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Chapter 15

Ugransky Air Force Base

Smolensk Oblast, Russian Federation

General Andrei Stepanenkov sat in the back of the open-topped Uaz truck parked by the base’s runway. Sitting next to him was the visitor to the base.

Overhead four MiGs were returning from an exercise and coming in for their landing runs. Admiring the lines of the planes as they passed them by Stepanenkov thought of how often Westerners derided the appearance of Soviet creations, but even they regarded the MiG-29 as quite an impressive-looking aircraft. Its wings and twin vertical stabilizers made him think of fins, the inlets on its leading-edge wing extensions below the cockpit of gills, the bubble of the cockpit canopy perched high and well forward on the nose as its eyes looking out from the menacing head – a flying shark prowling the skies for prey, which was exactly how a fighter should look.

Stepanenkov knew that aesthetics mattered in this business. The aviator’s gut feeling that a plane that looked right probably flew right aside, he understood that the people making the decisions were often politicians and bureaucrats were inordinately swayed by such factors.

His visitor appeared suitably impressed.

“They’re certainly very agile,” he said in English, having just seen their display of maneuvering in the sky above their heads.

“Indeed, and that is not all they offer,” Stepanenkov answered in the same language. “The fire-control systems, especially the helmet-mounted sights, are a decade ahead of anything the Americans will have, and the R-73 missile they use in short-range engagements is the very best of its kind in the world.

“At short range a unit with MiG-29s will defeat any comparable unit of American aircraft. At long range, when armed with the R-77 missile, they can hold their own against any Western aircraft too, the American F-14 included.”

The visitor smiled wryly. “All this, yet they did rather poorly in the Gulf, as I recall. Several of them fell to the missiles of American F-15s without even firing back, according to the report.”

“True,” Stepanenkov allowed, “but those aircraft were export versions, with many vital components missing – they did not even have the look down/shoot down radar standard in the model, a point neglected by gloating American commentators, even though they were well aware of the fact. Nor did they carry the new missiles.

“The planes also had very poorly trained pilots who preferred to flee when detecting an American radar signal to fighting.

“These aircraft, however, are our own fully-equipped versions, and the training of the personnel will be limited only by what you are prepared to pay for.

“Keep in mind also that the airframes are relatively new, and that the MiG-29 is likely to have a long life ahead of it, assuming appropriate upgrades – which we will be in a position to secure for you, perhaps even before our own air force will benefit from them.”

There was no shortage of out-of-work engineers in the country, many of whom would have been happy to get a contract to do the necessary work.

“How many of these aircraft would you be able to secure?”

“As many as you are willing to pay for,” Stepanenkov said, not regarding his claim as at all extravagant.

The second MiG made its landing run, and then the third, and then the fourth and last.

It was important that this customer see a well-oiled operation, a contrast with the chaos characterizing so much else of the Russian armed forces. They needed a good opinion of the military from which they were purchasing their equipment. They also needed to see the man they were dealing with as someone who could get things done.

But it also didn’t do to show them too much. His foreign visitor certainly didn’t need to know who else was shopping or training here.

The General signaled the driver. He pulled them away from the runway and spirited them to his office where they continued the discussion over a bottle of scotch.

“For the time being there are no official international sanctions against my government, but the Americans are inclined to try and . . . dissuade potential sellers from doing business with us,” his visitor said. “And we are also mindful of the need to properly maintain the equipment one has purchased. Too many governments buy arsenals of beautiful aircraft and end up with a collection of very expensive paperweights. So planes mean little to us unless we can count on a steady supply of spare parts.”

“I understand, and I believe we will be able to accommodate you. Already we have . . . some experience in such matters. The confidentiality that is part of the service forbids me from going into the details, of course.”

“Of course.” The expectation would be that such confidentiality would translate to them when they needed it.

They discussed a shipment of such parts for a number of aircraft that had recently come into his government’s possession. Stepanenkov would arrange for those parts, and if the customer were satisfied, they would make a larger purchase, this one to include new aircraft.

It wasn’t the deal of the century by any means, but Stepanenkov regarded it as a successful bit of business all the same, another step forward. After seeing the visitor – now his client –back to his car, and making a few phone calls to get the ball rolling on his end of the deal, he celebrated with a glass of Stoli.

Stepanenkov had big plans for this base, and others, operated by colleagues, associates, partners.

“As of last year, the Soviet Air Force had over six thousand fighters, bombers and attack aircraft actually in service,” he’d told his colleagues. “Six thousand, and that without counting trainers, transports, helicopters. The navy and army have their own aircraft as well, many thousands more.

“And this is just one category of our holdings. The armed forces have over one hundred thousand armored vehicles. One hundred thousand! This includes fifty thousand tanks, and seventy thousand vehicles of other types! Motorized transport, artillery, anti-aircraft systems, naval vessels of all types, small arms, it is the same in each and every area, and then there are the mountains of items that go with them, ammunition, spare parts, the equipment for support units.

“Many of the other republics have claims on this stock of assets, but the vast majority of it is on Russian soil, or on Russian bases in other sovereign countries. We can no longer afford to support such a force. What is to become of the dismantled units, and the idled factory plant that exists to support them? What good would it be to put it all in storage and let it rust, or to watch avoidable accidents whittle away units we cannot afford to keep up? Or let politicians agree to scrap them under some traitorous arms control agreement?”

That sort of patriotic talk went over well with them, and it suited him too. Stepanenkov thought of himself as a patriot. But he thought there was a big difference between being a patriot and being a fool.

Men like his father had served their country and got what for it? A few shabby privileges which were almost worthless now, in the new market economy to which there had probably been no alternative.

That wouldn’t do for Stepanenkov and his comrades. They would safeguard the country, but they would also claim their just rewards for a job well done.

“Of course, the customer base to absorb all these aircraft doesn’t exist, certainly not if they’re priced at market rates, and not with the Americans also doing their damnedest to cut off our old buyers.

“Iraq’s under sanctions. Libya will be soon. Then there are all the others who are too poor to buy what they used to – old client states no longer enjoying ‘friendship’ deals. Others who have money may look more frequently to the West, the Indians for instance. But there are still a lot of business opportunities out there, which we would be fools to not seize.

“And which, I remind you, may be crucial to keep Russia from turning into a Western colony. This talk of economic conversion’s a fantasy. We have to compete with the whole world market now, Europe, Japan, America, and you’re not going to see Russian-brand computers and cars flooding international markets anytime soon. Maybe not ever, if we continue to listen to such foolishness. But armaments – this is an area in which we can compete, and a sector which we cannot afford to lose if we are to retain even a semblance of independence.”

After all, where would the money for a new generation of Russian weaponry come from? He remembered the talk of a fifth generation fighter a few years earlier, back when it had seemed the Soviet Union would last long enough to produce one. Redundant fly-by-wire control systems and glass cockpits such as only future versions of the MiG-29 would have were already becoming standard in fighter aircraft. Even the fire control system of which he’d spoken so highly would also be standard in a few years’ time. By then, the first next-generation planes might be arriving in service, aircraft with stealthy bodies, phased-array radars, super cruise-capable turbofans with three-dimensional thrust-vectoring. A plane like that would be capable of knocking down a whole squadron of their MiGs before they even saw it coming.

Russia’s staying competitive in the global arms market would mean its being able to offer such aircraft of its own. Given the government’s straits, private investors would almost certainly have to put up the money, and Stepanenkov and his associates were the logical candidates because of the capital they could raise from the assets of which they were custodians. Enough planes, tanks and warships to equip several large militaries from scratch, a dozen pre-war Iraqs – money for the taking. Facilities they could turn to any number of uses – commercial test ranges, training centers. Like the big base out at Mary.

Stepanenkov would have a place like that, or better still, the place in Nevada where the Americans had their Red Flag exercises. (The story went that their “aggressor” squadron even had a collection of MiGs, real MiGs, which their pilots could train against.) It would be open to any air force in the world willing to pay the fees.

It was a big vision, but thinking big was a mark of a New Russian he thought proudly, then for a respite from business turned to the blueprints for the mansion he was building himself outside Smolensk.

The General’s phone rang just then. It was Colonel Boris Lebedev speaking. “General Shadrin’s flight is making its approach,” he informed him.

Stepanenkov checked his watch. The man was early. Eager to get this done with, perhaps; he didn’t blame him for that. He wanted the matter done with too. Of course, he’d have preferred the plane’s arrival after sunset, but there was nothing to be done about that now.

“Very well,” he said. “I’ll be there to meet it.”

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