Russian military aviation in Crimea

Vladimir Trendafilovski describes the complex organisation of Russia’s armed forces deployed on the Crimean Peninsula


Su-33 71 red (c/n 49051004205) of 279 OKIAP performs a crosswind landing at Saky during the annual training session at NITKA on September 1, 2015.
All photos Willem-Sander Termorshuizen unless noted

The Crimean Peninsula has been a source of friction between the Russian Federation and Ukraine since the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991. Until 1954, when it became part of Ukraine, the region was part of the USSR and most of its population are ethnic Russians.

In Soviet times, the greater part of the Chernomorskyy Flot (ChF, Black Sea Fleet), was – and continues to be – headquartered in Sevastopol, increasing the strategic importance of the area. The Kremlin was unwilling to give up this formidable asset to Ukraine, and the Russian Federation incorporated the ChF into the Voyenno- Morskoy Flot Rossiyskoy Federatsii (VMF, Russian Navy), assigning its aviation assets to Morskaya Aviatsiya Voyenno- Morskogo Flota (MA VMF, Russian Naval Aviation) to form the Morskaya Aviatsiya Chernomorskogo Flota (MA ChF, Naval Aviation of the Black Sea Fleet), despite the fact that it was based on what was now the territory of independent Ukraine.

Resolving the Black Sea fleet problem

The status of Black Sea Fleet forces on Crimean territory was regularised by 1997 under various bilateral agreements. All the assets were split in half between the VMF and Viyskovo-Morski Syly (VMS, Ukrainian Navy) and the legal status of ChF units remaining in the Crimea was fully regulated; strict limits were set on quantity, location and/or type of equipment and personnel, and any upgrade or replacement of their equipment (aircraft included) had to be approved by Ukraine. New aircraft arrived rarely, but one occasion was the replacement of 22 Su-17 Fitter fighterbombers with an equal number of Su-24 Fencer B and Fencer C bombers and Su-24MR Fencer E reconnaissance aircraft in 2000. The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Naval Aviation arm was drastically downsized in the process.

What started in 1992 as six independent regiments, a bomber division (two regiments with Tu-22M3 Backfire C bombers) and a training centre, based at five Crimean air bases, was reduced to just a single unit at the beginning of 2014: the 7057 Aviatsionnaya Baza (AvB, Aviation Base) at Kacha Air Base.

This unit consisted of a fixed-wing aircraft squadron (An-26 Curl transports and Be-12 Mail ASW/SAR aircraft) and a helicopter squadron (Ka-27 and Ka-29 Helix shipborne ASW/SAR/transport helicopters, and Mi-8 Hip transports) at Kacha, plus the detached ground attack squadron at Gvardeyskoye Air Base (with Su-24s and a Tu-134A-4 passenger aircraft, the latter being the personal aircraft of the ChF Commander).

By annexing Crimea in March 2014, the Russian Federation finally solved its longstanding problem of having to cave to Ukrainian pressure and move Crimeabased ChF assets to Russia. Those assets now came under the control of Russia’s Yuzhnyy Voyennyy Okrug (YuVO, Southern Military District). The relatively weak Russian forces on the peninsula were beefed up with the addition of numerous new units of the Vooruzhyonnye Sily Rossiyskoy Federatsii (VS RF, Russian Federation Armed Forces) formed specifically to strengthen its defences. Meanwhile, a big reorganisation of Black Sea Fleet units began in order to increase their strength and effectiveness.

Ka-27PS 33 yellow (RF-19683, c/n 5235003991110) of 318 OSAP at the Opuk range Crimea on September 9, 2016, in support of an amphibious landing operation during the largescale Caucasus 2016 exercise.
Vadim Savitsky/Russian MoD via author

Formation of new VVS units

On June 1, 2014, the Crimea officially came under 4 Komandovaniye (Command) of Voyenno-Vozdushniye Sily i Protivovozdushnaya Oborona (VVS i PVO, Air Force and Air Defence Force), based at Rostov-on-Don and in charge of all VVS units in the Southern Military District.

The command had already taken on the defence of Russian forces on the peninsula, temporarily detaching a flight of four Su-27 Flanker fighters from 3 Gvardeyskiy Smeshannyy Aviatsionnyy Polk (Gv.SAP, Guards Composite Aviation Regiment) at Krymsk Air Base to Gvardeyskoye in March 2014. These were replaced in the summer of 2014 by three Su-30M2s, which were assigned to the former Povitryany Syly (PS, Ukrainian Air Force) base at Belbek.

At this point, the process of forming a completely new VVS formation in Crimea was already underway. Belbek Air Base was chosen as headquarters of the 27 Smeshannaya Aviatsionnaya Diviziya (SAD, Composite Aviation Division) and the home base of its 38 Istrebitelnyy Aviatsionnyy Polk (IAP, Fighter Aviation Regiment), which was tasked with the air defence of the peninsula. Gvardeyskoye Air Base was taken over from Russian Naval Aviation in September 2014 and selected as a home base for the new 37 Smeshannyy Aviatsionnyy Polk (SAP, Composite Aviation Regiment) tasked with air support. Finally, Dzhankoy, a former Ukrainian Air Force reserve air base, was selected as the home of its new 39 Vertolyotnyy Polk (VP, Helicopter Regiment) tasked with transport and close air support of local Russian forces. In the whole VVS, this structure is unique to the 27 SAD; no other Russian aviation division has an organic helicopter unit.

Understandably, the first to receive aircraft was the 38 IAP. It took over the three brandnew Su-30M2s at Gvardeyskoye in late July 2014 and soon received six aircraft (five Su-27Ps and one Su-27UB) from 159 IAP at Besovets Air Base.

On November 26, 2014, probably the largest single transfer of aircraft to the Crimea,12 modernised Su-27SM fighters and two Su-27UB/UP trainers, arrived from two units in the Russian Far East that had begun to receive the new Su-35S Flanker E fighter – the 22 IAP at Tsentralnaya Uglovaya Air Base and the 23 IAP at Dzyomgi Air Base.

Mi-8AMTSh 58 blue (RF-91165, c/n AMTS00643105802U) of 39 VP deploys special forces troops at the Pogonovo range near Voronezh on June 17, 2017 as part of the Aviadarts 2017 competition.
Yevgeny Polovodov/Russian MoD via author

The unit began normal duties with its two squadrons on December 3, 2014. Despite shuffling of aircraft in 2015, which saw various Su-27s returned to 159 IAP and two Su-27SMs to 23 IAP and additional Su-27s arriving to fill the gaps, the unit ended up with two full squadrons: the 1st on Su-27Ps and the 2nd with modernised Su-27SMs. Most of these aircraft received a new camouflage scheme and new blue-painted bort numbers. Three more Su-30M2s arrived in 2015 and 2016, for a total of six (one of the original three aircraft was reportedly transferred to 3 Gv.SAP in 2015, but this is unconfirmed).

Su-30M2 91 blue of 38 IAP at Krymsk Air Base during aerial refuelling training with an Il-78 tanker from the local 3 Gv.SAP on February 2, 2017.
Russian MoD via author

Next to arrive was 37 SAP, which received its first Su-24M Fencer D bombers on November 11, 2014. With blue bort numbers starting from 41, the squadron’s 12 Su-24Ms had been overhauled in the second half of 2014 at 20 Aviatsionnyy Remontnyy Zavod (ARZ, Aircraft Repair Plant) in Pushkin or 514 ARZ in Rzhev.

The aircraft were predominantly excess aircraft from units that had received new Su-34 Fullbacks, such as 47 SAP at Baltimor- Voronezh and 559 Bombardirovochnyy Aviatsionnyy Polk (BAP, Bomber Aviation Regiment) at Morozovsk and others came from the 98 SAP at Monchegorsk.

In addition to its bomber squadron, the 37 SAP soon received a ground attack squadron comprising 12 modernised Su-25SM Frogfoots, all formerly flown by the 960 Shturmovoy Aviatsionnyy Polk (ShAP, Ground Attack Aviation Regiment) at Primorsko-Akhtarsk Air Base. Joined by at least one Su-25UB trainer from the same unit, their original red bort numbers were repainted blue. Unlike the Su-24Ms, 37 SAP’s Frogfoots came directly from a front-line unit that was left with a single squadron, but 960 ShAP soon began to receive older, unmodernised Su-25s as replacements.

Last of the newly formed units was 39 VP, which was officially inaugurated and given its combat flag at Dzhankoy on December 18, 2014. At that point, its strength comprised one squadron of Mi-8AMTSh transport helicopters taken from 393 Aviatsionnaya Baza Armeyskoy Aviatsii (AvB AA, Aviation Base of the Army Aviation) at Korenovsk. In 2015, the unit received enough helicopters to form three squadrons – the 1st with 12 Ka-52 Hokum B attack helicopters, the 2nd with 12 Mi-35M Hind and four Mi-28N Havoc attack helicopters, and the 3rd with the original 12 Mi-8AMTSh transports.

These helicopters had again been transferred from other Southern Military District front-line units; the Ka-52s came from 393 AvB AA at Korenovsk, while the Mi-28Ns and Mi-35Ms had formerly been assigned to 546 AvB AA at Rostovon- Don (Yegorlykskaya Air Base). In 2015, these two donor units changed designations to become 55 Otdelnyy Vertolyotnyy Polk (OVP, Independent Helicopter Squadron) and 16 Brigada Armeyskoy Aviatsii (Br AA, Army Aviation Brigade), respectively, the latter relocating to Zernograd Air Base in the process.

Interestingly, all four Mi-28Ns and at least four Mi-35Ms returned to 16 Br AA at Zernograd by early 2016, most probably due to its involvement in the contingent of Russian forces in Syria. However, 16 Br AA also started receiving new Mi-28Ns in late 2015 and transferred up to 12 of its older ones to the 2nd squadron of 39 VP later in 2016.

The SAR amphibian Be-12PS 12 yellow (RF-12007, c/n 3602902) of 318 OSAP returning at Kacha after a training flight on July 28, 2016.
Two Su-25SMs of 37 SAP firing live S-25-O air-to-ground rockets at Pogonovo range near Voronezh on June 17, 2017 during the Aviadarts 2017 competition.
Maxim Kuzovkov/Russian MoD via author
Pilots of 43 OMShAP at Saky returning from a training flight aboard Su-30SM 38 blue (RF-33782, c/n 10MK51202) on March 2, 2017.
Russian MoD via author

Initially, 39 VP’s helicopters retained their original 393 AvB AA red two-digit bort numbers and 546 AvB AA’s threedigit blue ones, but in mid-2015 these were replaced with new blue ones; the Ka-52s received bort numbers in the 00 and 10 range, while Hips were allocated borts in the 50 and 60 range. In 2016, newly arrived Mi-28Ns of the 2nd squadron received blue numbers in the 30 and 40 range, while remaining Mi-35Ms were painted with blue numbers in the 20 range and complete RF–registrations.

(They only had RF- registrations painted on them until then.)

It should be noted here that, as part of a big set of changes in the VS RF structure, on August 1, 2015, the newly created Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily Rossiyskoy Federatsii (VKS, Russian Air and Space Force) took over all VVS units. At the same time 4 VVS i PVO Command at Rostov-on- Don reverted to its pre-2009 designation – 4 Armiya VVS i PVO (A VVS i PVO, VVS i PVO Army).

Reorganisation of the Black Sea fleets

On July 1, 2014, a major reorganisation was undertaken, effectively reversing all previous changes; 7057 AvB was disbanded in order to re-create two of the original units that formed it. Its two squadrons at Kacha formed the new 318 Otdelnyy Smeshannyy Aviatsionnyy Polk (OSAP, Independent Composite Aviation Regiment), while the ground attack squadron at Gvardeyskoye became 43 Otdelnyy Morskoy Shturmovoy Aviatsionnyy Polk (OMShAP, Independent Naval Ground Attack Aviation Regiment) and moved to the former Ukrainian Navy air base at Saky (Novofyodorovka).

Thus, on July 4, all airworthy aircraft of 43 OMShAP – its single Tu-134A-4, four Su-24 bombers and five Su-24MR reconnaissance aircraft – transferred to Saky. Among them was Su-24 bort number 23 white, the world’s last airworthy Fencer B. These were soon joined by three more Su-24 Fencer Cs anda sixth Su-24MR, which were returning to service from storage. Thus, there were a total of seven Su-24s and six Su-24MRs operational at Saky by the end of 2014. Its remaining original 11 Su-24s (including two dismantled in 2009) are earmarked for scrapping and nine complete aircraft and major subsections of two more still languished on disused bomber hardstands at the northern end of Gvardeyskoye Air Base in November 2016.

An-26 07 blue of 318 OSAP deploys a rescue raft during the Russian Navy Day flypast repetition over Sevastopol bay on July 27, 2017.
Su-30SM 36 blue (RF-93824, c/n 10MK51103) of 43 OMShAP returns to Saky after the Russian Navy Day flypast over Sevastopol bay on July 31, 2016.

Now that Ukraine’s opinion on Russian basing on the peninsula was irrelevant, 43 OMShAP began receiving long-awaited replacements for its ageing Su-24 bombers; its first three Su-30SMs (35, 36 and 37 blue) arrived at Saky on July 21, 2014. Almost immediately, they all flew off to 859 Tsentr Boyevoy Podgotovki i Pereuchivaniya Lyotnogo Sostava Morskoy Aviatsii Voyenno- Morskogo Flota (TsBP i PLS MA VMF, Russian Naval Aviation’s Combat Training and Pilot Conversion Centre) at Yeysk for crew training, returning to Saky on December 29, 2014. Five more jets arrived in September 2015, 38 and 39 blue at the beginning and 40, 41 and 42 blue at the end of the month.

The ninth aircraft 43 blue arrived in early October 2016, followed by three more 45, 46 and 47 blue that December, completing a full Su-30SM squadron.

The delivery of 43 OMShAP’s new Su- 30SMs led to the withdrawal from use of its Su-24 Fencer Bs and Fencer Cs on September 1, 2016. Meanwhile, the second squadron of 43 OMShAP was formed on Su-24M and Su-24MR aircraft – three Su-24M Fencer D bombers arrived in 2015 from the 72 AvB at Chkalovsk (Baltic Fleet) – more precisely from its Su-24M ground attack squadron at Chernyahovsk Air Base. Two of these Su-24Ms were fresh from overhaul at 514 ARZ and one of the unit’s original Su-24MRs had returned from overhaul at 20 ARZ by 2016. The last three Su-24Ms arrived from overhaul at 514 ARZ by mid-2017, giving the second squadron a full complement of 12 aircraft (six Su-24Ms and six Su-24MRs).

In the period after the annexation, serious attention was also paid to existing 318 OSAP assets. Many of its aircraft and helicopters were either undergoing or had already returned from much-needed overhauls, finally resulting in an acceptable level of airworthiness.

Most notable is the fact that two of the unit’s Ka-29 Helix B shipborne combat transport helicopters were recently returned to service in preparation for the introduction to the Black Sea Fleet of new large landing ships produced under Project 11711 (NATO – Ivan Gren). The Ivan Gren-Class is designed to carry two Ka-27 or Ka-29s; the first, the Ivan Gren, is now undergoing sea trials, while the second, Pyotr Morgunov, was laid down in 2015 and should be completed in 2018. The latter is expected to enter service with the Black Sea Fleet.

Su-25UTG 18 red (c/n 38220131415) of 279 OKIAP during a crosswind landing at Saky, home of the original NITKA shipborne aviation training complex.
An-26 07 blue (RF-46872, c/n 1705) of 318 OSAP departs Kacha, fitted with four BD3-34 bomb racks for maritime orientation markers, used in SAR sorties.

Finally, the Black Sea Fleet received an UAV detachment at Kacha with indigenous Orlan 10 UAVs in late 2014, transforming into an UAV squadron later. The UAVs are used to monitor the Crimea’s borders and coastal areas (including activities at sea) and the actions of Russia’s own forces during the numerous manoeuvres and exercises in the area. By the end of 2017, this squadron was expected to reform into a Polk Bespilotnykh Letatelnykh Apparatov (P BLA, UAV regiment), receiving additional Forpost UAVs (a Russian licence-built variant of the Israeli IAI Searcher II). There has been no official confirmation on this yet, but well-informed sources suggest that the process is underway.

Fate of Ukrainian aviation assets and facilities

In early 2014, there were four operational military air bases (Belbek, Dzhankoy, Kirovskoye and Saky) and two aircraftrepair plants in the Crimea. The latter are Sevastopolskoye Aviatsionnoye Predpriyatiye (SAP, Sevastopol Aviation Enterprise) at Sevastopol and Yevpatoriyskiy Aviatsionnyy Remontnyy Zavod (YeARZ, Yevpatoriya Aircraft Repair Plant) at Yevpatoriya. After the annexation, a total of 116 Ukrainian military aircraft and helicopters remained at these six locations as of April 1, 2014.

Ka-27PL 06 yellow (RF-19178, c/n 5235001822201) from 318 OSAP demonstrates the deployment of its VGS-3 Ros-V dipping sonar during the Russian Navy Day flypast at Sevastopol bay on July 30, 2017.
Su-24M 44 white (RF-33836, c/n 0515315) of 43 OMShAP takes off from Saky on July 28, 2017. It carries two R-60M missiles and four OFAB-250-270 bombs.
A close-up of Ka-52 01 blue (RF- 91105, c/n 35382605005) of 39 VP, armed with a pair of 80mm 20-shot B-8V20A rocket pods.

At this point, the Ukrainian military personnel that chose to continue their service in Ukraine proper began to leave their bases and soon their equipment followed. However, at the start of June 2014 the return of Ukrainian military equipment from the Crimea was terminated indefinitely by the Russian Federation due to the events in the Donbas, leaving 34 aeroplanes and helicopters (15 of which were airworthy) stranded in the Crimea.

Their final fate remains to be seen, but some – most notably the Mi-8s stored at SAP – are known to have been requisitioned by the Russian authorities.

The former Ukrainian servicemen that chose to serve with the VS RF remained at their bases and some were organised in temporary units. One such unit was the 19 Aviatsionnaya Brigada (AvBr, Aviation Brigade) formed at Saky by former personnel of 10 Morska Aviatsiyna Bryhada (MABr, Naval Aviation Brigade) from the VMS. However, the unit was short-lived; by July 1, 2014, it was disbanded and its personnel transferred to other Russian Black Sea Fleet units. Similarly, all leftover personnel and the facilities of the former Derzhavnyy Naukovo- Vyprobuvalnyy Tsentr (DNVTs, State Scientific Testing Centre) at Feodosiya, including its Kirovskoye Air Base and Chauda range, were organised into a temporary State Test Centre.

This centre was eventually reorganised into Ispytatelnyy Tsentr (Morskoy) [ITs(M), Naval Test Centre] on December 31, 2014 and returned to its Soviet-era parent unit – 929 Gosudarstvennyy Lyotno-Ispitatelnyy Tsentr (GLITs, State Flight Test Centre) at Akhtubinsk.

Russian Marines fire PKM machine guns from the side door and window of Mi-8MT 57 yellow (RF-19070, c/n 93399) assigned to 318 OSAP.
Su-30M2 91 blue (RF-95491, c/n 79810388203) of 38 IAP during a series of touch-andgo training sorties at Belbek Air Base on July 31, 2017.

The two Crimean overhaul plants were not left to sit idle. In early August 2014, SAP received the first Russian-owned helicopter for overhaul: Mi-8MTV-2 58 yellow from 318 OSAP. This was the first of many, including Ka- 27s and Ka-29s. The YeARZ received Be-12N 28 yellow from 318 OSAP on June 11, 2015, and at the end of November 2015 it received its first Su-25, 30 white, from an unknown unit, for overhaul and modernisation.

The famous Nazemnyy Ispitatelnyy Trenirovochnyy Kompleks Aviatsionnyy (NITKA, Ground-based Research and Training Complex) at Saky – a full-scale copy of the ski-jump flight deck of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier – should not be forgotten.

From the summer of 2014, airmen of the 279 Otdelnyy Korabelnyy Istrebitelnyy Aviatsionny Polk (OKIAP, Independent Shipborne Fighter Aviation Regiment) from Severomorsk-3 Air Base of Russia’s Northern Fleet, resumed their training on Su-33 Flanker D fighters and Su-25UTG Frogfoot trainers at the facility, successfully restoring it to service after a two-year period of inactivity. In May and June 2016, they were joined by a few MiG-29KR and MiG-29KUBRs of the newly formed 100 OKIAP, now also based at Severomorsk-3 before the pilots made their first landings on the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier on August 8, 2016. NITKA comes under 859 TsBP i PLS MA VMF at Yeysk, where an almost identical training complex has been built. The Crimean facility will remain in service.

International interest

Due to its strategic position, the Crimean Peninsula remains an area of great interest not just for the Russian Federation, but also for NATO and the United States, whose reconnaissance assets visit the area on an almost daily basis, testing the local air defence network. The annexation is not recognised by the international community and Crimea is still officially considered part of Ukraine under military occupation by the Russian Federation.

It should come as no surprise that Russia is well-prepared to defend it, should the need arise. Largescale exercises are frequently organised in this area and additional naval aviation assets (including some from other military districts) are temporarily detached to the Crimea. On the other hand, locally based assets frequently attend exercises in Russia proper – proving that aircraft can be transferred to and from the region at a moment’s notice if the situation requires.