The Yak-38: A primer on Russia’s own version of the Harrier Fighter – The Yakovlev Yak-38 (“Forger”) was the Soviet Navy’s first and only vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) strike fighter aircraft. Developed in the 1960s with its first flight in 1971, this fighter was introduced in 1976 to operate from the Soviet’s Kiev-class “heavy aviation cruisers” (hybrid carriers suited for both attack and the projection of air power).
Following the release of the Hawker Siddeley P.1127, Britain’s VTOL fighter and the first VTOL fighter ever created, the Soviets saw a VTOL fighter craft as fitting to their vision of deploying heavy cruisers rather than full-scale, single-purpose aircraft carriers. Having an operational VTOL would allow for landing and takeoff in much more limited spaces, such as smaller cruisers.
After releasing the experimental model in 1971, development took an additional five years and four prototypes. These years were necessary to incorporate a functional thrust vectoring system supportive of consistent and reliable take-off action.
The Yak-38 entering serial production in 1976 featured one Soyuz R-28 engine and two Rybinski RD-36 lift turbofans. Its maximum speed was 795 miles per hour with a range of about 800 miles and an altitude of just over 36,000 feet.
Yak-38: The Problems
Despite the technological breakthroughs surrounding the Yak-38, it also faced problems from the start.
Although the VTOL systems worked relatively well, the jump jet integration made the fighter difficult to operate and maneuver, even when being flown by experienced pilots.
Testing runs conducted during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan showed that the Forger produced huge clouds of dust, dirt and debris when taking off from certain surfaces, which could affect the engines as well as nearby personnel.
In addition, when its Kiev-class carriers sailed off the coast of West Africa and in the Indian Ocean, the fighter’s lift jets wouldn’t start under the hot and humid conditions.
Yak-38: Not Enough Weapons
Another major problem was with the fighter’s armaments and operating range. The Yak-38 only had four underwing hardpoints and possessed the capacity to carry up to 4,400 pounds of ordnance. Its weak weapons loadout would be typically fitted with Kh-23 air-to-surface missiles and R-60 air-to-air missiles. On top of this, its ideal range was limited to 320 kilometers, making its usefulness as an attack fighter highly questionable. Rounding out its weapons payload would be either one or two GSh-23L 23 millimeter guns.
Despite years of trying to salvage the Yak-38 through largely unimpactful variants, the aircraft was retired in 1991 just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite being quite impressive in its ability to perform VLOT, the Forger simply never proved its battlefield usefulness.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review.