Great Game of Central-Asian Dominance I

In the 1860s, Russian expeditionary forces entered Uzbekistan and captured the key trading cities of Tashkent and Samarkand. In the 1870s the Russians turned their attention to Khiva, capital of the Turkomans, lying to the south of the Aral Sea on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. By the end of these campaigns, the empire had been expanded by 210,000 sq km (80,000 sq miles) and the Russian frontier had advanced 500km (300 miles) southwards. The Turkomans had not been wholly beaten, however, and merely retreated into the wilderness. It was then that the Russians found themselves in trouble.

Mikhail Dmitriyevich Skobelev (29 September 1843 – 7 July 1882) was a Russian general famous for his conquest of Central Asia and heroism during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. Dressed in white uniform and mounted on a white horse, and always in the thickest of the fray, he was known and adored by his soldiers as the “White General” (and by the Turks as the “White Pasha”). During a campaign in Khiva, his Turkmen opponents called him goz zanli or “Bloody Eyes”. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery wrote that Skobelev was the world’s “ablest single commander” between 1870 and 1914 and called him a “skilful and inspiring” leader.

In 1839, Arthur Connolly, an intelligence officer with the East India Company, described the competition between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia as “the grand game,” and the phrase became widely popular as “the great game” after writer Rudyard Kipling used it in Kim, a novel published in 1901. The rivalry dated from 1813, when (after a lengthy conflict) the Russians forced Persia to accept their control of much territory in the Caucasus Mountains region, including the area covered by modern Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and eastern Georgia. British politicians feared that the tsars’ expansionist ambitions would carry them further south and threaten the commercially and strategically important imperial possessions in India so the government attempted to make Afghanistan a buffer state that would prevent Russian armies from attacking through the Bolan and Khyber Passes in the Himalayas. In the early 20th century, the struggle extended to Persia and Tibet, but by then both powers considered Germany a growing threat so on 31 August 1907, in St. Petersburg, they signed an entente that circumscribed their areas of influence in Persia and ended Russian contacts with the Afghans.

The Great Game

The name attributed to the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century competition for colonial territory in Central Eurasia. Tsarist Russia and Great Britain were the primary actors in this ongoing diplomatic, political, and military rivalry. The term Great Game was first widely popularized in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, first published in 1901. British Captain Arthur Connolly, however, was believed to have coined the phrase in his Narrative of an Overland Journey to the North of India in 1835. Since then, it has been the subject of countless historical studies. It should be noted that Russian speakers did not refer to this period of colonial rivalry as the Great Game, but certainly acknowledged this important period of its own historical record. Among Russian speakers, the Great Game competition is referred to as the “Tournament of Shadows.”

The Great Game is generally accepted to date from the early nineteenth century until the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention, although some scholars date its conclusion to later in the twentieth century. The Anglo-Russian Convention is also referred to as the Convention of Mutual Cordiality or the Anglo-Russian Agreement and was signed on August 31, 1907. The convention gave formal unity to the Triple Entente powers, consisting of France, Great Britain, and Russia, who would soon engage in future diplomatic and military struggles against the earlier-formed Triple Alliance, consisting of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Italy. The agreement also confirmed existing colonial borders. Great Britain and Russia agreed not to invade Afghanistan, Persia, or Tibet, but were allowed certain areas of economic or political influence within those regions.

In contemporary history, popular media often speak of many new “Great Games.” This term has become customary for discussing any sort of diplomatic or stateorganized conflicts or competitions in the Central Eurasian region. These new Great Games are often mentioned in disputes over oil or natural resources, diplomatic influence or alliances, economic competition, the opening or closing of military bases, the outcomes and maneuvering for political elections and offices, or any number of other contemporary issues in Central Eurasia. Russia, the United States, China, Turkey, the European Union countries, East Asian states, and various Islamic-influenced countries are often portrayed as the major competitors of these contemporary Great Games.

The historical roots of the Great Game are planted in a period of sustained mutual fear and mistrust on the part of Britain and Russia throughout most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both British and Russian leaders feared that the other side would encroach on their territorial holdings and would establish preeminent colonial control in the Central Eurasian region. It was widely believed that this would escalate into a war between the two powers at some point, but this never happened. Russia and Britain, however, did engage in a considerable amount of military ventures against various peoples of Central Eurasia. The conflicts ranged from diplomatic squabbles to shows of military force to full-blown wars.

During the early nineteenth century, Russia became increasingly interested in solidifying its southern borders. The Russians gained allegiance from various Kazakh hordes during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They still faced opposition from many Kazakhs, however, including Kenesary Kasimov, who led a sustained rebellion of Kazakhs against Russia from 1837-1846. Much of the early nineteenth-century Russian attention in Central Eurasia was directed toward quelling Kazakh resistance and ensuring secure southern borders for the empire. By 1847, the Russians finally succeeded in bringing the Greater, Middle, and Lesser Kazakh hordes under Russian control. In response to its defeat in the Crimean War (1854-1856), Russia turned its military attention away from the Ottoman Empire and the Caucasus and instead toward eastward and southward expansion in Central Eurasia. The terms of the 1856 Treaty of Paris effectively forced Russia to relinquish its interests in Southwest Asia, spurring a new round of imperial interest in Central Eurasia. Russian advances in Central Eurasia were both offensive and defensive moves, as they conquered the only areas left to them and hoped to position themselves against future British encroachment in the region.

The British government became increasingly alarmed over the southward movement of the Russian armies throughout the nineteenth century. Russian conquest of the Kazakh steppe was followed by mid-century attacks on the Central Eurasian oasis empires of Khokand, Khiva, and Bukhara. The Russians began a new wave of conquest in 1864 by conquering the cities of Chimkent and Aulie Ata. Khokand was defeated in 1865 and with the unexpected Russian attack and conquest of Tashkent in 1865 by General Mikhail Cherniaev, tsarist Russia was in a position to launch a string of attacks in the latter 1860s and throughout the 1870s that struck fear in the hearts of the British. The Russians then conquered the Bukhara state in 1868 and the Khiva khanate in 1873. Both Bukhara and Khiva were granted the status of Russian protectorates in 1873. The Turkmen of Central Eurasia put up particularly strong resistance to Russian conquest during a long period of fighting between 1869 and 1885. As with most of the other areas, the Russians considered controlling the Turkmen and their territory as essential for resisting possible British incursions. The Russian victory over the Turkmen at the Battle of Göktepe in 1881 was crucial. The final Russian territorial acquisition in Central Eurasia was at the oasis of Merv in 1884. The Russians considered this conquest especially important because of its proximity to Afghanistan. As the Russian southward advance continued, British colonial officials became increasingly concerned that Russia may attempt to continue southward and attempt to take the jewel in the British colonial crown, India. The British had maintained economic and political influence over South Asia since the early seventeenth century, initially through the British East India Company’s economic ventures. Although India was not a formal British colony until 1858, with the suppression of the Sepoy rebellion, Britain enjoyed strong commercial and political influence over the area throughout the nineteenth century. Russians feared British interest in areas they considered to be in their own colonial backyard-especially Afghanistan, Persia, and Tibet.

The Great Game included two major wars between the British and the leaders of Afghanistan, with disastrous results for the British. The British hoped that Afghanistan could serve as a buffer state in defense of Russian advances toward India. The First Anglo-Afghan war lasted from 1839 until 1842. In this war, the British attempted to replace current Afghan leader Dost Muhammad Khan with a leader more amenable to British control, Shuja Shah. The Second AngloAfghan War was fought from 1878-1880, again over issues of British political and diplomatic influence in Afghanistan. In both conflicts the British faced harsh opposition in Afghanistan; however, after the second conflict, they were able to establish considerable control over Afghan politics by placing Abdur Rahman Khan in power. Abdur Rahman Khan ruled Afghanistan until 1901, largely in service of British interests in the region. He was able to quell opposition to the idea of a unified Afghanistan during this period. Perhaps his biggest test of political leadership came in 1885 in Panjdeh, in northern Afghanistan. Panjdeh was an oasis area, which the Russians wished to claim. After much diplomatic wrangling, the dispute was resolved and the Russians and Afghanis agreed to a border at the Amu Darya River, ceding Panjdeh to the Russian Empire. During the early 1890s, the Russians attempted to continue a southward push through the Pamir Mountains to India’s frontier of Kashmir. At this point mutual fears had reached a crisis situation, but they were temporarily resolved through the work of the Pamir Boundary Commission in 1895. This agreement paved the way for the formal acknowledgment of Russian and British colonial possessions in Central Eurasia through the 1907 Anglo-Russian Convention. The Pamir Boundary Commission of 1895 set the definitive boundaries for the Russian Empire in Central Eurasia.

The Russians faced two major setbacks in the early twentieth century, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, and the Revolution of 1905. As a result of these two reversals and amidst the backdrop of an emerging alliance system among the major European powers, the Russians became interested in resolving their disputes with Great Britain. In 1907, both sides agreed to a cessation of the Great Game competition by agreeing to the Anglo-Russian Convention on August 31. Under the terms of this agreement, both sides settled their disputes over territories in Central Eurasia-including Afghanistan, Persia, and Tibet-and forged a military and diplomatic alliance that they would carry into World War I.

Great Game of Central-Asian Dominance II

In a 19th century picture, the Russians attack the Uzbek city of Khiva.

Warrior Uzbek An archer of Bukhara, with a national costume Uzbekistan of the second half century.

Khiva Khanate

Also known historically as Khorezm or Khwarezm, an Islamic state in Central Eurasia, the Khiva Khanate was centered at the city of Khiva, in modern-day Uzbekistan. The khanate established its capital at Khiva as early as 1619 and was under Chinggisid rule for most of that time. In the early nineteenth century, the Inakids took power, removing the Chinggisid element. The new rulers delegated more power to city-dwellers, called Sarts. In 1717-1718, Peter the Great sent a delegation of approximately 300 men to Khiva, who were killed at the hands of the Khivan Khan Shirghazi. Russian imperial interest in the khanate increased during the middle of the nineteenth century. The Russians attacked Khiva following their earlier conquest of Bukhara (1868) and annexed the state as a protectorate in 1873. The khanate faced difficult struggles during the war of 1917-1920. In 1920, the Khivan khanate was ended and replaced by the People’s Soviet Republic of Khorezm.

Bukhara Emirate

One of the substantial Islamic states of Central Eurasia during the age of Russian imperialism. The Bukharan Emirate’s capital, the city of Bukhara, was a very old city that had long been a center of Islamic cultural and intellectual achievement. The emirate was a major political contender and ally of Russia during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It was ruled according to Islamic law and under the leadership of an emir. In 1868, Bukhara formally recognized the superiority of the Russian Empire and, in 1873, was made a Russian protectorate but maintained its sovereignty until Bolshevik conquest in 1920. The last emir of Bukhara was Emir Muhammad Alim Khan, who continued the legacy of traditional Islamic rule. From 1800 until 1920, Bukhara was formally led by the Mangit dynasty, who took over rule from the Chinggisid rulers in the middle of the eighteenth century. See also Great Game; Russian Empire.

Russian expeditionary forces

Numerous internecine conflicts devastated the economies of the Central Asian tribal confederation and of the Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand khanates. In this environment many tribal leaders turned to outside powers for support. In the eighteenth century several Kazakh and Turkoman clans negotiated trade and political treaties with the Russian Empire. In the meantime, some Kyrgyz tribes sent a number of delegations to the British, Chinese and Russian emperors asking for their help or protection. Yet, the Russian and British were initially slow to move into the region.

The situation changed, however, by the mid-nineteenth century. St. Petersburg became increasingly interested in reaching the Central Asian market with their goods, securing land trade routes to Persia and India and halting the British advance toward Central Asia. This British-Russian race for influence in Central Asia became known as the Great Game (Hopkirk 1992). British strategists argued that the Russians might advance to Afghanistan and Persia, thereby threatening British trade and economic interests in the Middle East and in the Indian colonies. Russian strategists in turn saw great economic and military benefits in advancing into Central Asia and protecting Russia’s southern flanks from hostile British moves in case Russian-British relations turned sour. The first actions in the Central Asian region were, however, unsuccessful for both Russia and Britain. In 1840 the Russians tried to march from Orenburg to Khiva and lost nearly half their expeditionary army to severe blizzards and abnormally cold winter weather. In 1842 the British lost their entire Kabul garrison who were slaughtered on the outskirts of the city.

Yet, the Russians decided to continue their push into the region. In preparation for this further expansion, they built a new line of fortresses, establishing Akmolinsk, Kokchetav and Karkaralinsk in 1824, and Aralsk, Kazalinsk and Vernyi between 1847 and 1854.

After Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (1853-1856), Tsar Alexander II (ruled 1855-1881) decided to boost morale among the general population by waging a “just” war in Central Asia. To do this, the Russian ministers started a propaganda campaign, emphasizing the need to save Russian subjects from the horrible fate of being sold in large numbers as slaves in the bazaars of Central Asia. In the early nineteenth century, a rumor was spread that between 8,000 and 60,000 slaves of Russian origin were to be found in Central Asia. Relying on massive public support, the Russian Empire made a series of decisive moves into Transoxiana between the mid-1850s and mid-1870s.

Kyrgyz tribes.

Between 1855 and 1864 the Kyrgyz tribes in the Lake Ysyk Kol valley, Chatkal River basin and some other areas negotiated a special treaty with the Russian authorities to bring them under Russian protection, a step directly counter to the interests of the Kokand Khanate. This action helped Russia establish control over significant parts of the eastern areas of Central Asia and check any further Chinese move into the region.

Kokand Khanate.

Kokand collided with the imperial Russian authorities in the early 1860s. The khan of Kokand was angered by the fact that the Kyrgyzs tribes of the Chui and Ysyk Kol valleys, whom Kokand had subjugated decades earlier, had become subjects of the Russian Empire. Kokand’s ruler, Khudoyar Khan, overestimated his military potential and waged a futile war against Russian troops. A small expeditionary Russian army led by Generals Cherniaev, Konstantin von Kaufman and Mikhail Skobelev conquered the cities of Ak-Masjid, Turkistan and Chimkent in 1864, Tashkent in 1865, and Khojand in 1866. The khan of Kokand, having experienced defeat after defeat and mass desertions by his troops, signed a peace treaty in 1869.

Bukhara Emirate.

The Emir of Bukhara, Muzzafar Khan, was alarmed by the Russian actions against the Kokand Khanate. He demanded the return of the city of Tashkent to Bukharan authorities and mobilized his troops. In response, the Russian expeditionary army attacked the Bukharan cities of Jizak and Ura Tube in 1866 and of Samarqand in 1868. The Bukharan army, untrained and equipped with outdated cannons and muskets, was defeated. Another Bukharan army, led by Muzzafar Khan himself, lost another battle before the city of Katta Qurgan. Muzzafar Khan signed a peace treaty with the Russian authorities that legitimized the Russian annexation of the territories of the Kokand and brought the Bukhara Khanate under the indirect control of the Russian Empire.

Khiva Khanate.

The Khiva Khanate witnessed the fate of the other khanates and did not present any significant resistance. In 1869 Russian troops landed on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea and organized several expeditions deep into the Karakum Desert, threatening the western frontier of the khanate. In 1873 they marched simultaneously from Orenburg and Tashkent and after short skirmishes captured the city of Khiva. In 1873 Khiva’s ruler, Muhammad Rahim Khan, signed a capitulation and peace treaty. Turkoman tribes. The independent-minded Turkoman tribes resisted and even had some success against Russian regiments below the Geok Tepe fortress in 1879, but the Russian expeditionary army defeated the Turkoman army at the Geok Tepe fortress in 1881. Peaceful treaties between the Russians and Turkomans followed, and the territory controlled by the various Turkoman tribes came under Russian control.

FURTHER READING: Hopkirk, Peter. The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia. New York: Kodansha International, 1994; Morgan, Gerald. Anglo-Russian Rivalry in Central Asia: 1810-1895. London: Frank Cass, 1981; Siegel, Jennifer. Endgame: Britain, Russia, and the Final Struggle for Central Asia. London: I. B. Tauris Publishers, 2002; Soucek, Svat. A History of Inner Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The S-500 Prometheus

The S-500 Prometheus is touted as being capable of intercepting stealth warplanes.

Air defence missile battery: Image for illustration.

S-400 air defence system in Syria

Russian S-500 air defence system (ADS) the future development of the popular S-400 will enter serial production next year following its recent successful test in the “hot and dusty” conditions of Syria.

Dubbed “Prometheus” the S-500 is considered a major advancement of not only the S-400 but also other ADS in the World such as the US Patriot. Its stand-out feature is that it integrates the radar feeds of low and high level defence systems through a single command and control system; tracks, prioritizes and defeats simultaneous threats such as ballistic and cruise missiles, aircraft and drones.

Russian daily, Izvestia reported yesterday quoting MoD sources that the most important elements of the Russian S-500 have been tested in Syria in which certain problems were identified and quickly eliminated.

Citing the reasons for selecting Syria as a location for qualification trials of the S-500, an unnamed source told the Russian daily, “Syria is well suited for such trials – it is always hot there, a lot of dust. In addition, the radar has to work around the clock – the situation in the republic is turbulent and anti-aircraft gunners must constantly maintain a radar field.”

A possible reason for the Syrian test could be the availability of multiple “targets.” Aircraft and drones operated by Syrian, Israeli, US, Turkish and Iranian air forces not to mention drones by terrorist groups operate over the Syrian skies giving the Russians an opportunity to test the S-500 against multiple threats and varying scenarios.

The key differentiator of the S-500 “Prometheus” system over the S-400 is a combat control point (PBU) with an automatic control system (ACS). All information from the radars of not only the S-500, but also third-party radars, anti-aircraft systems and higher air defense command posts are assimilated into the PBU which then operates automatically to select and defeat the threat.

The S-500 includes a radar detection system (RLC), which is responsible for the long-distance search and identification of ballistic and aerodynamic targets.  In addition, a multi-functional “backlight” radar guides anti-aircraft missiles to low flying targets.

A long-range high-altitude radar detector has been developed which allows the command center to most accurately set the coordinates and flight path of ballistic and aerodynamic targets. This radar is capable of finding missiles, aircraft, helicopters and small drones at any altitude. This radar works both for the S-400 and S-500.

“The high-altitude radar and the PBU allow building reliable air defense without external sources of information,” an expert told Izvestia. “A high-altitude detector helps track targets in real-time. The PBU then distributes them between the air defense systems of a particular area.

Serial production of the S-500 will begin in the second half of 2020. Training of specialist officers for Prometheus began in 2017 at the Military Academy of the Military Space Defense in Tver. They are preparing combat crews for new anti-aircraft systems and systems.


As the chief designer of the Almaz-Antey Concern, Pavel Sozinov, noted, the air defense system is designed to intercept targets at unimaginable distances – several hundred kilometers from the Earth.

“Interception in the upper atmosphere is real. It is hundreds of kilometers from the Earth. It is a system that solves a whole range of tasks of both air defense and missile defense. Today we are testing the elements of the system with the maximum cost savings for testing,” Sozinov said in an interview.

Ahead of the planet

The promising complex was studied by the commercial director of the Arsenal of the Fatherland magazine, military expert Alexei Leonkov. On the radio of Sputnik, he noted that the S-500 is unique and universal.

“There are no analogues. Even the closest competitors – the Americans – have two separate complexes. This is the Patriot complex, which works to certain heights, and the THAAD missile defense complex, which works only for ballistic purposes. And we get a universal complex that can work and on-air targets at long ranges, and on high-altitude targets – at high altitudes, “said Alexei Leonkov.

Recall, recently in the USA they lamented that they do not have complexes capable of intercepting targets in the upper atmosphere.

Earlier, Pravda.Ru wrote about the timing of receipt of the S-500 in the arsenal of the Russian army.

The day is not far off when the first samples of the new brainchild of the Almaz-Antey concern, the S-500 anti-aircraft missile system, will enter the arsenal of the Russian army. At the same time, tests are ongoing of another modern S-350 Vityaz complex, which will replace the S-300PS air defense system.

This is described in a material published by the American publication The National Interest, observer Dave Majumdar, quoting the commander of the air defense forces of the Russian Air Force, Lieutenant General Viktor Gumenny: “We expect that the first samples of the S-500 anti-aircraft missile system will be delivered to the troops soon”.

The new complex, which will occupy the upper tier of the echeloned unified air defense system of Russia, will be able to fight targets at altitudes of about 200 kilometers. This means that the S-500 will be able to hit the approaching supersonic aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles of the enemy at a distance of 640 kilometers. The first regiment of new anti-aircraft missile systems will defend Moscow and the central part of Russia.

It is expected that the S-500 will be able to detect and simultaneously hit up to 10 warheads of ballistic missiles flying at speeds up to seven kilometers per second. In addition, this system is equipped with interceptor missiles with an active homing radar, which resembles the THAAD system (a missile defense system for mobile ground-based for high-altitude atmospheric interception of medium-range missiles), Lockheed Martin.

Like all modern Russian air defense systems, the S-500 must be highly mobile and have a whole network of radars providing interception and guidance at a target over long distances. It will use the 91N6A (M) combat control radar, a modified 96L6-CPU target radar and target radar, as well as new multi-mode 76T6 and 77T6 anti-missile radars, as reported by the Missile Threat publication of the George Marshall and Clermont Institutes.

Sukhoi Su-25 Grach

Su-25 Frogfoot [NATO reporting name]

By the early 1980s the single-seater close support Su-25 Frogfoot was supporting Soviet forces in Afghanistan, where it proved to be a difficult target for Afghan antiaircraft guns. Series production of the army’s Su-25 started at the Tbilisi aircraft plant in 1976, with test flights being conducted up to 1980. Smaller than the American Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt, the Su-25 had lower thrust and was assessed to carry less ordnance than its American counterpart.

Nonetheless, this aircraft was armed with a 30mm multi-barrel cannon beneath the centre fuselage and had ten hardpoints for ordnance. Flexible 23mm cannon could also be carried in SPPU-22 pods under the wings. There were five stations for suspending weapons under each wing. Eight of the stations are interchangeable pylon carriers, which provide for the attachment of various bomb and rocket armament. R-60 air-to-air missiles are mounted on two additional external points under each wing. Maximum speed was believed to be about 880km/h, with a range of 550km.

The Su 25 is successor to the famous Il 2 Shturmovik of World War II. Fast and heavily armed, it is reputedly the most difficult plane in the world to shoot down.

The air war in Vietnam highlighted the need for simple close-support aircraft able to operate from unpaved strips close to the front. Such warplanes would also have to deliver heavy ordnance against targets with great accuracy and be able to survive intense ground fire. The United States parlayed its experience into the Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II, a heavily armored twin-engine bomber. The Soviets also watched these developments closely before deciding that they, too, needed similar aircraft and capabilities. During World War II Russia had deployed the redoubtable Il 2 Shturmovik aircraft for identical reasons, so in 1968 the Sukhoi design bureau became tasked with developing an equivalent machine for the jet age. The bureau settled upon a design reminiscent of the Northrop YA-9, which had lost out to the A-10 in competition. The new Su 25 was an all-metal, shoulder-wing monoplane constructed around a heavily armored titanium “tub” that housed both pilot and avionics. Engines were placed in long, reinforced nacelles on either side of the fuselage, and the fuel tanks were filled with reticulated foam for protection against explosions. To assist slow-speed maneuvering, the wingtip pods split open at the ends to form air brakes. Its profile is rather pointed, but a blunt noseplate covers a laser range finder/target designator. The Su 25 is somewhat faster than the A- 10, trusting more in speed to ensure survival than a dependency on agility and heavy armor. It is nonetheless an effective tank destroyer.

Technical description

The Su-25K’s service life was given as 1,500 flying hours before a major overhaul, and the service interval as 700 hours. They obviously did not expect high utilisation, since the 700-hour interval was also given as a seven-to eight-year gap. The first production Su-25 hardly differed from the later prototypes, and a technical description of one would apply just as well to the other. In fact, all Su-25s up until the Su-25T/TM were structurally similar, with much the same systems. Only a handful of changes were made as a result of later combat experience in Afghanistan, and they were limited in scope, despite their impact and significance.

The Su-25 was of conventional configuration and construction, apart from the extensive use of armour plate. The aircraft was an all-metal monoplane with a high-set, high aspect-ratio wing which was modestly tapered and slightly swept on the leading edge, but not on the trailing edge. The wing incorporated 2°30′ of anhedral. Engines were mounted to the fuselage sides in semi-conformal nacelles. Sixty per cent of the aircraft’s structure was of conventional Duralumin construction, with 13.5 per cent titanium alloys, 19 per cent steel, 2 per cent magnesium alloys and 5.5 per cent fibre-glass and other materials. Virtually no use was made of carbon-fibre composites or advanced aluminium lithium alloys.

Electrical power was supplied by a single 28.5-volt DC circuit, and by three 36-volt/400-Hz and one 115-volt/ 400-Hz AC circuits. The DC circuit consisted of a transformer, voltage regulator, and circuit breakers. Power was generated by a pair of engine-driven GSR-ST-12/400 generators, with two 25 Aph NiCad batteries available as an emergency power source.

A series of preproduction aircraft was subsequently deployed to Afghanistan, where the planes performed useful service against guerilla forces. Western intelligence had previously identified a Soviet parallel to the Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt and dubbed it `Ram-J’ until it became better known as the Sukhoi Su-25 `Frogfoot’. A trial deployment is said to have been made as far back as 1980, but the type was most certainly used in the spring offensive. Working in conjunction with the Mi-24, this jet attack aircraft experimented with methods of co-ordinating the two disparate types, and the results will doubtless be noted for potential use in the Western theatre. They flew some 60,000 sorties, losing 23 machines in the process, but the decision was made to enter production in 1980. Since then 330 Su 25s have been built; they have received the NATO designation FROGFOOT.

The effect of the Stinger

The advantage of having two engines was fully exploited in the Su-25, in which the powerplants are mounted so close together that damage to one engine could cause collateral damage to the other. This became abundantly clear following the 1984 introduction of the Redeye SAM by the Mujahideen, and by the October 1986 delivery of General Dynamics FIM-82A Stinger SAMs. The introduction of Redeye was followed by the loss of two Su-25s in very quick succession, these aircraft having proved unable to decoy the SAMs away using flares. Flare capacity was increased from 128 to 256, by the addition of four 32-round dispensers scabbed onto the top of the engine nacelles. When the Mujahideen started using Stinger, the effect was even more dramatic. Four Su-25s were destroyed in three days, with two pilots lost. The Stingers tended to detonate close to the engine exhaust nozzles, piercing the rear fuel tanks with shrapnel and causing fires which could burn through control runs, or causing damage to the far engine. In order to prevent damage to one engine from taking out the other, a 5-mm armour plate was added between the two engines (acting as a giant shield and firewall), about 1.5 m (5 ft) long.

A new inert gas (Freon) SSP-2I/UBSh-4-2 fire extinguisher system was provided. This consisted of six UTBG sensors in the engine nacelles, which were connected to cockpit displays. The pilot had four push-buttons to actuate the extinguisher’s first and second stages for each section of the engine. The Freon was stored in spherical 4-litre (0.87-Imp gal) bottles, each containing 5.64 kg (12 lb) of gas pressurised at 6.9 to 14.2 MPa.

These modifications proved a great success, dramatically reducing the Su-25’s loss rate. No Su-25 equipped with the inter-engine armour was lost to a Stinger, although many were hit. The modifications were quickly incorporated on the production line, and were retrofitted to existing Su-25s.

Additional improvements were added during the period in which Su-25s were fighting in Afghanistan. On aircraft from the 10th production series, for example, the aileron control rod was fully faired in and the aileron trim tab was deleted. Elevator pivots were more effectively faired. Tenth series Su-25s also gained a second external APU/GPU socket. Other features appeared gradually, and cannot yet be pinpointed to a particular production series. The nosewheel was changed, from one which accepted a tubeless KN-21-1 tyre to one which took a tubed K-2106 tyre. The single long fuel tank access panel on the top surface of each wing was replaced by three shorter access panels, side by side. Small fins were added to the inboard faces of the bottom of each wingtip fairing, acting as glare shields when the PRF-4M pop-down landing lights were deployed. At the trailing edge of these pods, the airbrakes themselves were modified. Previously simply splitting 50° up and 50° down to give a > shape with the point forwards, they gained auxiliary segments which hinged upwards through another 90° at their trailing edges to give a shape reminiscent of a W turned on its side, with the central point pointing forwards. During production of the ninth production series the cannon muzzle was redesigned, with the ends of the twin barrels covered by a single muzzle shield. Many late production Su-25s had their distinctive SRZ and SRO ‘Odd Rod’ antennas replaced by simple blade antennas, similar to the SRO antennas fitted to later MiG-29s (which retained the traditional tripole SRZ antennas above their noses). The revised antennas may have combined interrogator and responder functions.

The small and robust Frogfoot can now justifiably claim to occupy a prominent position in the generation of combat aircraft that was fielded en masse in the former Soviet Union during the 1980s, and the type still forms the backbone of the Russian Air Force’s attack capabilities, albeit in considerably reduced numbers. The somewhat ugly and often underrated attack aircraft gradually but indisputably emerged in the early 1990s as Russia’s most useful and cost-effective combat jet, as its armed forces rapidly switched from their traditional cold war posture to one of internal policing, faced with growing unrest around the fringes of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s and 2000s.


The faithful Frogfoot is slated to remain in service with most of the operators at least until 2020 and near-terms sales of both new and second-hand aircraft to new operators worldwide cannot be ruled out. There are also a good many little-used Su-25s still available for sale in the former Soviet states and East Europe.

The type’s success has been proved by the developments since the early 2000s and especially by the upgrade and life-extension packages on offer, as well as the series of export sales; this eventually refuted the conclusion of some Western aerospace analysts, who maintained in the late 1990s that the first-generation Su-25 is effectively dead in its single-seat form. There is plenty of life remaining for the upgraded and refurbished Su-25SMs, while the greatly improved new-build two-seat derivative – expected to appear by 2015 at the earliest – is slated to continue into the next three decades as RuAF’s principal attack and close air support workhorse.



The basic version of the aircraft was produced at Factory 31, at Tbilisi, in the Soviet Republic of Georgia. Between 1978 and 1989, 582 single-seat Su-25s were produced in Georgia, not including aircraft produced under the Su-25K export program. This variant of the aircraft represents the backbone of the Russian Air Force’s Su-25 fleet, currently the largest in the world. The aircraft experienced a number of accidents in operational service caused by system failures attributed to salvo firing of weapons. In the wake of these incidents, use of its main armament, the 240 mm S-24 rocket, was prohibited. In its place, the FAB-500 500 kg (1,100 lb) general-purpose high-explosive bomb became the primary armament.


The basic Su-25 model was used as the basis for a commercial export variant, known as the Su-25K (Komercheskiy). This model was also built at Factory 31 in Tbilisi, Georgia. The aircraft differed from the Soviet Air Force version in certain minor details concerning internal equipment. A total of 180 Su-25K aircraft were built between 1984 and 1989.


The Su-25UB trainer (Uchebno-Boyevoy) was drawn up in 1977. The first prototype, called “T-8UB-1”, was rolled out in July 1985 and its maiden flight was carried out at the Ulan-Ude factory airfield on 12 August of that year. By the end of 1986, 25 Su-25UBs had been produced at Ulan-Ude before the twin-seater completed its State trials and officially cleared for service with the Soviet Air Force.

It was intended for training and evaluation flights of active-duty pilots, and for training pilot cadets at Soviet Air Force flying schools. The performance did not differ substantially from that of the single-seater. The navigation, attack, sighting devices and weapons-control systems of the two-seater enabled it to be used for both routine training and weapons-training missions.


From 1986 to 1989, in parallel with the construction of the main Su-25UB combat training variant, the Ulan-Ude plant produced the so-called “commercial” Su-25UBK, intended for export to countries that bought the Su-25K, and with similar modifications to that aircraft.


The Su-25UBM is a twin seat variant that can be used as an operational trainer, but also has attack capabilities, and can be used for reconnaissance, target designation and airborne control. Its first flight was on 6 December 2008 and it was certified in December 2010. It will enter operational use with the Russian Air Force later. The variant has a Phazotron NIIR Kopyo radar and Bars-2 equipment on board. Su-25UBM’s range is believed to be 1,300 km (810 mi) and it may have protection against infra-red guided missiles (IRGM), a minimal requirement on today’s battle fields where IRGMs proliferate.


The Su-25UTG (Uchebno-Trenirovochnyy s Gakom) is a variant of the Su-25UB designed to train pilots in takeoff and landing on a land-based simulated carrier deck, with a sloping ski-jump section and arrester wires. The first one flew in September 1988, and approximately 10 were produced. About half remained in Russian service after 1991; they were used on Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov. This small number of aircraft were insufficient to meet the training needs of Russia’s carrier air group, so a number of Su-25UBs were converted into Su-25UTGs. These aircraft being distinguished by the alternative designation Su-25UBP (Uchebno-Boyevoy Palubny)—the adjective palubnyy meaning “deck”, indicating that these aircraft have a naval function. Approximately 10 of these aircraft are currently operational in the Russian Navy as part of the 279th Naval Aviation Regiment.


The Su-25BM (Buksirovshchik Misheney) is a target-towing variant of the Su-25 whose development began in 1986. The prototype, designated T-8BM1, successfully flew for the first time on 22 March 1990, at Tbilisi. After completion of the test phase, the aircraft was put into production.

The Su-25BM target-tower was designed to provide towed target facilities for training ground forces and naval personnel in ground-to-air or naval surface-to-air missile systems. It is powered by an R-195 engine and equipped with an RSDN-10 long-range navigation system, an analogue of the Western LORAN system.


The Su-25T (Tankovy) is a dedicated antitank version, which has been combat-tested with notable success in Chechnya. The design of the aircraft is similar to the Su-25UB. The variant was converted to one-seater, with the rear seat replaced by additional avionics. It has all-weather and night attack capability. In addition to the full arsenal of weapons of the standard Su-25, the Su-25T can employ the KAB-500Kr TV-guided bomb and the semi-active laser-guided Kh-25ML. Its enlarged nosecone houses the Shkval optical TV and aiming system with the Prichal laser rangefinder and target designator. It can also carry Vikhr laser-guided, tube-launched missiles, which is its main antitank armament. For night operations, the low-light TV Merkuriy pod system can be carried under the fuselage. Three Su-25Ts prototypes were built in 1983–86 and 8 production aircraft were built in 1990. With the introduction of a definitive Russian Air Force Su-25 upgrade programme, in the form of Stroyevoy Modernizirovannyi, the Su-25T programme was officially canceled in 2000.

Su-25TM (Su-39)

A second-generation Su-25T, the Su-25TM (also designated Su-39), has been developed with improved navigation and attack systems, and better survivability. While retaining the built-in Shkval of Su-25T, it may carry Kopyo (rus. “Spear”) radar in the container under fuselage, which is used for engaging air targets (with RVV-AE/R-77 missiles) as well as ships (with Kh-31 and Kh-35 antiship missiles). The Russian Air Force has received 8 aircraft as of 2008. Some of the improved avionics systems designed for T and TM variants have been included in the Su-25SM, an interim upgrade of the operational Russian Air Force Su-25, for improved survivability and combat capability. The Su-25TM, as an all-inclusive upgrade programme has been replaced with the “affordable” Su-25SM programme.


The Su-25SM (Stroyevoy Modernizirovannyi) is an “affordable” upgrade programme for the Su-25, conceived by the Russian Air Force in 2000. The programme stems from the attempted Su-25T and Su-25TM upgrades, which were evaluated and labeled as over-sophisticated and expensive. The SM upgrade incorporates avionics enhancements and airframe refurbishment to extend the Frogfoot’s service life by up to 500 flight hours or 5 years.

The Su-25SM’s all-new PRnK-25SM “Bars” navigation/attack suite is built around the BTsVM-90 digital computer system, originally planned for the Su-25TM upgrade programme. Navigation and attack precision provided by the new suite is three times better of the baseline Su-25 and is reported to be within 15 m (49 ft) using satellite correction and 200 m (660 ft) without it.

A new KA1-1-01 Head-Up Display (HUD) was added providing, among other things, double the field of view of the original ASP-17BTs-8 electro-optical sight. Other systems and components incorporated during the upgrade include a Multi-Function Display (MFD), RSBN-85 Short Range Aid to Navigation (SHORAN), ARK-35-1 Automatic Direction Finder (ADF), A-737-01 GPS/GLONASS Receiver, Karat-B-25 Flight Data Recorder (FDR), Berkut-1 Video Recording System (VRS), Banker-2 UHF/VHF communication radio, SO-96 Transponder and a L150 “Pastel” Radar Warning Receiver (RWR).

The R-95Sh engines have been overhauled and modified with an anti-surge system installed. The system is designed to improve the resistance of the engine to ingested powders and gases during gun and rocket salvo firing.

The combination of reconditioned and new equipment, with increased automation and self-test capability has allowed for a reduction of pre- and post-flight maintenance by some 25 to 30%. Overall weight savings are around 300 kg (660 lb).

Su-25SM weapon suite has been expanded with the addition of the Vympel R-73 highly agile air-to-air missile (albeit without helmet mounted cueing and only the traditional longitudinal seeker mode) and the S-13T 130 mm rockets (carried in five-round B-13 pods) with blast-fragmentation and armour-piercing warheads. Further, the Kh-25ML and Kh-29L Weapon Employment Profiles have been significantly improved, permitting some complex missile launch scenarios to be executed, such as: firing two consecutive missiles on two different targets in a single attack pass. The GSh-30-2 autocannon (250-round magazine) has received three new reduced rate-of-fire modes: 750, 375 and 188 rounds per minute. The Su-25SM was also given new BD3-25 under-wing pylons.

The eventual procurement programme is expected to include between 100 and 130 kits, covering 60 to 70 percent of the Russian Air Force active single-seat fleet, as operated in the early 2000s. On 21 February 2012, Air Force spokesman Col. Vladimir Drik said that Russia will continue to upgrade its Su-25 attack aircraft to Su-25SM version, which has a significantly better survivability and combat effectiveness. The Russian Air Force then had over 30 Su-25SMs in service and plans to modernize about 80 Su-25s by 2020, Drik said. By March 2013, over 60 aircraft are to be upgraded. In February 2013, ten new Su-25SMs were delivered to the Air Force southern base, where operational training is being conducted. During the period 2005–2015, more than 80 aircraft were upgraded.

Since early 2014, the Guards Aviation Division Attack Aviation Regiment of the Southern Military District in the Krasnodar region received 16 advanced Su-25SMs. Nine more were delivered in 2018, eight more in early 2019 and three more in early 2020.

Since 2018, the Aerospace Forces [VKS] have been receiving Su-25SM3s, and a total of 25 aircraft have already been delivered as of June 2019. Unlike the baseline Su-25 and its incrementally upgraded variant, the Su-25SM, both of which have a rather outdated Klen-PS laser target designator in the nose, the Su-25SM3 has been upgraded with the new SOLT-25 electro-optics nose module. The SOLT-25 provides 16× zoom and features a laser range finder and target designator, thermal imager, TV channels, and the ability to track moving targets in all weather up to 8 km away. In addition, the Su-25SM3 comes with the Vitebsk-25 protection suite, which integrates a set of Zakhvat forward and rearward facing missile approach warning ultraviolet sensors, the L-150-16M Pastel radar homing and warning system, two UV-26M 50 mm chaff dispensers, and a pair of wing-mounted L-370-3S radar jamming pods. Furthermore, the Su-25SM3 has been upgraded with the new PrNK-25SM-1 Bars targeting-and-navigation system and the KSS-25 communication system with Banker-8-TM-1 antenna.


The Su-25KM (Kommercheskiy Modernizirovannyy), nicknamed “Scorpion”, is an Su-25 upgrade programme announced in early 2001 by the original manufacturer, Tbilisi Aircraft Manufacturing in Georgia, in partnership with Elbit Systems of Israel. The prototype aircraft made its maiden flight on 18 April 2001 at Tbilisi in full Georgian Air Force markings.

The aircraft uses a standard Su-25 airframe, enhanced with advanced avionics including a glass cockpit, digital map generator, helmet-mounted display, computerised weapons system, complete mission pre-plan capability, and fully redundant backup modes. Performance enhancements include a highly accurate navigation system, pinpoint weapon delivery systems, all-weather and day/night performance, NATO compatibility, state-of-the art safety and survivability features, and advanced onboard debriefing capabilities complying with international requirements. It has the ability to use Mark 82 and Mark 83 laser-guided bombs and air-to-air missiles, the short-range Vympel R-73.


The Sukhoi Su-28 (also designated Su-25UT – Uchebno-Trenirovochnyy) is an advanced basic jet trainer, built on the basis of the Su-25UB as a private initiative by the Sukhoi Design Bureau. The Su-28 is a light aircraft designed to replace the Czechoslovak Aero L-39 Albatros. Unlike the basic Su-25UB, it lacks a weapons-control system, built-in cannon, weapons hardpoints, and engine armour.


    Su-25R (Razvedchik) – a tactical reconnaissance variant designed in 1978, but never built.

    Su-25U3 (Uchebnyy 3-myestny) – also known as the “Russian Troika”, was a three-seat basic trainer aircraft. The project was suspended in 1991 due to lack of funding.

    Su-25U (Uchebnyy) – a trainer variant of Su-25s produced in Georgia between 1996 and 1998. Three aircraft were built in total, all for the Georgian Air Force.

    Su-25M1/Su-25UBM1 – Su-25 and Su-25UB exemplars slightly modernized by Ukrainian Air Force, at least nine modernized (eight single-seat and one two-seat). Upgrades include a new navigation system, enhanced survivability, more accurate weapon delivery and other minor changes.

    Ge-31 is an ongoing Georgian program of Tbilisi Aircraft Manufacturing aiming at producing a renewed version of Su-25 without Russian components and parts.

Sukhoi Su-25SM Today

Upgraded Tu-160M bomber

The Russians will likely build about 50 of the new Tu-160M—production versions of which will feature new avionics and upgraded versions of the Kuznetsov NK-32 afterburning turbofan.

Russia flew the maiden flight of the upgraded Tupolev Tu-160M ‘Blackjack’ strategic bomber on 2 February, 2020, the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) announced.

The flight took place at the Kazan Aircraft Plant and lasted 34 minutes with the aircraft reaching an altitude of approximately 5,000 ft. The video of the flight was released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of the Russian Federation on 6 February.

As noted by the MoD, the first upgraded aircraft are due to be received by the Russian Air Force in 2021.

The Tu-160 first entered into Soviet service in the late 1980s. Since then the swing-wing supersonic bomber has undergone several upgrades, including in the early 2000s a bolstering of the aircraft’s nuclear armament with the capacity to carry 12 conventionally armed Raduga NPO Kh-555 (AS-15 ‘Kent’) long-range cruise missiles and laser-guided bombs.

The Tu-160M upgrade is being rolled out in two phases, with the first Tu-160M1 phase comprising the new K-042K-1 navigation system and ABSU-200-1 autopilot, as well as the removal of some previous systems, such as bomb sighting systems. This Tu-160M1-variant has been operational with the air force since late 2014.

The second Tu-160M2 phase includes the new Novella NV1.70 radar, a digital ‘glass’ cockpit, modern communications and anti-jamming equipment, upgraded NK-32 engines (designated NK-32-02), and modern conventional and nuclear weapons.

The Russian expect the addition of the upgraded Tu-160M2 into the arsenal will improve the capability of their nuclear triad. “It is a serious step to advance the development of the high-tech industry and strengthen the country’s defense capabilities, because it is one of the elements of our nuclear triad,” Putin said.

Moscow can make do with the upgraded Tu-160M2 for its strategic bomber force because unlike the United States Air Force, the Russian Air Force does not expect the massive aircraft to penetrate into enemy airspace to deliver its payload. Instead, the Tu-160—which is capable of speeds of over Mach 2.0—would dash into position to launch long-range standoff cruise missiles. As such, stealth is not considered to be particularly important. Indeed, one of the advantages of a highly visible strategic bomber is that it enables nuclear signaling.

Russia Unveils New Tu-160M2 Strategic Super Bomber Update

Gangut (Russian Navy, Battleship, 1914)

Russian battleship laid down at the Admiralty Yard in June 1909 and launched in October 1911 as part of the naval building program of 1909, which included three other dreadnought battleships, Petropavlovsk, Poltava, and Sevastopol. These were the first dreadnoughts built for the Russian navy. Gangut was 23,000 tons, armed with 12 x 12-inch guns arranged in four triple turrets, and built on Italian design of the Dante Alighieri with Russian modifications. The result was a dreadnought of great broadside firepower.

Based on experience gained from the defeat of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, Gangut had armor all over the hull at any point above the waterline. In addition, she also had no scuttles on the sides to add strength to the hull for work in the Baltic ice.

The Russian battleship fleet comprised only two classes of dreadnoughts. The first, the Ganguts (Gangut, Sevastopol, Petropavlovsk, and Poltava—all completed in 1914), had a poor reputation and saw very limited service during World War I. All four cost far more than the original budgets, and they were so delayed by design faults and shipyard blunders that they were obsolete when finally launched. The engines and turbines had to be supplied by foreign firms, although the guns were of excellent Russian manufacture. They were, in fact, something of a combination battleship/battle cruiser and were sometimes referred to as Baltic dreadnoughts, with armament heavier than one-third of contemporary German and Royal Navy capital ships, but primarily designed for close-in waters, such as the Baltic Sea and Black Sea. These four dreadnoughts epitomized the turmoil of the late czarist and early Soviet periods.

During World War I, on 19 October 1915, Gangut’s sailors mutinied by refusing to obey orders and physically attacking some of her officers. The complaints centered around the poor quality of the food. The sailors also expressed suspicion of officers with Germanic surnames and demanded that these be sent ashore. The following day the more radical sailors circulated a petition throughout the ship calling for the crew to finish the job of mutiny. As word of the mutiny spread, the commander of the Baltic Fleet ordered that submarines and torpedo boats surround the Gangut and sink her, along with any other vessel that refused to accept proper authority.

On 21 October authorities suppressed the mutiny and arrested 95 sailors. Out of 34 brought to trial, 26 received banishment to hard labor as their sentence. As a consequence of the mutiny, Russian plans for a naval sortie late in 1915 had to be scratched and Russian minelaying operations were delayed by about a week in November 1915. However, a little later the Gangut, and her sister ship the Petropavlovsk, did leave the Gulf of Finland and operated as far south as Gotland as part of a screening force for minelaying operations. The ship did not encounter the Germans, and it achieved nothing tactically.

The mutiny on the Gangut encouraged Russian revolutionaries in their belief that antiwar sentiment and general dissatisfaction could be used to ignite rebellion in the tsarist armed forces. In August 1917 the Bolsheviks managed to gain revolutionary influence over the crew and exercised effective control of the First Battleship Brigade.

The Gangut was renamed the Oktiabrskaia Revoliutsia in May 1925. Soviet authorities commenced modernization work on her in 1926. This was completed in 1938, and the battleship then joined the Soviet Baltic fleet. She served as a floating battery against the Germans in the siege of Leningrad during World War II. In 1956 Gangut ended service with the Baltic Fleet. She was broken up in 1959.

General characteristics

Type:     Battleship

Displacement:    24,800 t (24,400 long tons)

Length: 181.2 m (594 ft 6 in)

Beam:   26.9 m (88 ft 3 in)

Draft:    8.99 m (29 ft 6 in)

Installed power:

    25 Yarrow boilers

    52,000 shp (39,000 kW) (on trials)

Propulsion:          4 shafts, 4 steam turbines

Speed:   24.1 knots (44.6 km/h; 27.7 mph) (on trials)

Range:  3,200 nmi (5,900 km; 3,700 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)

Complement:     1,149


    4 × triple 12 in (305 mm) guns

    16 × single 4.7 in (120 mm) guns

    1 × single 3 in (76 mm) AA gun

    4 × 17.7 in (450 mm) torpedo tubes


    Waterline belt: 125–225 mm (4.9–8.9 in)

    Deck: 12–50 mm (0.5–2.0 in)

    Turrets: 76–203 mm (3.0–8.0 in)

    Barbettes: 75–150 mm (3.0–5.9 in)

    Conning tower: 100–254 mm (3.9–10.0 in)


Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’

A Su-27 ‘Flanker-B’ of the 582nd Fighter Aviation Regiment, part of the Soviet 4th Air Army based at Chojna, Poland, in 1990. In the same year this unit withdrew its 32 Su-27s from Poland and relocated to Smolensk, Russia, where it disbanded in 1992.

Sukhoi’s Su-27 family represents the most potent fighter/attack aircraft in the Russian inventory, equipping several branches of the Russian military.

MiG-29 and Su-27 Backstory

In about 1969 all three of the Soviet Union’s Fighter Design Bureaux began to look at ideas for a fourth-generation fighter. Part of the work involved analysing the operational experience of current types in various regional conflicts so that the design teams might be able to give their new aircraft enhanced capabilities. Much of this effort was stimulated by the appearance of the American F-X fighter programme, which brought forth the McDonnell-Douglas F-l5. The Soviets monitored the progress of this programme very closely because their response would have to be more than a match for the American aircraft, an immensely difficult objective to achieve.

In 1971 TsNIl-30, a division of the Soviet Ministry of Defence, issued the first General Operational Requirement for a fourth-generation fighter, which tentatively was designated PFI (perspektiunyy frontovoy istrebeetel or advanced tactical fighter). The aircraft’s primary tasks would be to deal with enemy fighters in close-in combat using new short-range AAMs or an internal gun, or to intercept aerial targets at more distant ranges and destroy them with new medium-range AAMs; the latter would be achieved either by using the aircraft’s own ‘look-down/shootdown’ radar or with guidance from ground control stations. The aircraft would also undertake other duties, such as ground attack, and compared to previous types it would be more agile and manoeuvrable and carry a set of all-new avionics. Maximum speed had to be at least 1,400km/h (870mph) at sea level and 2,500km/h (1,554mph) at 11,000m (36,089ft) and the maximum Mach number was to fall between 2.35 and 2.5. Sea level rate of climb had to be at least 300m/sec (984ft/sec), service ceiling 21,000m (68,898ft), maximum range without drop tanks 1,000km (622 miles) at sea level and 2,500km (1,554 miles) at height, and the takeoff thrust-to-weight ratio had to be between 1.1 and 1.2.

In 1972, after having revised the Operational Requirements, the WS issued a request for proposals for new fighters. Mikoyan submitted two versions of its MiG-29 project, Sukhoi’s entries were the T10-1 and T10-2 projects and Yakovlev entered the Yak-451 light lighter and the Yak-47 heavy fighter. These designs and their background are described below and the outcome was to be a mix of light and heavy fighters for the Soviet Air Force. The seeds for this result came from some references made in 1971 by the Government’s research establishments, which stated that the fighter fleet planned for the 1980s should be based on two types, one heavy and one light. This move followed American practice where it was becoming clear that the US Air Force’s heavy F-15 Eagle would be complemented by a new lightweight fighter in a competition eventually won by the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Sukhoi began work on its T-10 design in 1969 with the aim of creating a highly agile fighter that possessed a very long range, heavy armament and sophisticated sensors. In order to maximize manoeuvrability, the fighter was planned from the start to be unstable, and therefore required a fly-by-wire (FBW) control system. The first prototype of the T-10 took to the air in May 1977 and received the NATO reporting name ‘Flanker-A’. However, in its initial form the four original T-10 prototypes displayed a number of serious deficiencies and the aircraft required a wholesale redesign, re-emerging as the radically reworked T-10S-1 of 1981.

The T-10S entered series production in 1982, and received the in-service designation Su-27 (NATO ‘Flanker-B’). Service entry followed in 1984 and the single-seater was joined by the Su-27UB (NATO ‘Flanker-C’) fully combat-capable two-seater that first flew in 1985. By the end of the Cold War, a total of just over 400 Su-27s of both versions were in Soviet service.

As in the 1950s, Sukhoi was assigned the bigger aircraft. The T-10-1 prototype flew before the first MiG, on 20 May 1977. Powered by AL-21F-3 engines, almost identical to those of later Tu-128s, it was impressive, but as testing of later T-10s progressed they ran into severe and sometimes fatal problems. Some redesign was necessary, and General Designer Simonov told the author, ‘In the end, we managed to retain the main wheels and ejection seat’ (he was not really joking). What followed, starting with the T-10S, became the Su-27, perhaps the most beautiful, and certainly most impressive, fighter ever built. When it appeared, Western analysts predictably wrote things like, ‘A cross between the F-15 and F/A-18’. Simonov said, ‘You can’t win if you just copy.’ Once Western pilots were allowed to fly the Su-27 one heard comments like ‘What an airplane! If only I could afford to buy one.’ Most production versions have the outstanding AL-31F engine, which among other things can tolerate having its inlet rotate nose-up through up to 135° in what is called the Cobra manoeuvre (which no Western fighter has yet been able to do). Later Su-27 versions, including the Su-30, 33, 35 and 37 (note, not the S-37), have later engine versions, some of which have a fully vectoring engine nozzle, and in many cases canard foreplanes. Virtually all production today is for export, though small numbers of naval and land-based bomber versions have been delivered, and advanced variants are being produced under licence in China and India.

After the collapse of the USSR, ‘Flankers’ were passed on to successor states, and Russia began an export drive for the fighter. First of the export models was the baseline Su-27SK developed for China, basically similar to the ‘Flanker-B’, but with additional air-to-ground capabilities. China also received a ‘Flanker-C’ equivalent, the Su-27UBK. After around 80 Russian-built Su-27SK/UBKs were delivered, China launched licensed production of 95 additional single-seat ‘Flankers’ (designated as J-11).

Vietnam was the second customer, ordering a first batch of six ‘Flankers’ (including one two-seater), and a second batch of two Su-27SKs and four Su-27UBKs. Ethiopia purchased second-hand ex-Russian ‘Flanker-B/ Cs’, while Indonesian acquired two Su-27SKs and three of the improved Su-27SKM single-seater (the latter equivalent to the Su-27SM described later). ‘Flanker-B/C’ exports also included ex-Ukrainian aircraft sold to Eritrea and Ethiopia, while Angola received two ‘Flankers’ from an unknown source, likely Belarus.

While not modular in the hardware sense, the Russian Sukhoi Bureau has come very close to producing an array of types from its baseline T-10. There is the vanilla Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter and Su-27UB twin-seat trainer stablemate (with full operational capability). The Su-27P single- seater and Su-30 (formerly the Su-27PU) twin-seater are optimized for strategic interception duties and embody extensive data-links for intercommunication and long-range missile guidance. The Su-30M is the basic fighter with added provisions for ground attack. The Su-33 (formerly Su-27K) is the navalized version. The side-by-side seat Su-34 is an advanced strike model (formerly Su-27IB). Probably far from being the definitive version is the canard, digital avionics- equipped Su-35! SEAD radar-smashing, plus Elint and E-0 reconnaissance versions are also being evolved, all from a common set of blueprints, and pushed aggressively by Mikhail Simonov, Sukhoi’s general designer.

The Flanker, represented a quantum leap in technology as well as performance. In particular, the Su-27’s pair of Saturn-Lyulka AL-31F engines are rated at a combined total thrust of 55,125 Ib, making it the hottest twin-engined operational fighter in the world in terms of raw thrust to weight performance. The engines of the Su-33 (formerly Su-27K), the navalized version, are 12-15 per cent more powerful yet. Most significantly, the powerplants can accumulate 2,000-2,500 tactical cycles (each representing the full range of metal-grinding throttle settings normally encountered in an average air combat sortie) between hot-section inspections. In contrast to this, in the West, the latest F100-PW-229 and GE Fll0-100 engines powering the Fighting Falcon and Eagle have been plagued by fourth-stage turbine blade cracks and turbine seal problems. These have caused engine failures after only 200 tactical cycles, and the loss of several aircraft.

‘Hammer and nail’ engine technology has in this instance been superseded by advanced materials technology akin to that available in North America: powder metallurgy. Atomized molten metal is super- frozen into powdery crystals, then bound together and tempered in moulds under intense heat and pressure. The technology was pioneered by Pratt & Whitney, along with ceramic-coated ‘Gatorizing’. Powder metallurgy offers incredible uniformity for highly stressed components such as engine turbine blades, which are twin heat-treated to produce a fine grain, massively strong bore and a coarser-grained rim optimized for greater tolerance to damage.

While Pratt & Whitney are ahead in the game, and are developing even more sophisticated metal matrix composites using carbon fibre reinforcement in a titanium matrix for engine parts for application to the F-22A Rapier’s F119 powerplants, the technology is only just maturing. The latest Russian engines can suffer massive abuse by being speedily throttled up and down. Fast throttling was a feature previously unavailable to Eastern Bloc aircraft which required more gentle persuasion. Many early Fulcrums required new engines after only 1,400 flying hours, as well as regular overhauls at 250-hour intervals. Russian titanium forging for engine bay housings and airframe structural members has also long since surpassed contemporary Western technology. Moving engine production to specialist development factories appears to have paid off in terms of quality control too in recent years.

All of this has produced fighters equipped with powerplants offering phenomenal performance, yet with the durability that was seldom a hallmark of past, cruder design and fabrication methods. Traditional hydromechanical engine controls have similarly been replaced with a DEECS/FADECS-class system, controlling fuel flow and trim digitally. Supercruise (acceleration to supersonic speed and sustained supersonic flight without afterburner engaged) was just possible in the Flanker (given its massive fuel reserves). This was long before Lockheed’s YF-22 and the competing Northrop-McDonnell Douglas YF- 23 battled it out in the skies over California for Full- Scale Development Advanced Tactical Fighter contracts during 1990. But that the Flanker is far from the Mach 1.5-1.6 mil power maximum cruise climb class offered by the new American warplane, and the latest Mikoyan ‘MiG 1.42’ will lag behind a tad. Yet these concepts are flying off the computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM)) drawing boards and some are already reaching operational service. Surprisingly, nobody really took notice of the CIS hardware much before the pioneering production variants began to appear in large numbers, and then they mostly assumed that they were time-lag copies of the Hornet and Eagle.

The shock wave hit home when the Mikoyan, then subsequently the Sukhoi OKB, showed their wares off at Paris and Farnborough. The crowds were thrilled by amazing tail slides and Cobra manoeuvres which clearly demonstrated the new fighters’ incredible agility, throat-choking engine relights at low-level, and their massive stability at high-AoA. (AoA is usually measured as an index rather than in degrees. It reflects the angular difference between the wings relative to forward motion. The higher the AoA capability, the more forgiving and manoeuvrable is the fighter, it is argued.) The only Western fighters capable of hinting at such antics, apart from the much- delayed F-22A Rapier, are specialized research aircraft or heavily-modified Hornet stock. This gave rise to much balking about the validity of such Russian manoeuvres, probably rooted in not-invented- here petty jealousies.

In aerial combat, the nose-up Cobra and Pugachev’s new Hook (similar, but conducted in the horizontal axis at 90° of bank while pulling 9 #!), in particular, can quickly nullify Doppler radar returns, causing AWACS and air intercept radars to hiccup. Although these antics massively burn up energy and thus may place the aircraft at a severe disadvantage in impending close-quarters air-to-air combat, in the LRI scenario in the counter-AWACS role, they might prove lethal. Of course, such a disadvantage does not necessarily follow. If both combatants have bled off a great deal of energy and are tumbling over each other, struggling for advantage in a horizontal or vertical spiralling barrel roll or scissors motions, the wide FoV of the Russian fighters’ armaments can be brought to bear quickly and decisively in ACM, as we shall discuss shortly.

One tactic Russian pilots used to practise was that of approaching a simulated AWACS and its HavCAP protective Flight at high speed in a couple of closely- welded Para or two-ship Flights. Each wingman was placed 5 ft to the right and 70 ft behind his leader (‘close enough to follow my visual signals but clear of my turbulent engine exhaust and wing vortices’, as one former pilot described it). While still beyond the point where raid assessment signal processing techniques might be used by the defenders to resolve the two acquired tags into four aircraft, the two leaders signal a break the moment just after AWACS or a fighter PD radar lit up their coloured SPO-15 Beryoza RWR systems at full intensity. These then fling themselves out in Doppler-negating Split-S, Cobra or Hook antics, before diving down to low-level, building up energy reserves once more in the process.

Meanwhile the two decoys maintain their headings so as to keep the AWACS computers thinking all was in order, before they, too, ‘knocked it off and withdraw. This introduces some complacency into the minds of the AWACS operators. During these few precious seconds the two snipers close in for the kill at low-level. By the time the AWACS or its minions acquire them and before fighters can be vectored into a firing position, the two swooping snipers close, lock- on passively and launch up to four air-to-air rotordome-homing ARMs (believed to be aerial adaptations of the ramjet-powered Kh-31P ARM), or the first volley from up to a dozen KS. 172 long- ranged AAMs. These go right through the defending HavCap, aimed straight at AWACS, kicking the proverbial wasp’s nest and turning it into a frenzied but uncoordinated communications morass with Flights getting inadequate JTIDS picture calls.

Western pilots have become so dependent on AWACS that this scenario would cause them considerable confusion. It is important to note that Eastern European AAM missile technology – what the Russians refer to as rockets – includes much bizarre hardware optimized for specialist use by highly skilled sniper pilots, including devices designed to pick up the Doppler effect created by swirling helicopter rotor blades. Thus, they can take out low-level SEAD pathfinders, medium-altitude AWACS, and bombers too by means of home-on-jam techniques. AWACS-killing technology, in particular, is very sophisticated. It allows launch-and-leave at extreme range: 60 miles unassisted, and double that with boosters which offer massively increased burn- out speeds, making the rockets tough to intercept before they unleash their deadly cargoes.

Specification (Su-27 `Flanker-B’)

Type: All-weather air superiority fighter

Dimensions: Length: 21.90m (71ft 10in); Wingspan: 14.70m (48ft 2.75in); Height: 5.93m (19ft 5.5in)

Weight: 33,000kg (72,751lb) maximum take-off

Powerplant: 2 x 122.58kN (27,557lb) Saturn/Lyulka AL-31F afterburning turbofans

Maximum speed: 2280km/h (1417mph) `clean’ at 11,000m (36,090ft)

Range: 3680km (2287 miles) at high altitude

Service ceiling: 17,700m (58,071ft)

Crew: 1

Armament: 1 x 30mm (1.18in) cannon and up to 6000kg (13,228lb) of disposable stores including up to 6 x medium-range and 4 x short-range AAMs

Leipzig: Battle of the Nations

Johann Peter Krafft (1780-1856)-‘victory declaration after the battle of Leipzig, 1813’-oil on canvas-1813   Berlin-Deutsches Historiches Museum. The Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations, was fought between Napoleon and the three Allied armies that had been approaching the city for several days: the Army of Bohemia (Feldmarschall Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg), the Army of Silesia (General Gebhard Lebrecht von Blücher), and the Army of the North (former French marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, now Crown Prince of Sweden). Napoleon suffered a major defeat, which decided the campaign in Germany. He then fell back from Saxony to France.

Battle of Leipzig, October 16 actions.

Battle of Leipzig, 18 October actions.

The prospect of the coming campaign in Russia had ‘cast a gloom over society in general’, wrote Laure Junot, the frivolous Duchess of Abrantès, in her Mémoires.

It was in vain that the emperor ordered balls, fêtes and quadrilles. Marie Louise was surrounded by young and beautiful women who were commanded by Napoleon to exert every nerve to render her gay; but these ladies had brothers, fathers, husbands and lovers, so that the joys of the court were forced pleasures, and not joys springing from the heart.…

As the campaign got under way, Paris had:

presented a curious but melancholy spectacle. Husbands, sons, brothers and lovers were departing to join the army; while wives, mothers, sisters and mistresses, either remained at home to weep, or sought amusement in Italy, Switzerland or the various watering-places of France.

Laure herself had taken off to Aix-en-Savoie, with her four-year-old son (christened Napoleon), to be diverted by boating with Talma on Lac Bourget, by listening to the great actor recite from The Tempest in the midst of a storm, drenched with water, then by embarking on an affair with the Marquis de Balincourt as her husband struggled with the Russians and increasing madness. On 20 December 1812, she recalled, ‘the cannon of the Invalides announced to the city of Paris that the Emperor had returned’. Three days later, lovesick and now abandoned by Balincourt, she tried to take an overdose of laudanum. In January, Junot returned; instead of the dashing, handsome young Governor of Paris who had left her a few months previously, ‘there appeared a coarsened, aged man, walking with difficulty, bent and supported by a stick, dressed carelessly in a shabby greatcoat’. He was ‘in a strange state,’ Laure found; ‘often in a condition of somnolence during the day, the night brought him no sleep. He so strong, so much master of himself, wept like a child.’

During the brief time he spent in Paris that grim winter, one colonel found his family and friends:

in general terror-stricken. The famous 29th Bulletin had informed France abruptly that the Grande Armée had been destroyed. The Emperor was invincible no longer. The campaign of 1813 was about to open.… people were shocked to see the Emperor entertaining at the Tuileries. It was an insult to public grief and revealed a cruel sensitivity to the victims. I shall always remember one of those dismal balls, at which I felt as if I were dancing on graves.

It spoke volumes for the mood in Paris, in the army and in France as a whole as the full horror of the Russian débâcle was brought home by survivors like Junot. One is reminded, in a different context, of the mood of Berlin as the Soviet colossus began to close in on the city in 1944. In the words of Mademoiselle Avrillon, who was in charge of the Empress’s jewellery, ‘we were all the more terrified … because for 20 years so many uninterrupted successes made us think reverses impossible’. The consternation produced by Napoleon’s Bulletin reporting the destruction of the Grande Armée in Russia was ‘impossible to describe’.3 Constant recorded that it was:

The first time that Paris saw him come back from a campaign without bringing with him a fresh peace which the glory of his arms had won. On this occasion, all those persons who looked upon Josephine as the Emperor’s talisman and the guardian of his fortunes, did not fail to note that the Russian campaign was the first which had been undertaken by the Emperor since his marriage with Marie Louise.

There was a strong, unvoiced sense that Moscow heralded, as Talleyrand expressed it, ‘the beginning of the end, and … the end itself could not be far distant’. As soon as Napoleon showed himself in Paris, however, in the words of Duff Cooper, ‘Once more and for the last time treason hung its head, criticism sank to a whisper, and conspiracy crept underground.’ In despair, Napoleon called on Talleyrand yet again. Coldly, he was rejected with the words, ‘I am not acquainted with your affairs.’ Enraged, Napoleon threatened to have him shot, or hanged. Talleyrand riposted in his usual restrained, whimsical manner, ‘The Emperor is charming this morning.’ Then he despatched a secret letter to Louis XVIII, who was waiting patiently in the wings in England for the summons that seemed bound to come, now sooner rather than later.

Napoleon deliberately took to appearing more and more frequently in public, taking part in shoots even more often than before. To Duroc he remarked,

It behoves me to bestir myself and show myself everywhere. So that the papers may mention this, since those stupid English newspapers say every day that I am ill and can’t move.… Wait a bit! I will soon show them that I am as sound in body as I am in mind.

Despite his grave occupations, he never lost sight of his dream to make Paris the handsomest city in the world. Now he talked about building an embassy for the Italian Minister and a palace for the infant King of Rome on the Heights of Chaillot. In one of his few political successes, he began 1813 by attempting to make peace with the Pope with a new Concordat.

The balance sheet that confronted the Emperor as 1813 began could hardly have been more discouraging. He had inflicted an estimated 250,000 casualties on the Russians; but, out of the more than 600,000 troops that had crossed the Niemen in June 1812, only a broken 93,000 straggled home; out of 1,300 cannon, only 250 had returned. Even more serious, and irreplaceable in the long run, was his loss of some 180,000 horses. They provided the eyes and ears of his intelligence, the superb cutting edge of his heavy cavalry – as well as the prime movers of his artillery and supplies. In this one disastrous campaign, seven years of efforts since the joint triumphs of Austerlitz and Jena had been thrown away. The limits of the French Empire returned to what they had been before Tilsit. And now the Russian success was emboldening vanquished nations like Austria and Prussia (nominal, but unwilling, allies of Napoleon during the Russian Campaign) to raise their heads above the parapet once again. Already, under leaders like Yorck, Blücher, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, Prussia had undergone a miraculous, and historic, transformation, of its army and of its whole society, which in the ensuing century the world at large would come to rue. Other more or less unwilling allies like Bavaria and Saxony, and neutrals like Sweden, were just waiting for the right moment to align themselves against France.

Many historians have analysed the causes of Napoleon’s decisive defeat in Russia: he should never have left the war in Spain unsettled at his rear (as Hitler, in 1941, had turned his back on an undefeated Britain); he had not prepared for a winter campaign (but it was the summer heat as much as the winter cold that had defeated him); and of course he should never have gone to Moscow. As Hitler in his turn found out, the unending spaces of Russia were just too great for one man to exercise control over the massive armies involved – even with the vastly more sophisticated communications of the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Napoleon’s conduct of the campaign, the indecisions and procrastinations, the retreat from reality, suggested that he was no longer the man of Austerlitz and Jena, or even of Wagram. Almost certainly he had been saved by the ineptitude and the lethargy of the Russian commanders.

By early spring of 1813, the Russian juggernaut in the east had moved steadily westwards until it was approaching Prussian territory and menacing the German provinces allied to France. The Duchy of Warsaw, the tragic dream of a free Poland for which Marie Walewska and so many heroic Polish soldiers had given themselves since 1806, disappeared once again into the Tsarist maw – not to reappear for more than a century. Marie herself once again took the road to Paris. During the Russian Campaign, Prussia’s Frederick William III had been bullied into supplying a corps of 20,000 men to join the Grande Armée; barely two-thirds of them survived. In the last days of 1812 General Yorck had signed a secret treaty with Russia, the famous (or infamous, from Napoleon’s point of view) Convention of Tauroggen, whereby the Prussian forces moved from a state of nominal alliance with France to one of hostile neutrality – which would soon enough lead to war. The weak Prussian King, whom Napoleon had so humiliated at Tilsit in 1807, hesitated before plunging his country into another contest with Napoleon. But he was carried away by the groundswell of nationalism among young Germans, who, fired by secret societies like the Tugendbund (literally the ‘League of Virtue’), were sick of being overrun by the French, as the German states had been since the wars of Louis XIV. Frederick William was further galvanized by his hawkish Queen, and by Generals Yorck, Bülow and Blücher (now recovered from the mental breakdown that had afflicted him six years previously). On the edge of revolt, in late February of 1813 Prussia in secrecy signed the Convention of Kalitsch with Russia, promising to enter the war, and being promised in return the restoration of her 1806 frontiers. For the forthcoming campaign, the Russians guaranteed to deploy a force 150,000 strong. Although, after Jena, Prussia had agreed to limit her forces to only 42,000 men, the work of secret rearmament in fact enabled her eventually to send 80,000 to join the Allies in 1813.

Tauroggen was to herald the German War of Liberation, otherwise known as the Battle of the Nations, which by the end of 1813 would inflict decisive defeat on Napoleon, as well as letting out of the bottle the genie of German nationalism. (Yet, without those liberated Prussians at Waterloo, Wellington would never have won.)

As the New Year dawned, about all that stood in the way of the resurgent Allied forces were a few scattered French-held fortresses like Danzig, Stettin and Glogau-on-the-Oder and a miscellany of fewer than 50,000 troops under Eugène de Beauharnais, the admirable son of Josephine, and Napoleon’s stepson, who had taken over command from his rather less admirable brother-in-law, Murat. (Murat had hastened back to the pleasanter climate of his Neapolitan kingdom as soon as he decently could after the retreat from Moscow.) Nevertheless, reworking the miracle which only he could achieve, Napoleon somehow managed to create a brilliant new army out of the wreckage of 1812, and a new strategy. In fact, three more times, in each successive year and after each major defeat, Napoleon would repeat that miracle. Only he, backed by the residual fervour of France’s revolutionary mystique, could have done it. Setting himself a staggering target of 656,000 men, he mustered 120,000 half-trained conscripts, drew 80,000 from the National Guard and called up 100,000 more who had escaped service between 1809 and 1812. Troops were pulled out of Spain (although the ‘Spanish Ulcer’ still continued to eat up over 175,000 of his most seasoned troops in a losing struggle). ‘France is one vast workship,’ recorded Caulaincourt.

The entire French nation overlooked his reverses and vied with one another in displaying zeal and devotion … It was a personal triumph for the Emperor, who with amazing energy directed all the resources of which his genius was capable into organizing the great national endeavour. Things seemed to come into existence as if by magic.…

What a man!

Where his enemies (Britain in particular) erred in their failure to standardize, Napoleon’s achievement in the earlier years of settling on standard calibres of field gun had greatly aided him. By mid-August, he would be able to count on the support of no fewer than 1,300 cannon, replenishing the losses of the Russian Campaign. Yet it could never be the same Grande Armée. It was gravely deficient in trained officers; even more seriously, the cavalry would never recover from its shortage of horses.


The allied plan for 1813 was to advance on a broad front, with widely separated columns, clearing Prussia of the French and striking for Dresden, the capital of Napoleon’s principal remaining German ally, Saxony. In the north, an embittered Bernadotte – never forgetting his public humiliation by Napoleon at Wagram – had thrown in his lot with the Allies, and was building up a force in Swedish Pomerania, preparing (cautiously, as always) to move southwards. Meanwhile false threats of a British landing lured the French into abandoning the useful port of Hamburg. With his forces concentrating in the Magdeburg area, Napoleon’s plan – grandiose and highly ambitious – was to push the Allies back over the Elbe and strike for Berlin, then to relieve his beleaguered fortresses still holding out east of the Oder and on the Vistula. In his aim of seizing an enemy capital and dividing the Allied armies before they could concentrate, there were echoes of Austerlitz. Once again, Napoleon showed himself capable of moving with astonishing speed; once again, he was aided by procrastinatory squabbles among the Allies. (Old Kutuzov, too, demoted from supreme command but still at the head of the main Russian army directed on Dresden, was a dying man.) He was in any case sorely limited by his lack of effectives. By April they were still far below the figure of 300,000, the minimum he reckoned essential to carrying out his objectives. In cavalry, he could muster only 8,000 against the Allies’ 24,000. He was also to prove over-optimistic in his reliance on his Saxon and Bavarian allies.

Characteristically, however, he decided to press an attack in mid-April before the Allies could concentrate on the Elbe. At 4 a.m. on 15 April 1813, he left St Cloud; the next day, at midnight, he was at Mainz on the other side of the Rhine. Disagreements over command in the Allied camp after the death of Kutuzov (he had died three weeks before) were offset by the handicap inflicted on Napoleon by virtue of the tactical intelligence denied him by his acute shortage of light cavalry. Nevertheless, at Lützen near Leipzig, west of the Elbe, he won a costly minor victory on 2 May – a Wagram rather than an Austerlitz. To his deep sorrow, there he lost Marshal Bessières, the son of a surgeon, who had been with him ever since Rivoli in 1796, the genius of the Guard who had led the famous charge at Austerlitz, and who had proved both one of his most dependable supporters and one of his few genuine friends. ‘Bessières lived like Bayard; he died like Turenne,’ pronounced Napoleon. According to Marmont, ‘This was probably the day, of his whole career, on which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.… He exposed himself constantly, leading the defeated men of [Ney’s] III Corps back to the charge.’ Both sides lost about 20,000 men; on the Allied side, Blücher’s Chief-of-Staff, Scharnhorst – the reformer of the Prussian Army, and often regarded as the epitome of German nationalism – was mortally wounded; Blücher himself was wounded, and the less tenacious Yorck took over the Prussian forces. The ferocity of the fighting at Lützen caused Napoleon to remark gloomily, ‘These animals have learnt something.’ The most valuable thing they had learnt was not to be taken by surprise by Napoleonic tactics.

Given Napoleon’s crippling shortage of cavalry, there could be no serious pursuit of the defeated enemy. This was unfortunate for Napoleon; the squabbling Allies were in far worse disarray than he could see, the Prussians wanting to withdraw northwards, to cover Berlin, the Russians eastwards towards Breslau and Warsaw. Tsar Alexander had nominated Wittgenstein to succeed Kutuzov as supreme commander. Aged forty-four, he was the youngest of the Allied commanders – and not 100 per cent Russian. Blücher, the Prussian, had agreed to his appointment, but the Russian, Miloradevich, the veteran of Austerlitz and the 1812 campaign, objected. As a result Alexander himself assumed nominal command, with disastrous results.

Napoleon advanced across the Elbe, on 21 May winning at Bautzen, east of Dresden, another battle of furious intensity. By this time he had managed to concentrate 115,000 men to Wittgenstein’s 96,000. Soult was charged with attempting a repeat of his historic success at Austerlitz’s Pratzen Heights, breaking through the enemy centre while Ney enveloped them from the left. Ney, however, partly as a result of confusing orders from Napoleon, made a dismal mess of things, robbing the French of what might otherwise have been a copybook Napoleonic victory. Again, each side lost approximately 20,000 men, Napoleon’s only trophies a few wrecked cannon and wounded prisoners. As well as the shortage of cavalry (Ney’s excuse for failing to pursue), defeat at Bautzen reflected sorely the absence of his better commanders – especially Lannes, killed at Aspern–Essling in 1809; Davout, who had been sent off on a worthless diversion towards Hamburg; and Masséna, battling Wellington in Spain.

Napoleon had suffered another particularly grievous personal loss. Duroc – who had recently predicted his own end – died in agony in his Emperor’s arms, after being disembowelled by a cannon-ball. Napoleon had rushed to his bedside, afterwards sitting for an hour with his head bowed in misery. ‘Poor fellow!’ an old Guardsman was heard to remark; ‘he’s lost one of his children.’ For a while, demoralizing rumours were rife that it was the Emperor, not Duroc, transported in the coffin.

What might have resulted in a decisive victory, which would deter Austria from entering the war, ended yet again in only a modest one, bringing the spring campaign to a close with both sides in a state of exhaustion. With 90,000 of his men – in addition to battle casualties – listed sick, time was now emphatically not on Napoleon’s side. He had outrun his supply system, and his lines of communication were constantly menaced by Cossacks and German partisans. On 2 June, he was forced to agree to an armistice – explaining it in terms of ‘my shortage of cavalry, which prevents me from striking great blows, and the hostile attitude of Austria’. On 15 June, the British paymaster gave Russia and Prussia £2 million to carry on the war, and Austria £500,000 to join it. Six days later came news of Wellington’s victory at Vitoria in Spain. It brought to an end brother Joseph’s kingship and took the British uncomfortably close to France’s own back-door at Bayonne – less than a hundred miles’ distant. On 7 July, Bernadotte finally came off his fence and began moving with 100,000 men towards Berlin. Playing for time in a cunning game of diplomacy, and exploiting France’s growing urge for peace, the wily Metternich offered Napoleon peace terms that he would be quite unable to accept. According to Metternich, this provoked ‘a series of professions of friendship alternating with the most violent of outbursts’. A furious Napoleon declared, ‘You want nothing else but the dismemberment of the French Empire,’ refusing – as Hitler was to do once forced on to the defensive – to cede ‘an inch of land’.

Meanwhile, lapsing into his final bout of madness, Junot died, clamouring for peace. His death seemed somehow symbolic of how time was running out. Now, during the seven weeks’ armistice, Austria was assembling an army, the Army of Bohemia, under Prince Schwarzenberg, some 200,000 strong, marching northwards from Prague to join the Allies. In vain, and mistakenly, had Napoleon hoped that his dynastic marriage to the Austrian Marie Louise might have neutralized his new father-in-law. On 12 August a self-righteous Austria declared war. By mid-August a terrifying, and unprecedented grand total of 800,000 Allied troops faced Napoleon far from his base, on the upper reaches of the Elbe. By scraping every depot for reserves, the French Emperor was able astonishingly to confront this massive force with 700,000 of his own, though many were conscripts of poor quality.

Now, for the first time, Napoleon had to fight simultaneously the armies of Russia, Austria and Prussia – and the Swedish forces of the renegade Bernadotte, with Wellington closing in on the Pyrenees. Still unable to agree on any joint strategy, the Allies – respectful of Napoleon’s menace in a pitched battle – fell back on the next best thing: the ‘Trachtenberg Plan’, whereby any army attacked by Napoleon would retire, refusing battle, while the others closed in on his flank and communications, like a pack of hounds bringing down a powerful stag. This was designed to prevent any army being destroyed in detail. As always, however, Napoleon moved his formations so fast as to threaten to negate the Trachtenberg compact; yet it was a form of attrition which, at last, was to prove successful.

Trying to retrieve his original blueprint of April, Napoleon’s plan was to strike for Berlin, capture the Prussian capital and head off Bernadotte’s approaching army before it could link up with the Allies in the south. But logistics and the political considerations of keeping in the fight his chief surviving German ally, war-ravaged Saxony, forced him into an essentially defensive battle, with his main force fortifying an armed camp around the old and beautiful Saxon capital of Dresden. His marshals were increasingly restive about his scheme to advance on Berlin. At about this time, he suffered yet another personal blow in the defection of the brilliant Swiss strategist and (later) military historian, Baron Jomini – the éminence grise of Ney, who was often rash when left on his own. Reputedly the last officer to leave Russian soil, for his heroic conduct during the retreat from Moscow the previous year Ney had received from Napoleon the sobriquet ‘the bravest of the brave’ and had been proclaimed Prince of Moscow. But the strains of the Russian campaign, and wounds both there and at Lützen – followed by the defection of Jomini – progressively told on him. His battle conduct would henceforth suffer greatly (notably at Waterloo), and within a matter of days he would blunder clumsily, and foolishly, into a trap laid for him by his former colleague, Bernadotte.

At Dresden, on 26 and 27 August, though prey to an unusual degree of vacillation, Napoleon won yet another victory – this time at the expense of Schwarzenberg. He was aided by a fortuitous cannon-ball, which narrowly missed the Tsar but mortally wounded another renegade French General, Jean-Victor Moreau, standing at his side. The French camp took heart from this, as a sign of divine retribution; the Allies were discouraged in proportion. During the battle, the valet, Constant, found Napoleon ‘in a most deplorable state. He had been in the saddle since 6 that morning. It had rained incessantly and he was drenched through. Even his top boots were full of water, which must have dripped off his great coat.…’ But, once again, in the thick of the battle he seemed to be untouchable. Murat, back from Naples, struck a brilliant cavalry blow at the Austrians, but was not strong enough to pursue and trap them in retreat. In fact, by overreaching themselves the French suffered an unprecedented disaster. On 30 August, Vandamme, a bold commander keen to win his marshal’s baton, allowed himself to be cut off unexpectedly at Kulm, twenty-five miles south of Dresden, by the Prussian Kleist, who suddenly appeared out of the hills behind him. After a fierce fight, Vandamme, outnumbered in a proportion of 3:5, was forced to surrender together with 13,000 men. In the north, Macdonald of Wagram fame, through mishandling of his corps, had been badly mauled by Blücher.

With only 120,000 French facing 170,000 of the enemy, Napoleon had triumphed at Dresden with losses (apart from Vandamme) of barely 10,000 to the Allies’ 38,000. His handling of the battle showed him at the top of his old form, but he was, disquietingly, let down badly by the failure of his subordinates (such as Vandamme) elsewhere. Here the Trachtenberg compact had borne fruit. Thus Dresden, observes David Chandler, ‘joined Lützen and Bautzen on the growing list of practically valueless French victories’.9 Now the big test, the Allies’ great opportunity, was about to come.


Dresden had gone some way to re-establishing the myth of Napoleonic invincibility, but the surrender of Vandamme gave the Allies a much needed emotional uplift. Shortage of supplies was rapidly reducing the French forces to starvation level, with the basic bread ration cut from twenty-eight ounces to eight, as the ravages of war in Saxony (once the richest of the German states) rendered foraging unprofitable, if not impossible. By the beginning of September, Napoleon could count on no more than 260,000 tired and hungry men, and about half the number of cannon he had at the beginning of the campaign in the spring. His plan to drive on Berlin was once more aborted, this time by the hole in his ranks caused by Vandamme’s and Macdonald’s débâcles and by the general reluctance of his commanders. Instead, in breach of his fundamental principle of concentration, he despatched Ney towards Berlin with an under-strength detachment of 60,000 men, while keeping his main force at Dresden. On 6 September, Ney suffering from the loss of his genius, Jomini, and from the shortage of cavalry intelligence that now increasingly beset the whole Grande Armée, blundered foolishly into a trap laid for him by Bernadotte, at Dennewitz, less than fifty miles south-west of Berlin. He suffered 10,000 casualties, to 7,000 of the former fellow general whom he had never held in high esteem.

Meanwhile, at Dresden Napoleon was in a serious dilemma. To stay there, with the Allied armies converging, would place him in great jeopardy, but to quit the city would almost certainly mean the defection of his last remaining German ally, the King of Saxony. Weighing up the military against the political, he dithered disastrously for several days. With Blücher continuing to evade all attempts to bring him to battle, on 7 October Napoleon set off north-westwards for what he considered to be the safer stronghold of Leipzig, leaving behind in Dresden two of his best corps, under St Cyr and Lobau. It was a decision that has been rated ‘probably the most fateful one of the entire campaign’. His attempts to threaten the enemy capital, Berlin, and to manoeuvre against his rear, had both failed. On 13 October, Blücher, the stubborn old Prussian who detested retreat, Napoleon and Bernadotte in about equal measure, wrote to the Tsar that the three armies were now so close together ‘that a simultaneous attack, against the point where the enemy has concentrated its forces, might be undertaken’.

Three days later, in the greatest concentration of force ever seen in the Napoleonic Wars, the Allies – moving in from every direction, the Russians from the south-east, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians from the south-west and Blücher’s Prussians (plus, more slowly, Bernadotte’s Swedes) from the north – finally cornered Napoleon outside the city of Leipzig. It was barely a day’s march from the battlefield of Jena, where the French Emperor had scored his crushing victory over the Prussians just seven years previously to the day. Later, with hindsight, Marmont described the French position as being ‘at the bottom of a funnel’. In what justly came to be called the Battle of the Nations, 200,000 hungry and battle-weary French with 900 cannon faced well over 300,000 Allied troops and 1,500 guns. Such numbers had never been seen before on a European battlefield. There ensued two days of a grim slogging battle, of an unprecedented intensity. At one point on the first day Murat’s heavy cavalry broke through, all but reaching the Tsar’s command post – which could have won the day for Napoleon. But, without the reserves to follow up, the exhausted cuirassiers were driven off by the Tsar’s ‘heavies’.

The battle ended roughly in a draw, with Napoleon having sustained some 25,000 casualties to approximately 30,000 of the Allies. But, as more and more Allied reinforcements approached, the odds became heavily loaded against the French. Instead of beating an orderly retreat from Leipzig on 17 October, whereby he could have saved at least part of his army, Napoleon, hoping for some heaven-sent miracle such as had bailed him out so often in the past, made the fatal mistake of delaying to the 18th. On the 17th, the allies moved in in what the American historians Esposito and Elting have described as ‘a heads-down, go-and-get-killed, concentric attack’. By nightfall, total, irretrievable defeat faced Napoleon. The only thing which was to save him from annihilation was the leisurely performance of Bernadotte, anxious to spare his own raw Swedes and behaving much as he had when fighting for Napoleon.

At this last, and finally decisive, battle of the brutal 1813 campaign, the French artillery fired off some 200,000 rounds; the Allies lost probably as many as 54,000 killed and wounded, while French battle casualties approached 40,000, with a further 30,000 captured during the retreat on the 19th. Many were drowned when panicky engineers prematurely blew a bridge, crowded with troops, over the River Elster. Among those tragically lost was the brave Prince Poniatowski. He and his fellow Poles had fought magnificently during the battle, and he had just been made a marshal, the first of his countrymen to receive his baton. He tried to swim the river on his horse, but, exhausted from four wounds, he failed to make it.

The death of the much loved Poniatowski marked the end of Poland’s brave hopes in Napoleon. Leipzig equally marked the end of Napoleon’s empire east of the Rhine. The Bavarians had already changed sides, and were supplying the victorious Allies with a force under General Wrede (who had fought alongside Napoleon at Wagram). Now the Saxons, deserted by Napoleon, their country ravaged by war, left his camp; not much more than half-a-century later, in a war of revenge for all the humiliations inflicted by the French, they would be invading France hand in hand with the Prussians, whose triumph at Leipzig would herald their emergence as the leading power in Germany.

In this second bitter winter of defeat, the French retreat across Germany was hardly less grim than that of 1812. ‘The numbers of corpses and dead horses increased every day,’ recorded an Allied observer:

Thousands of soldiers, sinking from hunger and fatigue, remained behind, unable to reach a hospital. The woods for several miles round were full of stragglers and worn-out and sick soldiers. Guns, wagons were found everywhere.…

It could have been an account of the German retreat from the Falaise Gap in August 1944. Almost 400,000 of Napoleon’s troops had been lost, or cut off in isolated garrisons from Danzig to Dresden; only about 80,000 effectives, plus some 40,000 stragglers, limped back across the Rhine. That Napoleon escaped at all was probably thanks to Bernadotte’s dismal failure to reach Leipzig in time, and to the Allies’ own exhaustion. By November, Schwarzenberg’s command was reduced to only 150,000 men – ‘ragged, worn out, wracked by typhus and dysentery’ – their lines of communication impossibly extended. Only their enfeeblement staved off an immediate invasion of France.

Less than three weeks after the catastrophe at Leipzig, Napoleon was back at St Cloud, once again leaving his defeated troops behind, to ask for fresh armies. He had been absent from Paris 209 days, compared with 224 in 1812, and only 124 for the Ulm–Austerlitz Campaign of 1905. If it had not been plain after Moscow, the writing on the wall should have been crystal clear after Leipzig. From the capture of Allied correspondence just before the battle was engaged, Napoleon had learnt enough about enemy intentions to realize that only a decisive military victory could save him. Yet France, after twenty-five years of almost constant war, was physically, financially and emotionally drained. Back in Paris, hatred for Napoleon was spreading, as many subversive groups – Royalists, Jacobins and ‘liberals’ – conspired with increasing impunity. The 1813 campaign had revealed that many of the leading marshals (not unlike Hermann Goering after 1940) had grown soft after being showered with titles and riches; Clarke, the Minister of War, had made such a muddle as to suggest something worse than mere incompetence; Berthier, the once indispensable ‘Emperor’s wife’, was very sick; in a grave waste of talent, Davout had been left behind, out of the Battle of the Nations, and stuck in Hamburg. Repeated failures in 1813 proved that the cavalry, the key to so many past battles and campaigns, had still not recovered from its losses in Russia – indeed, it would barely do so by Waterloo. Though only the inefficiency of the Allies had saved Napoleon in 1813, and would come close to doing so in 1814, he failed to understand that the driving impulse of nationalism was now no longer an exclusively French asset. In the words of General J. F. C. Fuller, for Napoleon the battle of Leipzig had been ‘a second Trafalgar, this time on land; his initiative had gone’.