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Yak-141 Returns; Vertical Takeoff Aircraft Coming Soon to the Russian Navy?

July 15th - 2018

During the Cold War the Soviet Union’s Yakovlev Design Bureau developed the Yak-38 Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) strike fighter to operate from the navy’s Kiev Class light carriers. Entering service in 1976 and serving until 1991, the year of the Soviet Union’s dissolution when the country’s four Kiev Class ships were retired due to budgetary restrictions, the fighters were capable of flying at Mach 1, at a relatively low altitude of 11km and had only four external hardpoints to carry bombs, rockets and missiles. While limited in its combat capabilities, the Yak-38 was from the beginning designed primarily provide the Soviet military with experience operating VTOL aircraft from its carriers and give Yakovlev invaluable design experience in the field. Even before the Yak-38 entered service, the Soviet Navy had already requested a more capable VTOL platform with superior capabilities to those of the Yak-38, with the aircraft serving as an interim platform for the Soviet Navy. The new VTOL platform was expected to have capabilities similar to the Soviet Air Force’s frontline fourth generation fighters such as the MiG-29 and Su-27, and Yakovlev begun work on the new platform before first deliveries of the Yak-38 to the Soviet Navy.

The Yak-141, also known as the Yak-41, would see its first flight 11 years later in 1987. The aircraft was significantly faster, more manoeuvrable, longer ranged, higher flying and better armed than its predecessor the Yak-38 - and was capable of deploying the most advanced Russian air to air missiles and anti ship missiles used by other fourth generation fighters. The program was considered a major priority for Yakovlev, particularly in light of the USSR’s vast naval expansion efforts which began in the mid 1980s under which a major carrier fleet, including Ulyanovsk supercarriers comparable to the American Nimitz Class warships, were to be built. The design bureau allocated ten chief engineers to the project - with over fifty designs studies submitted for the new platform. In September 1991, just months before the Soviet disintegration, the the Yak-141 made its first vertical landing on the heavily modified Kiev Class carrier Admiral Gorshkov. With the end of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline of the Russian economy, which contracted over 40% from 1992 to 1997, Yakolev lost funding to continue the project. By then four working prototypes were in service.

There have been few developments for the Yak-141 project since 1991, and though U.S. defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin did briefly cooperate with Yakovlev, reportedly gaining critical technologies for its own X-35 short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) fighter which would come to be the F-35B, there appeared few prospects for the fighter ever seeing active service despite its advanced capabilities. As of 2018 a number of recent developments within the Russian military, and the Russian Navy in particular, could well lead to the revival of the Yak-141 program. As Russia’s economy began a slow recovery from the year 2000, and the country sought to enhance its military capabilities under a massive modernisation drive initiated in 2008, a number of partially completed Soviet era weapons program have been revived. From the late 2000s Chief of the Russian General Staff General Nikolai Makarov has strongly advocated the need for light carriers to enter service in the country’s navy, with four such carriers planned under a joint project with France from which Paris withdrew in 2014. Russia has since worked to develop the capabilities to built light carrier warships domestically, and according to Navy Deputy Commander in Chief Viktor Bursuk the country is set to begin construction of the first of these ships in 2020. Two carrier variants are currently planned, which have been referred to as the “universal amphibious assault ship” and “large amphibious assault ship.” The first of these are, according to Deputy Defence Minister Yuri Borisov, set to enter service in the early 2020s, and the heavier class reportedly could displace up to 40,000 tons.

With the resurrection of a light carrier program, the Russian Navy will for the first time since the USSR’s fall have need for advanced VTOL capable fighter aircraft. With a number of states which field light carriers set to acquire F-35B short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft for their warships, Japan’s Izumo Class, the United States’ Wasp and America Class assault ships and Italy’s Cavour and Giuseppe Garibaldi among them, Russia may well follow this trend and attempt to induct a fighter with yet more sophisticated VTOL capabilities. With the Yak-141 already in late prototype stages at the time of its cancellation, research and development costs to move the design to a production ready stage would be significantly reduced. With a significant demand for low cost aircraft capable of operating from light carriers, with China, Thailand and South Korea all potential clients which field such warships, the Yak-141 could also potentially become a major export success for Russian military aviation. With China currently building three 075 amphibious assault ships, massive 40,000 ton vessels each capable of deploying up to 30 aircraft, Beijing is likely to be a major client for an advanced Russian VTOL fighter - with export sales subsiding the cost of starting the program and making it considerably more cost effective.

The VTOL fighters are set to serve as an effective force multiplier for any carrier strike group which fields them, with the aircraft likely to deploy some of Russia's most capable standoff weapons allowing them to threaten enemy aircraft and warships at extreme ranges. Considering that the original Yak-141 was to be equipped with R-77 air to air missiles, long range platforms and the most advanced in the Russian inventory at the time, it remains possible that a modern adaptation of the platform could deploy lethal new K-77 air to air missiles - platforms based on the R-77 but extensively modified for deployment by next generation fighters and retains an unparalleled 193km strike range and a high degree of precision. State of the art anti ship missiles far surpassing those fielded by Western carrier based fighters such as the F-35B,  weapons such as the Mach 3 Kh-41and 300km range Kh-35U and P-800, allow even relatively small carrier warships the size of the Dokdo or Mistral Class to deploy lethal firepower and thus gain an asymmetric advantage at sea by fielding even a small contingent of Yak-141 jets. Equipping the fighter with advanced AESA radars based on those recently developed for the MiG-35 and Su-57 also remains a significantly possibility. Considering the high potential for exports and Russia’s considerable need for these aircraft for its own navy should the country’s light carrier program be seen through, the completion of the Yak-141 program and finally inducting the advanced fighter into active service, most likely with a number of modernisations applied, represents a potentially highly feasible project and one which there is a good chance the Russian military will pursue.

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