Monday, July 29, 2002

Technology and the Former-USSR: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

Maybe it's just me, but the formerly-Soviet Republics scare the bejeezus out of me. The cold war has been over for more than a decade, NATO and Russia are in bed together, the ages-old threat of fiery-hell raining down across the North Pole has been virtually neutralized. Communism has been swatted on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper and sent to the kennel in the backyard. From a warmongering point of view, the world seems to be a safer place. But what kind of technological legacy has the USSR left in its wake? The sickle and hammers have all been painted over, but the planes, tanks, missiles, and other wonders which the USSR built to prove their technological and engineering superiority over the US still exist today. They exist, with no money to maintain them or to keep them safe.

The cash-strapped former-USSR Republics seem to be entirely incapable of operating them safely. Over this last weekend, 83 people , including 16 children, were killed in the worst air show accident in history in Lviv, Ukraine. 116 others were injured. The causes of the crash are still under investigation, but a number of things have become clear. The Sukhoi Su-27 is one of the most agile and deadly aircraft in the Ukrainian Air Force, capable of speeds of up to Mach 2.35, and yet the Ukrainian officers in charge of the air show did nothing to control or protect the crowd at the show. There were no barricades keeping viewers from entering the flight path (read: potential crash-path) of the performing aircraft. The aircraft, which may have suffered a major engine failure before the crash, had been inadequately maintained due to lack of funds. And the pilots of the two-man plane, who may or may not have been able to control the plane and keep it from crashing into the audience, ejected to safety well before it plowed into the tarmac and burst into flames. This was after performing a risky stunt at extremely low-altitude, clipping the surface of the runway, and slicing off the nose of another plane, proving the pilots' deadly lack of skill and training.

A day later, a Russian Ilyushin Il-86 airliner crashed shortly after take-off from the Sheremetyevo-1 airport in Moscow, killing 14 of its crew. Fortunately, the plane wasn't carrying any passengers at the time. Although the causes of the crash are still under investigation, witnesses saw that the plane was climbing too steeply before leveling and falling from the sky and suspect another technical failure with the plane itself.

A month ago, 71 people died when another Russian airliner, a Tupolev Tu-154 carrying Russian children to a holiday in Spain, collided over the Swiss-German border with a cargo plane. Last October, a Ukrainian anti-aircraft unit launched a missile during a training exercise and hit a Russian airliner, killing all 78 people aboard. And don't even get me started on the sinking of the Kursk. And these are only the accidents that are reported in the media.

These tragedies keep happening. They have been spawned by a relatively new concept in world history: a technological superpower that has been dismantled, impoverished and burdened with the legacy of its symbols of strength and superiority to the point where it can no longer support itself. The former-USSR Republics cannot afford to maintain this legacy, and as these vehicles and weapons age with time, there will be more of these accidents. Training has also been reduced to keep costs down, making the crews of these vehicles less capable of avoiding such disasters and compounding the problem. And what happens if weapons of mass destruction are involved -- not necessarily a launch system failing, but maybe reducing security to the point where such weapons can be stolen and used for a private agenda? It makes me weak in the knees thinking about it.

I don't really have a solution. As this is a new historical concept, there aren't a lot of clues we can gain from the past. I suppose the key here is sustainability: if Russia and the other formerly-USSR states cannot afford to maintain and operate their vehicles safely, they should not be operated at all. Air Forces, fleets, and stockpiles should be reduced and destroyed to a sustainable level as soon as possible, leaving more money available for the vehicles that are needed more regularly, such as airliners and commercial vehicles. Mothballing isn't enough: when you put too many of these machines together, it might make a tempting target for those who sell them on the black market. Although these nations have done a great deal to reduce the amount of materiel remaining in active service, more obviously needs to be done. And who's going to tell Russia that they have to scrap half their fighter planes? Something tells me that they won't see this as being in the best interests of their national security.

Maybe there are simpler lessons to be learned: don't go to air shows in former-USSR Republics because something is liable to explode into a fireball, avoid Russian airliners, and if there's something big falling out of the sky at you, don't stand and look at it, r-u-n a-w-a-y. It's just common sense, isn't it?

Don't worry, something more uplifting tomorrow....I promise!


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