A significant part of Russia's air force fleet has been grounded for two months after a MiG fighter lost its tail on a training flight, and a newspaper said on Friday that at least a third of the nation's fighter jets are unsafe and should be written off or repaired.
A MiG-29 crashed in southern Siberia on Dec. 5 during a training flight, killing its pilot. Another such plane had crashed in the same area in October.
Air force spokesman Col. Vladimir Drik said Friday that the entire MiG-29 fleet has remained grounded as a military panel has been looking into the cause of December's crash, which occurred when a part of the jets tail section broke off. Drik told The Associated Press that the ban on all MiG-29 flights will remain in place until the investigation ends.
Grounding of the MiG fleet will dent Russia's pride, dealing a blow to the Kremlin's effort to revive the military and project power worldwide. It will also hurt Russia's efforts to increase arms sales.
The twin-engined MiG-29, codenamed Fulkrum by NATO, has been a mainstay of the Soviet and then Russian air force since the 1980s. Drik would not say how many MiG-29 the air force now has, but the business daily Kommersant quoted an aircraft industries official who put their number at 291.
The number would represent nearly a half of the entire Russian fighter jet fleet of some 650, Kommersant said. The two other types of fighters in the Russian inventory, the Su-27 and the MiG-31, also date from the 1980s.
Kommersant quoted former Russian air force chief, retired Gen. Anatoly Kornukov, as saying that Russia needs to mothball or start costly repairs of its entire fighter jet fleet.
Kommersant said officials had determined that December's crash was caused by corrosion, the reason for which remained unclear. It quoted a military industries official whom it did not identify as saying the reason is simply age and wear and tear. The jets' lifetime can only be extended after costly repairs, and the air force has failed to do that, the newspaper said. Drik refused to comment on whether the air force would refurbish the fighters and how fast it can happen. He said a decision on what to do with the MiG-29 fleet will be made after the probe into the crash is completed.
Despite a steady rise in defense spending during eight years of Russia's oil-driven economic boom, the military has modernized only a few dozen of Su-27s and MiG-31s. The prospects of upgrading Russia's arsenals look bleak now after slumping oil prices drained the government coffers.
Kommersant said the air force had cleared about one third of MiG-29s for flights after a detailed inspection of their condition, but Drik dismissed the claim, saying all planes of the type have remained grounded.
The decline of Russian military industries will likely make it difficult to modernize the jet fleet even if the government comes up with cash. Observers have said that aging equipment, an exodus of qualified industrial personnel, and lack of key components would make it difficult for the nation's defense industries to meet weapons orders.
Kommersant said an aircraft-making plant in Lukhovitsy near Moscow has struggled to meet the Indian order for a carrier-borne version of the MiG-29, producing only two such planes in the past few years.
In a humiliating blow to Russia, Algeria last year returned 15 MiG-29s, citing poor quality. Moscow has dismissed the claim, and the Russian military said it would commission the planes. Russia also said in December it would deliver 10 MiG-29s from the military stockpiles to Lebanon free of charge. It promised to upgrade them before delivery.