The complicated Yak 36 remains the Russian navy’s lone operational shipborne attack craft. It operates on the same principle as the more famous British Harrier, although it is lacking in payload and sophistication.
Throughout the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Russia and Great Britain experimented heavily with VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft for military applications. By 1969 the British arrived at a viable solution by deploying the British Aerospace Harrier, the world’s first VTOL attack craft. Russian efforts, by comparison, were conducted with much less imagination. They did not field a working prototype until 1967 with the appearance of a Yakovlev bureau prototype designated FREEHAND by NATO. It was a crude, if functional, machine compared to the sophisticated Harrier, apparently constructed as a testbed for follow-on designs. The pace of Yakovlev’s research increased by 1969, when construction of the Soviet Union’s first VTOL-dedicated aircraft carrier, the Kiev, commenced. However, it was not until 1976 that the Kiev sailed with a compliment of new Yak 36 fighters as standard equipment. Around 100 were apparently built, receiving the NATO designation FORGER.
Despite outward similarities to the Harrier, the Yak 36 is more primitive and less capable. It employs a main thrust engine for both vertical and horizontal flight, assisted by two smaller engines during liftoff. The engines are arrayed in vectoring nozzles, two forward and two aft. Thus configured, the Yak 36 cannot make conventional takeoffs from a carrier deck, lacking forward thrust. It is therefore constricted to fuel-consuming vertical-lift operations. Neither does the FORGER employ wingtip nozzles like the Harrier, making it incapable of such dazzling maneuvers as vectored thrust in combat (“viffing”). For all its limitations, the Yak 36 is still a viable shipborne strike aircraft, much better armed than the helicopters most Russian ships employ. It certainly represents a threat to unarmed maritime reconnaissance craft like the Orion and Nimrod. The Yak 36 apparently remains an interim type, pending arrival of a more advanced successor.