Russian Air-Delivered Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons
Before starting a discussion of Russian non-strategic or tactical air-delivered nuclear weapons, it is important for the reader to understand that these weapons do not exist in isolation. They are part of what amounts to a Russian non-strategic nuclear Triad composed of: 1) ground-based nuclear capable short- to intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles; 2) a sea-based force of nuclear-capable cruise missiles carried on both surface ships and submarines; and 3) an air-delivered non-strategic nuclear force of Backfire bombers and a variety of long-range fighter aircraft which carry both nuclear bombs and nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles. Russia’s non-strategic nuclear Triad has the same resilience, flexibility, survivability, and defense penetration ability of Russia’s better known strategic Triad. Only Russia, and apparently China, have a non-strategic nuclear Triad. Russia is secretive about its non-strategic nuclear capabilities, particularly its low-yield weapons; hence, it is unlikely that the picture derived from open sources is complete.
Russia routinely practices the first use of nuclear weapons in major theater exercises. Indeed, in 2014, Russian expatriate Nikolai Sokov wrote, “…nuclear exercises have been conducted with targets in Europe, the Pacific, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and even the continental United States,” and, “…all large-scale military exercises that Russia conducted beginning in 2000 featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes.” The implication of this is that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons in a variety of conflicts, including minor ones, which was suggested by its Secretary of the National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev in October 2009. He said that existing policy allowed the first use of nuclear weapons even in “local” wars. Indeed, in 2010, the official newspaper of the Far East Military District said, “To suppress a large center of the separatists’ resistance and to achieve minimal losses of the attacking troops a low-yield ‘nuclear’ attack was mounted against the enemy.”
Russia’s strategy of limited nuclear strikes is characterized in the U.S. as an “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy. Russia calls its strategy “de-escalation of aggression,” but it does not characterize nuclear first use as “escalation.” The Russian belief is that its introduction of nuclear weapons will terminate the conflict in the Russian favor. When Russia first announced its simulated first use of nuclear weapons in the Zapad 1999 theater war exercise, then-Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeyev asserted, “Our Army was forced to launch nuclear strikes first [in Zapad-1999] which enabled it to achieve a breakthrough in the theater situation.” This is perhaps the classic high-level statement of Russia’s view regarding the impact of its introduction of nuclear weapons into a war against NATO.
Russia will not be invaded by NATO. The current focus of Russia’s strategy appears to be to deter a NATO counterattack after a Russian invasion of a weak NATO state (e.g., the Baltic republics) as former STRATCOM commander General (ret.) Kevin Chilton pointed out in April 2018 and what NATO Deputy Commander Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Bradshaw said in February 2015. In 2017, then-Director of the DIA Lieutenant General Vincent Stewart said Russia has built nuclear de-escalation “…into their operational concept, we’ve seen them exercise that idea…”
Russia’s Non-Strategic Nuclear Capable Aircraft
According to the Russian Federation Defense Ministry (MoD), a mission of the Russian Air Force (now called the Aerospace Force) is the “…destruction of enemy objects and troops using both conventional and nuclear ordnance.” Writing in 2000, Nikolai Sokov stated Russian Air Force “aircraft are versatile, being able to use both conventional and nuclear short-range missiles and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). Even more important, even in a nuclear role they can be employed for substrategic missions, in line with the latest Military Doctrine…” Little has changed since 2000 except that Russia’s non-strategic capabilities have grown much larger.
The role of strategic and non-strategic nuclear weapons in the Russian Aerospace Force is much greater than in the U.S. Air Force. All Russian fighters are reportedly nuclear capable. This includes the world’s only close support aircraft that can carry tactical nuclear bombs. As Dave Johnson, then with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, writes, “The Russian non-strategic Air Force differs considerably from our own. For delivery of non-strategic nuclear weapons, Russia is fielding new dual-capable fighter aircraft such as the SU-34 and modernizing its fleet of existing dual-capable aircraft (SU-24M2 FENCER) and developing new air and sea-launched cruise missiles.”
Nuclear-capable missiles play a major role in Russia’s strategy. Against advanced air defenses, this can be an advantage in the nuclear mission where the procurement of large numbers of expensive missiles is not necessary. Russia is modernizing both its air-launched missiles and, according to Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva, it has also been “…developing new nonstrategic nuclear weapons…” A 2008 joint report of the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy pointed out there has been “…increased training for nuclear operations in all military branches…”
The growing Russian air-delivery capability for non-strategic nuclear weapons is composed of Backfire bombers, a declining number of legacy Soviet fighters, a growing variety of high performance 4.5 generation multi-role fighters and soon the first nuclear-capable Su-57 5th generation want-to-be fighters. (In reality, it is somewhere between a 4.5 and 5th generation fighter.) No other nation, except perhaps China, is introducing so many types of new fighter aircraft, each type produced in relatively modest numbers. Small numbers of legacy aircraft are also being modernized with 4.5 generation technology as is the Backfire bomber.
The reported limited stealth of the Su-57 fighter (.5 square meter RCS) and other developmental problems resulted in the termination by India of its joint program with Russia to develop an improved Su-57. The Su-57 is highly maneuverable and outclasses Western 4.5 generation fighters in most or even all respects, but its limited stealth will not allow it to penetrate advanced defenses primarily because of its stealth. It will be heavily dependent on ECM and/or stand-off missiles capable of being carried internally. In May 2018, the Russian Defense Ministry released a video of the Su-57 launching from its bomb-bay an offensive missile (possibly a Kh-59), estimated to be able to launch a 500-lb warhead at least 150 miles. The Su-57 reportedly also carries “…the Izdelie 810, the Kh-58USHke, Kh-35UE and the Brahmos-NG among others.” State-run Sputnik News says the Brahmos is nuclear capable. External carriage of larger missiles is certainly possible, but that would turn the Su-57 into a 4.5 generation fighter. In May 2018, Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu said that advanced operational, tactical cruise missiles (Russian terminology for ranges from several hundred kilometers to about 1,000-km) had been launched from the Su-57 in Syria.
The bottom line is that there is no indication Russia in the mid-term will have any fighter aircraft that can engage in direct attack against heavily defended targets as the F-35 can. However, we must remember that there is little in the way of advanced integrated air defense in NATO or, indeed, in any country Russia borders except China, and for the foreseeable future, this is unlikely to change. (The U.S. has the elements of an advanced system, but they are not integrated or devoted in sufficient numbers to air defenses against large attacks). Direct attack capability is much less important for the nuclear mission because Russia has a large array of nuclear-capable non-strategic missiles which we and our allies lack.
Russian problems in developing stealth aircraft (which they will eventually achieve) have resulted in more emphasis on very long-range dual-capable theater missile strike capability than in the United States. While we should not model our forces on those of Russia, there are certain advantages in having dual-capable, stealthy long-range cruise missiles on fighters. Indeed, for similar reasons, we are putting conventional JASSM, JASSM-ER and LRASM on our 4th generation fighters.
Arms control limitations, assuming compliance which frequently is not the case in Russia, hits dual-capable long-range air-launched cruise missiles very hard. They can only be deployed on heavy bombers if their range is 600-km or more. Conventional-only long-range ALCMs can be carried by anything that flies. Hence, there is no incentive for Russia to be candid regarding which of its missiles are nuclear capable. This gives the normally secretive Russians even more incentive to keep such developments secret. To some extent, this is counter-balanced by Russia’s tendency to make nuclear threats, which requires revealing its nuclear capabilities. In some cases, it has done so.
The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review states that the Russian non-strategic nuclear force includes a “…number of air delivered weapons including air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation…” These are generic categories, and in many of them, there is more than one type of Russian system involved. One of the biggest threat developments over the last decade has been the proliferation of highly accurate Russian long-range dual-capable cruise missiles. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review states, Russia “is also building a large, diverse, and modern set of non-strategic systems that are dual-capable (may be armed with nuclear or conventional weapons).” Dave Johnson, now a staff officer in the NATO International Staff Defense Policy and Planning Division, has written that, “…the capabilities now available to Russia consist of redundant, overlapping, long-range, dual-capable missile coverage of nearly all of Europe from within Russian territory, airspace, and home waters.” He also noted regarding Russia’s precision strike weapons systems, that “…all… are dual-capable or have nuclear analogs.”
This is very important for the Russian nuclear mission. First, if Russian dual-capable missiles are accurate enough for effective conventional attacks, they represent a dramatic increase in high-intensity conventional warfare capability, and they have more than enough accuracy for the precision low-yield nuclear weapons the Russians began speaking about as instruments of the nuclear “de-escalation” concept in the 1990s. Second, we must keep in mind that if any of these nuclear-capable cruise missiles with a range of 600-km or more are launched from any aircraft other than a heavy bomber, this generates a New START Treaty violation, giving Russia an incentive to conceal the range and/or the nuclear capability of these missiles. Still, there is still significant information available in open sources.
Russian Long-Range Dual Capable Strike Missiles
One of Putin’s five nuclear “superweapons” he unveiled in his March 1, 2018 State of the Nation address was the Kinzhal “hypersonic missile” (actually it is an “aeroballistic missile”) which he said was capable of “delivering nuclear and conventional warheads in a range of over 2,000-km.” Putin displayed a video showing it hitting a land-based bunker and an Aegis cruiser. Deputy Russian Defense Minister Yuri Borisov said that ten Kinzhals are operational on the Mig-31 fighters and TASS, the main official Russian news agency, reports that an “aeroballistic missile,” apparently the Kinzhal, will be carried by the Su-34 long-range strike fighter. Because the Su-34 is slower than the Mig-31, the Kinzhal won’t fly as far as it can when launched by a Mig-31, but its range will still be quite considerable. The Mig-41, the successor to the Mig-31, will reportedly be able to fly at 4,500-km per hour. If the Kinzhal, or its successor, is deployed on a Mig-41, presumably it will fly further than its 2,000-km+ range when launched by the Mig-31, although heating problems may have to be solved.
The Kinzhal is not limited by the New START Treaty and can legally be deployed on any aircraft big enough to carry it outside of Treaty constraints. In the future, this might include the Backfire bomber, the Su-30SM, the Su-35S, the Su-57 and the Mig-41. Its range will depend on the altitude and speed to which it can be carried before launch. No Western country has such a nuclear-capable missile system. The only Western fighter-launched nuclear missile is the medium-range French ASMPA, which has both a strategic and tactical mission.
In December 2015, President Vladimir Putin stated, “Both the Calibre [Kalibr] missiles and the Kh-101 rockets are generally showing very good results. We now see that these are new, modern and highly effective high-precision weapons that can be equipped either with conventional or special nuclear warheads.” Putin’s revelation about the Kh-101 is largely ignored in the West, even though the Russian Defense Ministry has said the same thing about the Kh-101. The Kh-101 is very important because it is stealthy, highly accurate, and has a very long-range (4,500-km). There are reports in the Russian state media that it will be deployed on the improved version of the Backfire bomber.
The Backfire bomber is an extremely important system because it is the subject of a very substantial upgrade (the Tu-22M3M), and will be operational this year carrying the new Kh-32 1,000-km range cruise missile, according to TASS. The Kh-32 is described in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review as being nuclear capable. Sputnik News confirms this saying, “…the Kh-32 can carry either conventional or nuclear munitions.” State-run Russia Beyond the Headlines also says its range is 1,000-km and it can be armed “…with a nuclear or conventional 500-kilogram (1,102 lb) warhead and hit targets within a few yards.”
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official newspaper of the Russian Government, reports the new version of the Backfire (Tu-22M3M) can carry the Kh-101 and the Kh-555, both long-range air-launched cruise missiles. The Kh-101 is nuclear capable, according to Putin and the Russian MoD. The Kh-555 was long reported to be the conventional modification of the Kh-55 (AS-15) nuclear air-launched cruise missile. However, Sputnik News says it is dual capable: “Second, in addition to the nuclear option, the Kh-555 can carry up to 410 kg of conventional munitions.” It also noted that it was five times as accurate as the Kh-55.
There are also two other new missiles associated with the improved Backfire. It reportedly might also carry the, “Kh-SD missile and the supersonic Kh-MT, both [are] still under development. The new munitions offer ranges of up to 2,000 and 1,000 kilometers, respectively, and combine stealthy airframes with modern guidance systems and warheads.” While the type of warheads is not mentioned, it would be very unusual if they were not nuclear capable.
In 2012, the Commander of the Russian Air Force Colonel General Alexander Zelin stated that the Su-34 long-range strike fighter would be given “…long range missiles…Such work is underway and I think that it is the platform that can solve the problem of increasing nuclear deterrence forces within the Air Force strategic aviation.” This may be the Kinzhal but it does have enough range to give it a true strategic capability. For a very long-range strike, the Kh-101 would be better.
Dual-Capable Hypersonic Missiles
Russia is developing hypersonic weapons and should deploy them soon. As Katarzyna Zysk, Associate Professor at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies, notes, “Russia has been developing missiles that can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, also known as dual capable delivery systems. Such systems can be used not only on cruise and ballistic missiles but also on the new hypersonic cruise missiles that Russia has been researching and developing. The program is likely intended to be nuclear-capable as well, given that their purpose will be to strike high-value targets with high reliability…” Interfax, Russia’s main non-governmental news agency, reports that the Russian Zircon hypersonic missile, which DIA says has a range of between 500-1,000-km, can be fitted to aircraft.
Short- and Medium-Range Nuclear Capable Air-launched Missiles
The legacy Soviet non-strategic missile systems were either nuclear or dual-capable but lacked precision accuracy in land attack. This includes a number of systems which had ranges of under 600-km or at least were alleged to have such a range for arms control reasons. As described above, the successors to the medium-range Soviet cruise missiles are long-range nuclear-capable cruise missiles, despite arms control compliance issues.
The Soviet nuclear-capable Kh-22 (AS-4 Kitchen) 300-km range land-attack cruise missile, carried by the Backfire bomber, is still operational although it will be replaced by the long-range Kh-32. The Kh-22 is supersonic (Sputnik News says Mach 4 in its terminal dive), and it is difficult to intercept. The Soviet supersonic short-range Kh-15 (AS-16), carried by the Backfire, was nuclear-only but Sputnik News reports it is still operational and the nuclear version “…was later complemented by a conventional variant.” This implies a considerable increase in accuracy. Izvestia also reports that the Backfire can launch nuclear Kh-15 missiles.
In 2017, Boris Obnosov CEO of the Tactical Missiles Corporation said that before 2020 Russia would add “…a new family of items [cruise missiles] with a range of 200km, 400km, 600km and 1,000km.” He did not mention warhead type, but dual-capability is the norm.
During the Cold War, Russian fighters carried nuclear bombs and short-range nuclear missiles with a range of up to 100 miles. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and Russian expert Alexei Arbatov, former Vice Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, said Russia now has non-strategic nuclear bombs and air-to-surface missiles but provide no detail on the ranges of these missiles.
Russian Development of Advanced Earth Penetration Nuclear Weapons
There have been repeated statements by the Directors of the Russian Sarov nuclear weapons laboratory about Russian development of nuclear earth penetrator weapons. The most detailed of these was by former Atomic Energy Minister and then-Director of Sarov Viktor Mikhaylov, who in December 2002 stated, “The scientists are developing a nuclear ‘scalpel’ capable of ‘surgically removing’ and destroying very localized targets. The low-yield warhead will be surrounded with a superhardened casing which makes it possible to penetrate 30–40 meters into rock and destroy a buried target—for example, a troop command and control point or a nuclear munitions storage facility.” This is extremely advanced performance.
Mikhaylov did not say whether the warhead was strategic or tactical or whether it was a bomb or missile warhead. There is no reason it can’t be used for both strategic and tactical missions just as the U.S. B61 Mod 12 will be. As former Air Force Chief of Staff General Norty Schwartz wrote in his memoirs, “A lower yield means potentially less collateral damage and less radioactive fallout that civilians might encounter, with no sacrifice to target accuracy.” The Russian combination of low-yield, deep earth penetration and presumably precision or near-precision accuracy, will result in even lower collateral damage. Such deep penetration opens up the possibility of complete radioactive containment of a very low-yield explosion while retaining the ability to destroy targets of the type Mikhaylov described.
Russian Air Defense Non-Strategic Warheads
Russia has retained a variety of nuclear air and missile defense weapons. Russian press reports to this effect have been confirmed in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review which states that Russia has nuclear anti-aircraft missiles and anti-ballistic missiles. In addition to its new role as a launcher of Kinzhal offensive dual capable ballistic missiles, the Russian Mig-31 is Russia’s dedicated air defense interceptor. In this role, according to aviation journalist Piotr Butowski, it can carry the R-33S (AA-9) missiles fitted with a nuclear warhead. This missile is reportedly also carried by the Mig-29. Because of the small size of an air-to-air missile, this has to be low-yield warhead.
Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons
Since 2003, when it began to attack then non-existent U.S programs to develop low-yield nuclear weapons, the official Russian talking points would not confirm press reports that Russia had developed and even deployed new low-yield nuclear weapons. However, there is substantial evidence this is the case. A declassified year 2000 CIA report observed, “Moscow’s military doctrine on the use of nuclear weapons has been evolving and probably has served as the justification for the development of very low-yield, high-precision nuclear weapons. The range of applications will ultimately be determined by Russia’s evolving nuclear doctrine, and could include artillery, air-to-air weapons, ABM weapons, anti-satellite weapons or multiple rocket launchers against tanks or massed troops.…” In 2009, the bipartisan U.S. Strategic Commission report said Russia was developing “…low-yield tactical nuclear weapons including an earth penetrator.” (This may be the weapon Mikhaylov spoke about.) The existence of several Russian non-strategic nuclear weapons of these types, although not their yields, is acknowledged in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. However, it does note that, “Russia’s belief that limited nuclear first use, potentially including low-yield weapons, can provide such an advantage is based, in part, on Moscow’s perception that its greater number and variety of non-strategic nuclear systems provide a coercive advantage in crises and at lower levels of conflict.”
Prior to the start of the Russian propaganda attack, some Russian Generals were candid about the role of low-yield Russian nuclear weapons in the nuclear “de-escalation of aggression” strategy. In 1999, Colonel General Vladimir Muravyev, then-Deputy Commander of the Strategic Missile Force, said, “…the deterrent actions of strategic forces…[involve] strikes with both conventional and nuclear warheads with the goal of de-escalating the military conflict,” and Russian forces “…should be capable of conducting ‘surgical’ strikes…using both highly accurate, super-low yield nuclear weapons, as well as conventional ones…”
Clearly, Russia has a very large margin of superiority in all types of non-strategic nuclear weapons including air-delivered weapons, which are varied and numerous. The Russian Aerospace Force and the other services can launch types of theater nuclear attacks that we cannot match. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review began to address this problem in a variety of ways including Trident a low-yield nuclear warhead capability, a new nuclear-capable sea-launched cruise missile, improved dual capability aircraft readiness and, reportedly, earlier availability of the F-35 nuclear capability in Europe. Russia reportedly already has all of these capabilities except that it cannot match F-35 stealth. These decisions have been welcomed by the nations that are most threatened by Russia, China and North Korea. These programs have the potential to enhance our deterrent considerably.
Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.
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 Ibid., p. 9.
 Dave Johnson, Russia’s Conventional Precision Strike Capabilities, Regional Crises, and Nuclear Thresholds,
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 Ibid., p. 57.
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 “Army; Russian military to receive hypersonic weapons shortly - Defense Ministry,” Interfax, January 20, 2017, available at http://dialog.proquest.com/professional/docview/1860284808?accountid=155509.
 Katarzyna Zysk, “Nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Russia’s evolving military doctrine,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August 22, 2017, available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00963402.2017.1362908.
 “Russia developing Mach 6 capable cruise missile,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, September 14, 2016, available at http://dialog.proquest.com/professional/docview/1819149161?accountid=155509.: U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations, (Washington D.C.: Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017), p. 79, available at http://www.dia. mil/Portals/27/.
 “BALLISTIC AND CRUISE MISSILE THREAT,” (Wright-Patterson AFB, OH: National Air and Space Intelligence Center, 2017) p. 37, available at http://www.nasic.af.mil/Portals/19/images/Fact%20Sheet%20I mages/2017%20Ballistic%20and%20Cruise%20Missile%20Threat_Final_small.pdf?ver=2017-07-21-083234-343.:
“Winged Snipers: Best of the Best of Russia’s Ballistic and Cruise Missiles,” op. cit.
 “Russian pilots training to destroy US missile defences,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, June 2, 2016, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/docview/1793203837?accountid=155509.
 “Russia to develop cruise missiles capable of striking targets at 1,000km range,” TASS, July 20, 2017, available at http://tass.com/defense/957105.
 John M. Collins, American and Soviet Military Trends Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, (Georgetown University, 1978), p. 253.
 Nuclear Posture Review, op. cit., p. 54.: Russia Military Power: Building a Military to Support Great Power Aspirations, op. cit., p. 31.; Alexei Arbatov, “Arbatov Analyzes Possible Tactical Nuclear Weapons Reductions,” Voyenno-Promyshlenny Kuryer Online, May 17, 2010. (Translated by World News Connection.)
 Quoted in Mark Schneider, “The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent,” Comparative Strategy, Vol. 27, No. 4 (October 31, 2008), p. 348, available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01495930802358539.
 General (ret.) Norty Schwartz, Suzie Schwartz and Ronald Levinson, Journey Memoirs of an Air Force Chief of Staff, (New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2018), p. 318.
 Nuclear Posture Review, op. cit., p. 54.
 Piotr Butowski, “‘Foxhound’ Toolbox,” Combat Aircraft, March 2018, p. 74.
 Butowski, “2015 Russian Airpower Almanac,” op. cit., p. 61.
 “Evidence of Russian Development of New Subkiloton Nuclear Warheads [Redacted],” Intelligence
Memorandum, Central Intelligence Agency, August 30, 2000, approved for release October 2005, pp. 6, 10,
available at http://www.foia.cia.gov/sites/default/files/document_conversions/89801/DOC_0001260463.pdf.
 William J. Perry and James R. Schlesinger, America’s Strategic Posture - The Final Report of the Congressional
Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2009), p. 12,
available at http://media.usip.org/reports/strat_posture_report.pdf.
 Nuclear Posture Review, op. cit., p. 53.
 Ibid., p. XI-XII.
 James R. Howe, “Exploring the Dichotomy Between New START Treaty Obligations and Russian Actions and
Rhetoric,” Vision Centric, Inc., February 17, 2016, available at https://www.exchangemonitor.com//wp-content/
 Schneider, “Deterring Russian First Use of Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons,” op. cit.: Schneider, “The F-35 vs. the Russian Su-35 and the PAK FA,” op. cit.