'Overstretched' Russian air force suffers three crashes in five days

A Russian air force TU-95s "Bear" bomber has ignited while on a practice flight, in the third crash of a Russian plane in the last five days, prompting concern that the Kremlin might be overexerting the armed forces to display military might.

In the past year, Russia has increased the number of armed forces drills and practices in response to worsening diplomatic relations with the West over the war in Ukraine. Its air force has dramatically increased the number of unannounced patrol flights near European territory, as states such as the Baltics and Great Britain have been repeatedly forced to escort Russian planes away from their airspace.

Now the same model of aircraft which Russia flew off the coast of Bournemouth in January, prompting an RAF scramble, has skidded off a runway at a military practice base in Russia's Siberian Amurskaya region after a fire ignited in its engine during training flights, Russian news agency Interfax reported last night. The TU-95s which was involved in the accident flew without missiles on board.

It was initially reported that all five crew were injured, however when confirming the crash to Interfax today, an anonymous source from Russia's emergency services said one crew member had died, while another had sustained serious burns and remains in hospital. The other three crew members have been released from hospital.

All TU-95 flights remain grounded for the time being to allow for the inspection of any faults within the series which may cause a mishap in another plane.

Last night's crash is the third such mishap in the Russian air force since Thursday, when two different fighter jets crashed in different parts of the country.

Russia's state news agency Itar-Tass reported that a MiG-29 "Fulcrum" multirole fighter jet had crashed near a practice ground in Astrahanskaya region, in northern Caucasus after a technical fault. Both pilots ejected and no risk to their life was reported, according to the agency, however a Ministry of Defence did not elaborate on the explanation for the malfunction. Tass later reported that a commission had been set up to investigate the reason for the technical fault.

Later that same day an Su-34 "Fullback" fighter jet went down during a practice flight, sustaining "serious damage" after hitting the ground in Voronezhskaya region, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported. Public details on the crash are scarce, however the Ministry of Defence highlighted nobody had been hurt in the incident.

Perhaps more troubling than the crashes of the Bear and Fulcrum aircraft, both of which are Soviet design, is Thursday's Fullback crash. The Fullback is the newest aircraft currently in the Russian air force, the first unit of which was produced in 1993.

According to Dr Igor Sutyagin, Russian military expert at the UK's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), these recent incident could indicate that Russia's recent military sabre-rattling is taking its toll.

"This could be an interesting sign of the overstretching of Russian armed capabilities, because the maintenance template for these vehicles does not take into account the much higher operational tempo they have been operating under lately," Sutyagin says.

"The Bear bombers for example are designed for a single strike on missions not for extended training flights," he concluded.

Russian Bear bombers have been spotted off the UK coast over the last year and Nato's Baltic Air Police has previously intercepted Su-34 jets. Russian defence minister Sergei Shoygu boasted in March that Russia could afford to extend its programme of unannounced flyovers, despite protests from Nato and EU members.

According to Sutyagin if Russia continues stretching its capabilities with unannounced patrol flights a similar crash occurring near European territory is not inconceivable.

"Half a year ago when Nato fighters were intercepting Russian ones, some were saying how Nato would soon find itself without jets because it would overstretch them," Sutyagin says "Instead the opposite has happened."

"Looking at the Bears, the newest one of them was produced in 1992. It's more than 20 years old. No one can exclude mishaps on any flying machine especially one that is overexerted. That is why you cannot rule out a mishap such as this happening in European skies," he adds.

These air force incidents come as Russia enters an intense period of practice for its paratroopers, who are due to attend over 1,000 training events in the summer. The Kremlin has sought to also establish itself as a high quality manufacturer of arms as it has recently boasted that its next generation fighter jets will be superior to their US-made equivalents. The Ministry of Defence is set to launch its Armiya-2015 expo where its latest kit will be sold to representatives from 100 countries.

Correction: This article originally stated that the Russian air force suffered three jet crashes. The article has been updated to show that the it had suffered three crashes - one involving a TU-95s "Bear" bomber and two others involving fighter jets.