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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

DEFENSE DOSSIER: Potemkin Jets Nothing New




The ANPK MiG company, which develops MiG jets, suffered a terrible debacle last month when it rolled out with lots of fanfare a new fighter that turned out to be a lemon. The ANPK MiG's general designer Mikhail Korzhyev claimed that the new fighter had stealth capabilities and other features that would allow it to outperform the most advanced U.S. fighter, the F-22 Raptor. But one glance at photos first published last December of the new fighter revealed the sham - it was by no means a stealth plane.


The MiG jets are Russia's best known fighters. MiG fighters took part in most local wars in the last 50 years and fought gallantly, often overperforming in combat their Western counterparts in Korea, Vietnam and in the Middle East.


Today the Russian government has announced plans to merge the MiG production company VPK MAPO with its archrival - the AVPK Sukhoi that makes the Su-27 fighter. Of course, this merger will cause considerable redundancies in the aircraft industry, but anyway its inevitable. Russia simply cannot continue to run two rival fighter-producing enterprises, when it hardly has resources to keep a single one.


Modern fighters are becoming so expensive and sophisticated - with the cost of the latest U.S. jets going over $100 million a peace - that fewer and fewer countries can afford to design and produce them on their own. In recent years the Sukhoi company managed to sign several lucrative export contracts with China and India, while VPK MAPO was losing money and is riddled by scandals (one of VPK MAPO's former chiefs is today under arrest, accused of graft). When the merger of fighter production in Russia comes, it will most likely be Sukhoi taking over MiG, not the other way around. Already plans have been announced to replace high-ranking MiG officials with managers from Sukhoi.


It's rather sad that the last thing the famed MiG fighter producers made before going under was to roll out a Potemkin jet. However, such a bluff is nothing new in Russia. Prince Potemkin was not the first Russian government official to cheat his sovereign into believing that genuine reform and progress were happening, when in reality they were not. Potemkin simply got caught and the case also got international coverage. Two centuries ago Catherine the Great was traveling through Crimea with the Austrian Emperor Josef II, who also noticed the makeshift villages Potemkin had erected. Without international coverage the sham would have been, of course, silenced on the basis of national security.


Soviet nuclear veterans recall that in the '40s, when Russia managed to make its first plutonium "pit" (a ball of metallic plutonium that is the core of a nuclear bomb) the chief of Russia's nuclear program Igor Khurchatov brought it to the Kremlin. Josef Stalin was not impressed: "It does not look like much. How do I know it's not a fake?" Khurchatov is said to have offered the plutonium pit to Stalin: "Feel it with your hand. You see its warm. It's always warm because of constant nuclear decay."


Of course, Stalin was paranoid. But not totally without reason. Stalin ruled Russia for decades and knew that his officials could easily resort to such bluffs.


During the Soviet period Russia's defense industry chiefs were constantly cheating - displaying empty shells instead of real ballistic missiles, wooden fighter planes, etc. Ignorant Politburo members did not know the difference.


The Soviet Union was spending billions on totally useless defense programs. In the '70s and '80s the Soviets built four 40,000-ton Kiev class aircraft carriers. The carriers were equipped with Yak-38 vertical takeoff fighters. But soon it turned out that the Yak-38 was a worthless plane - it could not takeoff with armaments when its tanks were full and even with full tanks it had a very limited range. The Yak-38 was made to look like a British Harrier fighter, but in reality it was a Potemkin jet. In the '80s all Yak-38s were retired after only several years of service and the Kiev class carriers were converted to carry only helicopters. But without fixed-wing jets these enormous ships became strategically worthless and today three out of four have been scrapped. The last will most likely go the same way soon.


The MiG designers were hardly doing anything new or special when they rolled out their new fighter. What they did not take into account was the presence of a free press in today's Russia and so they got caught red-handed. A relatively free press is a novelty Russia's seasoned Potemkin village builders have not yet fully learned to cope with.


Pavel Felgenhauer is defense editor for Segodnya.