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Russia: Superfighters Under Development Despite Cash Problems

Moscow, 7 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Despite acute funding problems, Russia's leading warplane manufacturers are persevering with the development of a new generation of superfighters.

A spokesman for VPK MAPO, the maker of the MIG line of aircraft, told RFE/RL that work is continuing on a top-secret project known as the multi-functional fighter (MFI), which is known in the west by the code name "Project 1.42".

The spokesman, Vitaly Zotov, denied media reports that MAPO has had to abandon its ambitious plans because of lack of money. "We are still working on this," he told our correspondent. An air force spokesman confirmed independently that the project, which remains on the secret list of advanced weaponry, has not been frozen.

ITAR-TASS recently quoted unidentified officials as saying that the 1.42 was no longer affordable and it would have to be dropped. Those officials said MAPO would instead focus on a more immediate project, namely the refining of an advanced version of the established MIG-29, designated the MIG-35.

Giving more details on how things stand, Zotov said state financing has been scarce in the past months, but said MAPO was allocating enough of its own cash to complete the MIG-35 and keep Project 1.42 going "at a minimally sufficient level". He said a prototype of the 1.42 has already undergone necessary ground tests, and is now "practically ready for air tests." He said the fighter would be capable of stunning maneuvers with the help of its thrust vectoring system.

However, no matter how advanced the new warplane is, the command of the Russian Air Force says the defense ministry will not be able to commission it any time soon. Contacted by RFE/RL, a Russian Air Force spokesman acknowledged that his service is so cash-strapped that it has bought no warplanes at all in more than a year.

Meanwhile MAPO's main Russian rival, the Sukhoi design bureau, is not idle. It has its own superfighter project in hand, the Su-32. This aircraft is further along the development road, and is soon to undergo final tests before facing commissioning by the Russian defence ministry. Unlike its MAPO counterpart, Su-32 is expected to shed its wraps soon and be offered to China and India.

But, for basically economic reasons, these highly advanced jets may turn out to be too dangerous for Russians themselves to fly. The Air Force command has already announced plans to prevent its pilots from using another sophisticated aircraft, the MIG-31 all-weather two-seat interceptor, following a series of accidents. The command said its aviators, because of restricted flying time, have simply lost too much of their flying skill to operate such an advanced jet.

Experts say pilots should log at least 100 hours in the air in order to safely fly a plane like the MIG-31 -- but that this would require a many-fold increase in funds allocated for training and essentials like fuel. Last year, average pilots of long-range aviation and military transportation aviation logged only 42 hours and 45 hours in the air respectively, which is only 35 per cent of what they need to preserve their flying techniques.

Pilots of combat aviation units, which mostly consist of fighters and attack planes, logged even less - 19 hours per capita, which is only 25 percent of what is required to stay capable. Moreover, more than 130 of 234 young pilots who graduated from academies from 1992 to 1994, have not flown any flights at all since joining their combat units. And the Russian Air Force managed to purchase only 33 percent of the fuel it needed due to inadequate funding by the federal government.