Ukraine seeks foreign clients for pilot training site

By IANS/RIA Novosti,

Kiev: Ukraine is considering leasing out a carrier-deck pilot training site in the Crimea to other countries, and India and China are the “obvious potential candidates”.

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Ukrainian First Deputy Defence Minister Oleksandr Oleinik said that under a 1997 bilateral agreement, Russia occasionally uses Ukraine’s Nitka Naval Pilot Training Center as the only training facility for its carrier-based fixed-wing pilots, but that could change.

“Various options are being considered. For example, if Russia is unable to use this facility 100 percent, then Russia should have no objections to its use for training by forces from other states, subject to Russia’s consent,” he said.

At present, the site is only used by Russia on a short-term basis to train Northern Fleet carrier pilots, who fly Su-33 naval fighter jets and Su-25UTG conversion trainers.

The Russian defence ministry has previously asked the Ukrainian defence ministry to lease the site to Russia. Ukraine’s then-defence minister Mykhailo Yezhel supported Russia’s request.

However, the Russia lease option “has not been confirmed”, Oleinik said, and so the Ukrainian defence ministry is looking at other options.

Douglas Barrie, air warfare analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: “India and China are the obvious potential candidates for this.”

India is awaiting delivery of a refurbished Russian aircraft carrier which will operate Russian MiG-29K fighter jets.

China only has one carrier, from which naval aircraft were seen operating for the first time last year, and has little experience of fixed-wing naval operations.

Most other aircraft carrier operators either use short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft whose crews would not need a facility like Nitka, or have their own such facilities, or use only ships for training.

Under the original agreement, Russia traded use of the Nitka facilities for spare parts for Sukhoi-family naval fighter jets, which were the only type allowed to operate at the center. Russia and Ukraine were Nitka’s only users.

In August, Russia’s then-defence minister Anatoly Serdyukov said Russia and Ukraine had signed a protocol on amendments to that agreement, setting out payment for using the site, unrestricted use of a range of naval aircraft for training and testing, and the possibility of sharing the centre with third parties.

The Nitka Centre was built in the Soviet era for pilots to practice taking-off and landing from aircraft carrier decks.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the facility remained under Ukraine’s control.

The centre provides facilities such as a launch pad, a catapult launch device and arrester wires, a glide-path localizer, a marker beacon, and an optical landing system.

The Russian defence ministry said last year it pays about $700,000 annually for the rent of the Nitka Centre and is willing to upgrade the facility.

Russia, which has only one aircraft carrier – the Admiral Kuznetsov – is drawing up plans for a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier for its navy by 2018.