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Russia updates military's aging jets

By Associated Press
Published December 27, 2003

MOSCOW - Russia has begun fitting its aging fighter jets with new engines and electronics as part of the most ambitious military modernization plan since the 1991 Soviet collapse, aimed at strengthening the armed forces' sagging might, officials said.

The first batch of five upgraded Su-27SM fighters flew Friday from a plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East to the air force's Lipetsk combat training center in western Russia for testing.

Russian TV showed the sleek, twin-engine blue-and-gray fighters landing at a snowy airfield and enthusiastic pilots hailing their performance.

"They still smell of fresh paint. They are like factory-fresh cars," squadron leader Yuri Gritsenko told NTV television.

Maj. Gen. Alexander Kharchevsky, Lipetsk commander, said the upgraded fighter "features the latest achievements in electronics, weapons and navigation." The planes have computer displays instead of analog gauges, a satellite-guided navigation system and sophisticated weapons control systems.

President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly promised to increase money for combat training and modernize military arsenals.

Since the Su-27 entered the arsenal during the 1980s - built as an answer to the American F-15 Eagle fighter - the cash-strapped Russian air force has bought just a handful of new jets. Russian pilots have complained bitterly that their aircraft were falling apart while Russia's aircraft builders were producing new jets for China, India and other foreign customers.

Next year will see the most ambitious weapons modernization program since the Soviet collapse. The government plans to spend $11.7-billion, or about 14 percent of the 2004 federal budget, on modernizing fighters, upgrading strategic bombers and buying helicopter gunships, missiles and other weapons.

Ivan Safranchuk, head of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington think-tank, said fitting old Soviet weapons with modern electronics was the cheapest way to upgrade Russia's aging arsenal.

"The military has a lot of hardware that can remain in service for a long time," Safranchuk said. "Modernizing it by inserting new software appears to be the most cost-efficient way."

Lt. Gen. Alexander Zelin, air force deputy chief, said the program to overhaul Russia's fleet of Su-27s will be completed in 2005, the Interfax-Military News Agency reported.

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