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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

MAKS-2003 Is All Show

This week with lots of fanfare the MAKS-2003 air show opened in Zhukovsky. The Russian aviation industry is displaying its best. Improved relations with the West are also underlined by the presence of French, Italian and American military jets. This year's MAKS seems to surpass previous ones, but is the progress real?

The civil as well as military aircraft on display are all of Soviet stock, at best minor modernizations of hardware mass-produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Most of these upgrades were also designed in Soviet times but did not go into production because the Soviet Union collapsed.

The organization of the show is also very Soviet. In 1997, after passing the entry checkpoint on opening day, I was stranded for two hours in an open field under a blazing August sun without water or sanitation, surrounded by security guards together with hundreds of hapless Russian and foreign dignitaries. We were detained while President Boris Yeltsin was looking over the exhibits. This August, hundreds of journalists accredited to the show had their passes canceled on opening day while President Vladimir Putin was given a tour around.

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The Americans sent in Cold War veteran warplanes: The F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Falcon were designed in the late 1960s, mass-produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Production was terminated in the 1990s, and the fighters will be retired in coming years, phased out by new F-22 and F-35 warplanes. A B-52 strategic bomber also landed in Zhukovsky. This airplane was mass-produced in the 1950s.

Several European NATO countries have decided to buy F-35 stealth fighters to modernize their air forces after 2010. It's clear that the United States does not expect Russia to buy anything since it is displaying aviation relics at the show.

The most modern Russian fighters -- the Su-27 and MiG-29 -- were designed in the 1970s to meet the challenge of the then new F-15s and F-16s. The Soviet fighters were built to be as good as the American ones, and just a bit better. The Su-27 is in fact very much like the F-15 -- in essence a copycat, but with some improvements. It has much more maneuverability, more engine thrust, a much bigger onboard fuel compartment and longer range without refueling or external fuel tanks.

It took more than 10 years of design work to put the Su-27 into mass production in the 1980s: The first prototype versions made in the 1970s turned out to be much worse than the F-15. In the late 1970s a crash redesign program was undertaken at great cost to the Soviet economy.

The Su-27 turned out to be a superb airframe. Its ability to carry large payloads allowed it to be modernized in the 1990s into the Su-30MK fighter-bomber. Up to $10 billion worth of Su-27s and Su-30s have been exported in the last decade.

After unification in 1990, Germany inherited a squadron of MiG-29s, which were incorporated into the Luftwaffe. In subsequent exercises it turned out that the MiG-29 easily out performed all NATO fighters, including the F-16 and F-15, in close air combat, because of its higher maneuverability and superb short-range guided air-to-air missiles.

But in real war in Yugoslavia in 1999 and in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the MiG-29 did not manage put up any significant resistance. While Russians were trying to improve the capabilities of fighters, the United States was undergoing a military-technical revolution, creating new ways of command and control, long-range intelligence gathering, targeting and precision attack.

The MAKS air show is a manifestation of this Russian stagnation, not because we are intellectually inferior but because our designers are handicapped by the absence of essential technologies to make integral modern products.

We can make powerful airframes but not modern, cheap, GPS-guided precision weapons or planes with stealth capabilities. We can make a long-range antiaircraft missile and equip it with powerful radar, but the command computer is a relic mainframe of the 1970s -- and so on.

In the future Russia may move on to fully integrate with the West and continue to produce outstanding aeronautics products -- as part of a transnational industry, using Western components and know-how. Or the relative isolation and stagnation, demonstrated at MAKS-2003, will carry on.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.