform major maintenance tasks just short of complete over­hauls. Most weapons parts needing repairs are crated and sent to rear-echelon depots rather than to facili­ties at a forward operating base, as would be the case in the West.

The other half of the Field Logis­tics Support System, the so-called Tactical Logistics System (TLS), supports smaller units such as air regiments and battalions. War re­serve stockpiles at this level include expendables such as fuels and lubri­cants, munitions, food, water, and materialods. These are stored on motor transports or in containers sized for truck and train transport. The TLS directly supports air op­erations, a task critical to readiness of Frontal Aviation units.

How does this extensive Soviet maintenance activity affect the Kremlin’s ability to carry out its wartime objectives? Clear-cut re­sults can be seen in aircraft avail ability—the pivotal factor in Soviet planning for “standing-start” air op­erations in event of war.

Unlike his Western counterpart, a Soviet commander does not have to worry that many of his planes are nearing the end of their reliable combat lives. The replacement cy­cle, if it does nothing else, ensures that all or virtually all deployed So­viet aircraft are available for combat right away and have the staying power to last for some time.

If strikes originate from the main bases, the aircraft will be launched very rapidly, alternating from both ends of the runway to minimize ex­posure time and maximize deploy­ment rate. When the sorties start, the expectation is that at least ninety-five percent of the combat aircraft on each air base would be flying.

In peacetime, only a small per­centage of Soviet fighters is used for training, the bulk of the training tak­ing place on simulators. The train­ing aircraft never dip below wartime service hours. Unused standby air­craft are maintained in a “run-in” state, keeping Soviet air squadrons at almost full strength on a constant basis.

Efficient Wartime Operation

Reinforcing the inherently high availability of Soviet fighters is an­other factor: The Soviet Air Forces, to a degree not seen in the West, design their fighters to be able to operate efficiently in war’s harsh en­vironment.

Their very simple designs tend to keep support requirements to a min­imum. Soviets believe that weapons must be supportable in the fog of war. In practical terms, this means that aircraft are designed to last only for a postulated combat life and with sophistication commensurate with the technical qualifications of the maintenance personnel who are operating under the stress of war.

For example: On every Soviet fighter, one can remove the after­burner without having to disconnect fuel and electrical lines—a great ad­vantage when it comes to wartime repairs. Realizing that this is the most frequent maintenance task, the Soviets have simplified it.

Soviet military planners have en­hanced operational effectiveness by carefully balancing performance against readiness. Without doubt, readiness is the primary considera­tion, a fact reflected in the rugged­ness of Soviet planes. In the words of one analyst: “The Soviets can ‘turn’ these aircraft [for combat] while they are being bombed, strafed, gassed, and snowed on in below-zero weather. Their aircraft may not be the best performing, but they’re certainly not delicate.”

Equally great is the impact that the Soviet maintenance cycle has on the ability of a Frontal Aviation regiment to disperse—yet another of the Soviet Union’s wartime re­quirements.

In peacetime, it is true, the main­tenance procedure becomes a com­plicated task requiring long-dis­tance transport and time-consum­ing repair cycles. But in wartime, the much smaller number of base-level maintenance troops and equip­ment greatly reduces the support “tail” and allows more flexibility in aircraft deployment.

Soviet aircraft appear well suited to combat operations from austere dispersal bases lacking repair facili­ties. The Soviet view is that an abundant supply of virtually new aircraft will display few of the rou­tine maintenance problems that would occur in equipment that has been ridden hard in peacetime. With little need for repairs, the jets can operate from a wide variety of strips.

The Soviet embrace of dispersal as a major wartime objective has had an impact on USSR base struc­ture. The Soviets have decided that base-level, or intermediate-level, maintenance and its accompanying facilities only complicate the task of building combat readiness. Mainte­nance is minimized and in most cases eliminated. Most main base repair tasks are of the “remove and replace” type.

The configuration of the Soviet base reflects this. While the Ameri­can air base is a stand-alone fortress from which to launch multimission air operations, operating in much the same way as an aircraft carrier, the Soviets see their typical base as a combat deployment fire base. In a sense, the Soviets operate their main operating bases as the US Air Force operates its dispersed bases. The USSR air base, in wartime, would serve one function—that of launching combat sorties, not that of a major maintenance facility.

Rear-Echelon Overhauls

The Soviets believe that major re­pairs and overhauls should be con­ducted at rear-echelon facilities where skilled labor and precision machinery can be concentrated effi­ciently. These high-value facilities would be less vulnerable in those locations.

At a main base, virtually all air­craft support equipment is mounted on trucks. Thus, this important equipment can be transported quickly to dispersal sites. Entire tactical aviation units, including flight-line support, medium-level repair shops, inspection and arma­ment vans, and flight operations control vans, can be convoyed to remote bases without breaking ra­dio silence.

In sum, it appears that Western aircraft could attack all Soviet main operating bases and their limited re­pair facilities and still have little or no effect on the overall readiness of Soviet fighter regiments.

In addition to the contribution it makes to wartime fighter availabili­ty and dispersal operations, the unique Soviet maintenance cycle ensures that military commanders will have sufficient reserve forces to exploit early successes.

The Soviet Union has built a sub­stantial stockpile of reserve weap­onry—from aircraft components to entire, battle-ready aircraft—and constantly replenishes it. It is esti­mated that well over half of all fight­ers the Soviets produce are stored in material reserves. The constant inflow from the overhaul factories prevents any diminution of the re­serves.

War reserves are maintained sep­arately from other weapons, in what the Soviets refer to as “full read­iness” for immediate use. In peace­time, replacement of such emergen­cy material reserves takes place when their “shelf lives” have ex­pired. In wartime, these emergency material reserves are used for the specific purposes of equipping high-readiness units and replacing com­bat losses.

The war reserves would also greatly reduce the need for base maintenance. Malfunctioning air­craft parts would be replaced from war reserve stockpiles, eliminating the need for repair depots. Such a procedure would be especially nec­essary in the initial period of the conflict, when the Soviet economy would not yet have converted to wartime production to replace forces destroyed in battle.

As might be imagined, the unor­thodox Soviet maintenance cycle requires the Soviets to deploy a unique support organization with each of its air regiments. This air base support group, known as the Aviation Technical Battalion (ATB), is a separate and distinct unit that combines several functions.

One ATB subsection, the Inde­pendent Air Field Technical Sup­port Group (OBATO), handles the traditional Rear Services functions on base premises. Primarily responsible for upkeep of the airfield, OBATO personnel maintain run­ways, taxiways, and hardstands. The group uses specialized runway maintenance vehicles, which in wartime would also aid in preparing austere strips. OBATO is responsi­ble for fuel dumps, motor vehicle refueling points, portable pumping stations, and other logistics enter­prises.

All the aircraft servicing and maintenance on a base, however, re­mains the domain of the Air Force engineering service, organized in an ATB subgroup known as the Tech­nical Exploitation Unit (TECh). It has responsibility for the operation, maintenance, and repair of aircraft, helicopters, aircraft engines, weap­ons, and equipment.

The TECh manages transfer of equipment to overhaul factories for scheduled maintenance; transfer of equipment to repair depots for un­scheduled maintenance; and in­spection, minor repair, servicing, and arming of aircraft. It is also re­sponsible for replacement and cal­ibration of repairable items.

Mobile Repair Shops

Virtually all of the TECh is mo­bile. The TECh provides the per­sonnel and equipment to inspect and replace components and con­duct repairs using truck-mounted specialty service equipment called mobile repair shops or “PARMS.” The units are designed specifically for dispersal operations.

All services can be provided in the field from these portable truck-mounted facilities. Each aircraft is assigned to a specialized support truck. It provides AC and DC power, compressed air, simple in­spection equipment, and an auxilia­ry fuel pump. It also has a communi­cation link with the IAS duty officer.

This truck actually tows the air­craft. In fact, the fighter and its truck together form an aircraft “system.” The truck becomes the principal means of wartime dispers­al because it can tow an aircraft to a dispersal airstrip and then maintain it at that site.

Armament and external store ser­vice are also provided by the TECh. This job is relatively simple because there is little or no assembly of bomb, rocket, or external tanks on a Soviet air base. All stores are delivered to the base crated and ready to load.

In all its features, the peacetime Soviet tactical aviation support or­ganization is designed for efficient and rapid transition to war. How would the various components of Soviet readiness come into play in a conflict

If Soviet leaders choose to con­duct operations from the main base, the entire system would function much as it does in peacetime. It is in a dispersal operation, however, that the true strength of the Soviet sys­tem would become apparent. Even after a Western attack that disables the main base runways, the Soviets would be able to rebound and keep fighting. All evidence indicates that such an operation might resemble the following scenario.

At the main operating base, the first step is the immediate dispatch of an advance airfield-activation unit to planned dispersal areas. Work begins on preparation of de­ployment sites for dispersal of air­craft and aircraft-support units that are to follow within hours.

These would prepare at least three dispersed airfields in each dis­persal area. Runway clearance, support-area preparation, and setup of command and control areas and regimental headquarters all would take place swiftly. Activities at the regimental headquarters would in­clude preparation of the central command and control system, an intermediate-level maintenance center, helicopter pads, and garri­son areas.

While the advance units are en route to the deployment sites, other support teams at the main operating base load mobile aircraft and air­field service equipment onto trucks. Strict radio silence is maintained during performance of all these tasks.

When the loading is complete, a convoy of the mobile garrison and support units, led by the regimental commander and his staff, leaves through several different exits and proceeds to the initial checkpoint. At this time, even the commander is unaware of his destination. The convoy receives directions en route, ei­ther from highway control troops or from a series of beacons.

In this convoy, each aircraft-ser­vicing vehicle is towing a high-per­formance aircraft. Speeds on the highway reach up to twenty kilo­meters per hour. The remote sites, only a few kilometers from the main base, are reached quickly. Through­out, the regiment succeeds in mask­ing its redeployment to new loca­tions.

At the dispersed base, elements of Soviet remote-site philosophy are apparent—mobile flight operations control towers, camouflaged shel­ters, mobile pipelines and road­ways, and simple power support equipment.

The advance units are finishing the preparation of the airstrip, a highway section about 2,200 meters long and twenty-two meters wide. In the “runway” portion of the air­field, the median strip has been paved over, with an apron at either end, measuring 100 meters long and thirty meters wide. Automatic land­ing systems and crash barriers are deployed at both ends of the run­way.

In less than eight hours after the regimental dispersal began, the unit launches its first combat sorties.

Support depth is minimal, with the fighter unit having access to only the most critical parts, basic repair and inspection equipment, fuel bladders, and ammunition. As the war continues and the stockpiles are depleted, resupply of certain critical materials and cadres for both the ground and air forces are provided by air transport, which use the dispersal bases to stage their operations. The largest aircraft in the world, the An-l24 Ruslan trans­port (whose NATO code name is Condor), can operate from the high­way strip and appears frequently.

Such is the style in which the So­viet Union has planned to to war. While the Kremlin’s ways may be mysterious to many in the West, the problems they pose are only too ap­parent.

As a Project Engineer at General Dynamics Corp. in Fort Worth, Tex., Richard D. Ward leads the Comparative Systems Analysis Group of the advanced-design section. His career in aviation has included work at Rockwell and McDonnell Douglas. He has participated in the X-15, XB-70A, F-4, F-15, and F/A-18 programs. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “MiG-2000,” appeared in the March 1985 issue.