Russian Air Traffic Identification Guide

Due to the popularity of the Tu-95 ”Bear” post, and by popular demand, here comes a write-up over the rest of the planes that have figured over the Baltic Sea and in the news recently, including the Il-20 involved in the near-miss with a civilian airliner.

Antonov An-12

Antonov An-12 of the Russian Air Force, producing a considerable amount of smoke during take-off and landing practices. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Igor Dvurekov.

The Antonov An-12 “Cub” is a heavy transport aircraft designed in the 50’s for transporting general cargo as well as dropping paratroopers. The general layout is very similar to that of the western Lockheed C-130, but the An-12 is quite a bit larger. In spite of its replacement, the Il-76 (see below), entering service already in 1974, the sturdy An-12 have proved to be a durable design, and a large number still flies for both civilian and military users. Civilian aircrafts are regularly seen at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, and are easily told from military transports by the fact that they aren’t fitted with twin 23 mm cannons in their tail. Interestingly enough, the former Antonov Design Bureau/current Antonov State Company is situated in Ukraine.

Antonov An-26

Antonov An-26 of the Russian Air Force. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Igor Dvurekov.

The Antonov An-26 “Curl” was developed from the earlier An-24 as a medium transport for the Russian Air Force, and was in turn further developed into the An-30 and -32. Over 1,400 An-26’s were produced during an almost 20 year long production run that started in the late 60’s. The aircraft is still in use in many air forces around the world, and while most of the aircrafts are general transports, a number of minor variants are also in use, such as the An-26RTR electronic warfare variant and the fire-fighting An-26P.

Antonov An-72

The Antonov An-72 that flew into Finnish airspace on 28th of August. Note the unusual placement of the engines above the wings. Source: Finnish Defence Sources/
The Antonov An-72 that flew into Finnish airspace on 28th of August. Note the unusual placement of the engines above the wings. Source: Finnish Defence Sources/

The Antonov An-72 “Coaler” is a medium transport easily identified by being one of very aircrafts that have their engines mounted above the wings. This gives the aircraft both the ability to take off from and land on short runways, as well as its nickname Cheburashka, from the big-eared animated character.

The plane is used mainly for general transports, and is operated in some numbers by both civilian airlines and the Russian armed forces. A special version for use in Arctic conditions is named An-74.

Ilyushin Il-20

Il-20M taking off. The pod under the belly of the aircraft houses the side-looking radar (SLAR), with other “humps” housing different intelligence gathering equipment. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Kirill Naumenko.

The Ilyushin Il-20M (“Coot-A”) is based on the by now largely retired Il-18 airliner. The Il-20 is fitted with an array of different sensors to perform intelligence gathering operations by flying close to enemy territory and “listening” to different signals, e.g. active radars and radio traffic. It is also equipped with cameras and side-looking radar used when searching for ships and ground targets. However, as noted by Swedish defence blogger and air force officer Wiseman, it is not capable of looking out for other aircraft, a deficit that apparently played an important part in a number of near-misses with civilian aircrafts over the Baltic Sea.

Ilyushin Il-76

Il-76MD, showing of the heavy-duty landing gear and “glass nose”. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Aleksander Markin.

Il-76 “Candid”, is the go-to-plane for most of the transport needs of the Russian Armed Forces. The plane is a large four-engined jet-transport, and is certified to operate from rough and unpaved landing strips. The large rear cargo ramp is used for loading/off-loading cargo, as well as for unloading paratroopers and their vehicles either in mid-air or on the ground. Aside from the standard transport versions, the most important variants are the dedicated air-to-air refueling variant named Il-78/Il-78MD and the Beriev A-50 AWACS plane, both of which are also regular visitors over the Baltic Sea.

Mikoyan MiG-31

MiG-31 heavy interceptor. Note the small windows of the navigator behind the pilot. Source: Wikimedia Commons/
MiG-31 heavy interceptor. Note the small windows of the navigator seated behind the pilot. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Dmitriy Pichugin.

The Mikoyan MiG-31 (“Foxhound”) is one of the most specialized fighters/interceptors in the world. It is a large aircraft, being as long and high as a World War II-era Boeing B-17, the famous “Flying Fortress”. The reason for this are its missions, it is designed to have the reach (and hence the fuel load) to operate far out over the Arctic and northern edge of the Pacific, where it is to intercept American strategic bombers before they can release their cruise missiles, and to escort own Tu-95MS strategic bombers so that they can safely attack North American targets with their cruise missiles. As such, it is not maneuverable enough to fight modern fighters such as the F-18C Hornet on equal terms, but over the Arctic enemy fighters should be few and far between. The planes currently in service are mainly of the upgraded MiG-31M/BM-versions, but particularly in the eastern parts of the country the older baseline MiG-31 sans suffix is still in service.

The equipment it carries is also tailored for this mission. It has one of the largest radars ever fitted to a fighter, and carries some of the longest ranged missiles produced in the form of the R-33 and the upgraded R-37 (MiG-31M/BM only). The ranges of these are quoted as far above 100 km, potentially over 300 km for the R-37 (to be taken with a grain of salt). The radar also makes it possible for the aircraft to share data with the A-50 airborne command aircraft, or to act as a mini-AWACS itself, by having the navigator/weapons officer of the MiG-31 direct other fighters within range. Of note is that the navigator has very limited vision of the outside world, as his job is mainly to operate different sensors and weapons.

Note for non-aviation geeks: “MiG” is spelled with upper case “M” and “G”, and lower case “i”, as there were two designers leading the original design bureau. This is opposed to more or less all other Soviet/Russian designations, where only the first letter is capitalised.

Sukhoi Su-24

Su-24M with the wings in the forward (low-speed) configuration. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Alexander Mishin.

The Su-24 “Fencer” is a heavy attack/strike aircraft that became operational in the early 70’s. Like the Tu-22M of the same vintage, it features variable geometry wings, being able to sweep the wings back for better high-speed performance. Also in common with its bigger cousin is the fact that it is in use both by the Russian Air Force and by naval air units. The Su-24 can employ a vast range of weapons, ranging from an internal 6-barrelled 23 mm gun to rockets, bombs, and missiles. It can also employ short-ranged air-to-air missiles for self-defence, but in practice it would fare poorly against enemy fighters due to poor maneuverability. The current version in service is the second generation Su-24M, but the plane is starting to show its age, and is about to be replaced by the Su-34 (see below), a process that will take several years.

Sukhoi Su-27

Russian Air Force Su-27 intercepted over the Baltic Sea on the 17th June 2014. The intercepting Typhoons of RAF’s 3 (F) Squadron operated as part of NATO’s ongoing mission to Baltic Air Policing. Source: Wikimedia Commons/RAF.

The Sukhoi Su-27 “Flanker” marked the start of a family of fighters and fighter-bombers that eventually would dethrone Mikoyan-Gurevich’s design bureau as the leading manufacturer of Soviet/Russian fighters. The plane itself is known for its long range and large weapons load, as well as its extreme maneuverability. The original baseline Su-27 has since been developed into a bewildering range of different one- and two-seater variants, some of which are pure fighters while others have a multi-role tasking that also includes strike missions. The different designations include Su-30/33/34 (see below)/35/37 (prototype only), as well as the Chinese unlicensed copies designated J-11/15/16. The latest version is the Su-35S, and deliveries to the Russian Air Force are ongoing. A naval variant named Su-33 is used onboard the Russian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov.

With its large radar, and a large weapons load including highly-maneuverable heat-seeking missiles, the Su-27 would be a though adversary for most fighter aircrafts currently in service. This is not to say that for example the F-18C Hornets of the Finnish Air Force couldn’t defeat it in combat, but depending on the version of the Su-27/30/35 they could find themselves being the underdog.

Sukhoi Su-34

Two Sukhoi Su-34 intercepted by Finnish QRA over the Gulf of Finland. The planes are armed with heat-seeking missiles for self-defence and light "dumb" bombs. Insert picture of the characteristic nose-profile with side-by-side seating of the pilot and navigator/weapons officer. Source: Puolustuvoimat (main picture) and Wikimedia Commons/Vitlay Kuzmin (insert).
Two Sukhoi Su-34 intercepted by Finnish QRA over the Gulf of Finland. The planes are armed with heat-seeking missiles for self-defence and light “dumb” bombs. Insert: The characteristic “flat” profile of the forward fuselage with side-by-side seating of the pilot and navigator/weapons officer. Source: Puolustuvoimat (main picture) and Wikimedia Commons/Vitlay Kuzmin (insert).

The Sukhoi Su-34 “Fullback” (unofficially also “Hellduck”, due to its beak-like nose) is one of the newer acquaintances for the Finnish Quick Reaction Alert, having only started to appear on a regular basis over the Baltic Sea during the last year. Unlike the Su-24 it slowly replaces, the Su-34 is able to meet most fighters on near equal terms, meaning that the need for a dedicated fighter escort is much lower. The sensors and weapons are also markedly more modern. The large cockpit with the pilot and navigator/weapons officer seated side-by-side is very large for an aircraft of its size, making it possible for the crews to move around during long missions, and featurs both a toilette and a small galley.

Of interest is that the pictures released by the Finnish Air Force are taken from slightly below the Russian aircraft, and as such they show the load-out of the planes. The planes seem to have been armed with two Vympel R-73/74 (“AA-11 Archer”) advanced heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, as well as two light free-fall bombs. The later may be inert practice rounds, while the missiles seem to be live rounds. This load-out is not something that would be used in case of war, and is probably exercise related.

The plane has also been associated with the designations Su-27IB and Su-32, as these were given to different prototypes of the Su-34.

Tupolev Tu-22M

A pair of Tupolev Tu-22M3 intercepted by Finnish Air Force F-18C Hornets over the Gulf of Finland.
A pair of Tupolev Tu-22M3 intercepted by Finnish Air Force F-18C Hornets over the Gulf of Finland. Source: Puolustusvoimat.

The title Tu-22 is a bit misleading, as the original Tu-22 “Blinder” was the Soviet Union’s first supersonic bomber. A late 50’s design, it was featured a sleek design, engines mounted on top of the rear fuselage, a short range due to the inefficiency early jet engines, and an extremely high accident-rate, due to its high landing speed. All these Tu-22B/R/P/K/U have been retired.

The Tu-22M “Backfire” is the successor to this plane, and started life as a completely new design under the designation Tu-26, but as it was easier to “sell” the politicians a new version of an old airplane as opposed to a completely new one, the designation was changed. The Tu-22M entered service in the early 70’s, and also saw combat with the Soviet Air Force in Afghanistan.

Like its predecessor, the Tu-22M was designed to be blistering fast, and the main tactic is to approach a target at low level, relying on its speed to avoid interception by enemy fighters. It then employs cruise missiles to take out individual targets with great accuracy from outside the range of enemy air defences. This kind of attacks were practiced against Sweden during the Eastern of 2013 (the so called “Ryska Påsken”-incident), as well as against Denmark this summer. During the later incident the aircrafts involved actually carried live missiles. The aircraft also has a maritime strike role, being used hunt down enemy ships, and especially aircraft carriers in case of war.

Tupolev Tu-134

Tupolev Tu-134UB-L, with the pointed nose housing the radar equipment used to train bomber pilots with. Source: Wikimedia Commons/Igor Dvurekov.

Tu-134 “Crusty” started its life as a short-range passenger plane in the mid 60’s, and was widely used throughout Eastern Europe. A number of the early versions were equipped with glass noses, to aid the navigator when navigating by traditional use of map and basic flight data. A devastating accident in 2011 sped up the plans to retire the aircraft due to safety concerns, meaning that today almost no civilian Tu-134’s are in use. The Russian Air Force, however, uses a number of modified aircraft for training bomber pilots. These have the same radar and instrumentation as the Tu-22M3 and Tu-160, and are easily identified by their long pointed noses. These are sometimes known by the nickname Buratino, from the Pinocchio-like figure created by Aleksey Nikolayevich Tolstoy. It was a civilian Tu-134 that was hijacked and flown to Helsinki in July 1977.

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