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- Russia lost several combat aircraft to crashes in the final months of 2022.
- Some of those losses reflect the toll the war in Ukraine has taken on Russia’s air force.
- Others, which involved jets not being used in the war, may reflect the toll of Western sanctions.
Militaries expect to lose aircraft in combat, and even in peacetime there will be accidents when operating fast, complex jets, but a series of crashes by Russian combat jets may indicate that Western sanctions are cutting into Moscow’s ability to maintain its warplanes.
“Sanctions placed on Russia by the West could well be affecting Russia’s ability to manufacture and maintain parts needed to keep aircraft safe,” Michael Bohnert, an engineer and analyst at the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, wrote in a November essay.
Bohnert pointed to at least six crashes between September and late November.
Accidents involving older Su-25 ground-attack aircraft, a newer Su-34 ground-attack aircraft that crashed into an apartment building in Russia, and a MiG-31 fighter that crashed on takeoff are not that surprising. Those models have flown extensively in combat over Ukraine, so the incidents may reflect the wear and tear on them.
Russian emergency personnel remove parts of a Su-34 jet that crashed in a residential area in the town of Yeysk on October 18.
STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images
However, two crashes involved planes that weren’t being used in Ukraine. In mid-October, an Su-34 crashed into an apartment building in the city of Yeysk. A week later, an Su-30 fighter crashed into a residential building in Siberia.
The initial investigation of the Su-34 crash “pointed to a technical malfunction of the aircraft,” according to Russian authorities.
“What’s interesting is that even aircraft not involved in the Russian invasion are crashing,” Bohnert wrote of the October crashes. “These aircraft were being used as training platforms, and their combat counterparts have limited use in the current war.”
Crashes of multiple aircraft types, involving jets that have and have not seen combat, suggests a pattern. “While mechanical failures are expected in aircraft over time, a rapid increase in fleetwide mechanical failures may indicate that something fundamental has changed,” Bohnert wrote.
The question is what has changed in Russian aircraft reliability and maintenance? Specifically, are Western sanctions that have deprived Russian aviation of imported parts to blame? Russian airlines are already cannibalizing jetliners for spare parts that sanctions have made unavailable.
At the same time, there are indications that Russia is suffering from a lack of qualified military pilots as well as sloppy ground crews.
Russian troops work on Su-24 aircraft at the Hamaimim air base in Syria in May 2016.
Friedemann Kohler/picture alliance via Getty Images
Bohnert sees three possible causes for the crashes: a lack of skilled mechanics, not enough third-party companies to manufacture or repair aviation parts, or a lack of tools and materials to make or fix these parts.
However, Bohnert doesn’t see any of these explanations as sufficient by themselves. For example, while Western experts cite sloppy maintenance practices such as ground crews failing to remove covers from sensors before takeoff, Bohnert thinks a lack of competent mechanics isn’t likely.
“While Russian airbases have been attacked, damage has not been extensive and maintainers probably would not have been transferred to forward combat units,” he wrote.
Mobilization has affected small- and medium-sized companies that make aviation parts, but the crashes began before Putin ordered the mobilization on September 21. That leaves a shortage of manufacturing tools and raw materials because of Western sanctions.
This still leaves the problem of precisely attributing the reasons for the crashes. “We have seen continued and possibly increasing mechanical failures with Russian military and civilian aircraft,” Bohnert told Insider. “It has been difficult to ascertain why.”
The site where a Russian military aircraft crashed into a residential building in the city of Irkutsk on October 23.
For example, measuring the impact of mobilization on Russian manufacturing is difficult, as is determining how many aircraft parts Russia is covertly importing. Details on transshipments into Russia may appear in trade flow reports or company annual reports, but this information may take months or even years to surface.
In the end, Russian aircraft maintenance may face a mix of problems. “The likely causes of the failures remain some combination of personnel, tooling, and increased demand for domestic production limiting the supply and/or the quality of spare parts,” Bohnert said.
As the war in Ukraine continues, combat will wear out aircraft and trained pilots. Pre-war stocks of spare parts will be depleted, especially of imported components and materials.
Substitutions may help a bit: Iran, for example, has been resourceful in either secretly acquiring or producing parts for its US-made 1970s-era F-14 and F-4 fighters or in cannibalizing parts from 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 holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.