The Russian Air Force lacks fully trained pilots and has sent what few good pilots it has into combat, according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI). RUSI is the world’s oldest and Britain’s premier defense think tank.
“Ukrainian assessments concluded that given limited flight hours and the practice of training being delivered in units, the VKS entered the conflict with fewer than 100 fully trained and current pilots,” the report said.
However, Moscow is resorting to a strategy even more dangerous to the long-term health of Russian air power: It is committing instructor pilots to combat, which means that pilots being trained now and in the future will have fewer experienced mentors.
“The mobilisation of trainers from their flying schools to frontline formations has also hampered the ability to generate new pilots,” says the report, which covers events from February through July.
“The Ukrainian military has noted a rise in both very young and very old pilots in the VKS, with ageing pilots returned to frontline service, the study adds.
It is normal practice in many air forces for experienced pilots to move from frontline duties to training units, where they can pass on their expertise to rookies. One of the reasons Nazi Germany lost World War II was that it employed its instructor pilots for combat operations, which led to a progressive decline in the quality of pilots.
Russia also relentlessly engages its experienced pilots in combat.
Due to the lack of pilots and “a military culture that assigns the most dangerous missions to the most experienced crews, attrition in the VKS has fallen disproportionately on this cadre, reducing the overall effectiveness of the force and its ability to train new pilots,” reads the RUSI report.
This is one of the reasons why Moscow demanded veteran pilots in prisoner exchange negotiations with Ukraine. It is possible for an air force to have well-trained pilots but outdated aircraft or a lack of spare parts, but if an air force does not have enough skilled pilots, it is likely to have much bigger problems, the study concludes.