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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Access All Areas: Russian Style

During my visit in August to Rostvertol, the Russian Helicopters factory at Rostov-on-Don, my hosts couldn’t have been more welcoming. Compared to a trip I was invited on several years ago to the city of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan and the home of Kazan Helicopters. As a major producer of tanks and planes for the Russian military, it had been closed to foreigners during the Soviet era. While visiting the Kazan factory (with a group of Russian media) one of the older senior managers obviously not familiar with, or supportive of, the innovative and new media policy which allowed them access to look around his military helicopter factory (Mi-8s, Mi-17) walked slowly toward me and accused me of being a spy. While the accusation was not sincere (at least I hoped it wasn’t) in that he was not looking to do something about it, he did add (somewhat whistfully), that 10 years prior he could have had me shot for being there!

Fast forward to the present day. Not only was the visit well coordinated and I welcomed as a friend, as was the entire group that included mainly British, Brazilian and Russian journalists, but during the course of the day we had virtually complete access to the assembly line of Mi-35Ms, Mi-28s and three Mi-26s on a parallel line. That meant close-up photography (see feature in the October print edition), scaling work platforms to get better shots and topped off by a guided tour (all questions allowed) by Chief Engineer Andrey Varfolomeyev. Don’t forget we are talking about Russia’s latest attack helicopter as well as the modernized version of its older stalwart. Operational characteristics were discussed and a verbal guide to weapons and counter-measures given. In fact there was perhaps even less restriction than previous tours I have been on to Boeing’s Apache production line at Mesa, Ariz. If this is not an example of the extent to which the Russians have moved on and are now prepared to go to get their industry discussed alongside all the other major helicopter OEMs, then I can’t think of a better one.

Not only did we talk to the Chief Engineer, there was a group interview with Russian Helicopters CEO Dmitry Petrov at the beginning of the visit in Moscow, and we got the same access to Director General Boris Slyusar. Sure, there were generalizations but no more so now than any their western European or American peers. Another change was that the meetings had been set up deliberately with time, lots of time, for question and answer sessions. No longer facing just a diatribe extolling the virtues of Russian equipment and philosophy, there was an opportunity to engage with no pre-qualification of which question could or could not be asked.

No Gunboat Diplomacy

Elements of the UK’s Royal Navy set sail for the pre-planned Exercise Cougar 13 in the Mediterranean in mid-August. The Royal Navy’s capital ships nowadays are the amphibious landing ship HMS Bulwark and the helicopter carrier HMS Illustrious. While some media have been trying to talk up the fact that they will sail past Gibraltar, where Spain has recently fanned the long-simmering resentment that its southern tip is still a British Overseas Territory, only one ship is actually scheduled to dock there (and that more for PR, visitor days, etc., than to send any type of gunboat diplomacy message. While the UK awaits the arrival of its new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, although it is not likely to be operational with a Joint Strike Fighter air wing embarked until 2020 at the earliest, maritime air power remains as a rotary only option. While the very idea that the arrival of the Royal Navy should be meant, or perceived, as a threat to another European Union country, NATO member etc., it does highlight the broader limitation of the UK’s capability to reinforce the more far-flung garrison in the Falklands should the government in Argentina see an opportunity for pre-emptive military action. Again this is highly unlikely – the General Galtieri years have long gone – but the message from the UK government is similar to the early 80s in that there has been a consistent hacking of the defense budget on each and every occasion. Of course the fixed-wing Typhoon force is a more robust deterrent than was present in 1982, but that is only the first line of deterrence, a trip wire perhaps, and the islands are still a long way from further support. While the operational deployment of Apache was a success in Libya’s Operational Ellamy, the vulnerabilities of helicopter only carriers would be too high for any operation where air superiority was not virtually guaranteed. There is no long-range air capability either – no Vulcan squadrons, not even Nimrods for long-range patrol. Did the Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) of 2010 perceive this vulnerability? Is the option of political negotiation the main (and only) option left?

Related: Military News

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