A related press release from Beijing’s state press agency carefully noted that the exercise “facilitate the pragmatic cooperation between the air forces of China and Russia in the military training field. The military cooperation between China and Russia is not targeted at any third party.”
Above all, perhaps, the high level of local media attention afforded to Aviadarts should be seen in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to flex Russian military muscle to the watching world: It was not too long ago that Russian air force units were struggling to find the fuel and spares to maintain even the minimum level of daily operations.
Aviadarts first took place in 2013, when around 50 pilots participated. This year has already seen two rounds of the competition. The first, which concluded in May, was an all-Russian affair, and involved around 50 aircrew flying from three different air bases. With this second round open to international participants, the Russian military is not only exhibiting the prowess of its aviators, but making efforts to build foreign relations at a time when Russia’s foreign policy is facing harsh criticism.
Certainly, some of the aspects of Aviadarts would come as a surprise to a NATO or other Western flier. In the weapon-employment phase, the tactical jets only employ unguided ordnance. That is to say, on-board cannon, free-fall dumb bombs and unguided rockets and no precision-guided munitions or guided missiles. Some observers have billed the Aviadarts exercise as a Russian Top Gun—a reference to the U.S. Navy’s fighter tactics schoolhouse, which the sailing branch established after losing a shocking number of pilots during the Vietnam War.
For Russia, this kind of alliance-building is useful at a time when its leaders increasingly are ostracized in the West. For the fighter pilots, a place at Aviadarts means heading to Lipetsk, the Russian air force’s center for combat and conversion training. If there is an elite unit within today’s Russian air force, then Lipetsk holds that mantle. Once at Lipetsk, competing fighter pilots have to demonstrate their skills in aerobatics, navigation, reconnaissance and evasion of ground-based air defense systems—including the feared S-300 surface-to-air missile. In order to get a place competing at Aviadarts, Russian pilots first must prove themselves the best within their own units, and then within their military district—one of the four operational commands of the Russian armed forces. Physical fitness, tactical acumen and gunnery all count.