Russia's Top Guns are still flying high

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The Independent Online
Savostleyka air base, east of Moscow - A British inspection team descended yesterday on the closest thing in Russia to a Top Gun-style fighter school.

A final intensive round of inspections is under way to check that the signatories to the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (CFE), which came into force three years ago, have reduced their armed forces to the required levels. It is the first time that Savostleyka, 200 miles east of Moscow, has been subject to a surprise inspection under the CFE.

The base is home to the 148th Combat Centre, which trains pilots to fly Russia's best air-to-air combat aircraft, the Sukhoi-27, known to Nato as the Flanker.

It is also the base for the 54th Fighter Wing, with 38 of the aircraft, and which helped develop tactics for one of the world's best fighters.

Savostleyka was covered with a mantle of snow and was surrounded by an endless sea of snow-laden silver-birch forest, populated by elk, foxes, boar and wolves.

The temperature was minus 20C and had dropped to minus 27C the previous night.

In spite of the enormous difficulties faced by the Russian military, the Russian air-defence force is keeping its best pilots in practice.

The commander of the base, Major-General Gennady Mukhamedyarov, flew 56 hours in Flankers last year and some of his pilots had managed 85 hours. And in spite of the country's economic difficulties, they live well.

When the inspection team, which was headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Henk de Jager, a Royal Marine of Dutch ancestry, arrived from Moscow on Monday night, it was greeted with a first-class banquet, complete with vodka and champagne. Although the inspections are meant to be by surprise, the limitations imposed by the weather may have given the Russians an inkling that they were coming.

The CFE treaty, signed in 1990 between Nato and the former Warsaw Pact, came into force in November 1992.

A three-year period was allowed to bring stocks of heavy weapons - tanks, other armoured fighting vehicles, artillery, combat aircraft and helicopters - down to agreed levels. In all, 50,000 items of "treaty-limited equipment" were destroyed. In November a four-month "residual-level validation period" began.

There were 51 sites in Russia that needed to be inspected, making an inspection by a Nato team necessary once a week.

The CFE treaty will be reviewed in May and the Russians want some changes. They say that what was conceived and signed as a treaty between Nato and the Warsaw Pact as they faced each other in the Cold War stand-off is no longer appropriate now that one of the blocs - and some of the states in it - have broken up.

The British team, which arrived in Moscow on Monday, had two targets this week.

The first was a surprise until an hour after they arrived in the city.

The second will be announced when the first inspection is over. Colonel de Jager chose Savostleyka as his first objective and the team was immediately flown to the airfield in an Ilyushin-18, one of several aircraft kept on permanent standby for the purpose.

The inspectors are primarily concerned with checking that the treaty has been fulfilled but in the process they always establish a rapport with the people they are inspecting, which boosts trust and confidence.

In Russia they are particularly concerned to check that military equipment is kept secure in case it falls into the wrong hands. But in spite of the changes in Russian society, they said, security at Russian bases remains good.

Yesterday morning the deputy commander of the inspection, Major Margaret Roberts, of the Intelligence Corps, moved out on to the tarmac to count the pale blue and white aircraft, all bearing the George and dragon insignia of the airbase.

The Russians had declared 37 Flankers to be based at Savostleyka in the annual data exchange provided for in the treaty.

In fact, there were 38: a new one had arrived from the factory on 5 January.