Dubai Air Show

Can the RRJ and the MS-21 change Russia’s civil fortunes?

 - December 11, 2006, 10:57 AM

This past August saw the seventh run of the Moscow Aviation and Space Exposition (MAKS). For several years each successive show has been bigger and better than the previous one, and this year’s event didn’t deviate from the trend.

But with the exception of Sukhoi’s new Russian Regional Jet program, the one element missing remained real progress or growth in Russia’s commercial aerospace sector. Russia’s two powerful airliner design bureaus–Ilyushin and Tupolev–and their associated production centers showed little in the way of new products and have sold almost no airplanes in recent years.

Nevertheless, Tupolev, Ilyushin and Yakovlev have confirmed joint plans to press ahead with a new 130- to 170-seat family of airliners dubbed the MS-21. The partners secured some Russian government backing to proceed with a preliminary design phase to run through mid-2006. Now they must make a decision as to whether the business case for the new single-aisle twinjets can support a critical design phase due in 2008, with a view to eventual service entry in 2012.

The MS-21 program has won support from the Aviastar, NPK Irkut, Smolensk Aviation and VASO factories, as well as from Russia’s National Reserve Bank and Ilyushin’s finance arm. Prospective engines proposed for the -100, -200 and -300 series jets include the D-436TX geared fan from Progress, Motor Sich and Salyut, and Perm Motor’s PS-12 turbofan.

MS-21 Undercuts Western Jets

Total development costs could run as high as $1.8 billion. The list price of the 150-seat MS-21-200, which would carry significant composite content, would run at about $35 million–a one-third saving on an equivalent Airbus or Boeing product.

Russia’s civil airframers certainly need some new blood. The Ilyushin Il-96, designed in the waning days of the Soviet Union as a replacement for the Il-86, has never proved itself as a commercial success and only 13 of the aircraft fly within Russia. So far, Cubana remains the only foreign customer for the A340-sized passenger liner.

The prospects for Russian civil aircraft have been and remain dim for the same reason that the Russian military aircraft sector has done so well. The export market has embraced Russian warplanes while it has shunned commercial types. Even the nations that have historically purchased Russian military aircraft in large numbers–China and India–reject the Ilyushin and Tupolev designs and instead become major customers for Boeing and Airbus airliners.

The reason that buyers of Sukhoi and Mikoyan fighters do not buy Russian airliners seems simple–governments base their decisions about military aircraft on wholly different criteria than airlines do on civil varieties. Nations like China and India buy Russian fighters because with them come considerable technology transfer benefits at a reasonable price.

But when it comes to buying an airliner the same nations almost always choose Boeing or Airbus. Operators can get the airplanes serviced anywhere in the world, and the companies that build them know the mechanisms behind awarding offset work to the local industries of the purchasing nation. More important, they can claim high reliability rates and reasonable costs per flight hour.

Although some have tried to integrate Russian designs into the rest of the world’s maintenance infrastructure by fitting them with Western-made engines and avionics, they rarely sell enough to recoup the investment needed. Too many used Boeing and Airbus models occupy the lease market, and even the Russian national carrier, Aeroflot, leases Western aircraft–many of them new.

Twenty or thirty years ago the fact that the commercial aircraft sector in Russia faced struggles would have made little difference to its military aircraft makers. In those days the whole industry talked about spin-offs–how technologies too expensive to develop commercially could apply to the civil realm once the military paid for their development. The Boeing 747, for example, can credit its existence to the advances in widebody, jumbo-jet metallurgy made during the development of the Lockheed C-5A Galaxy military cargolifter.

COTS in the Military

But today the technology current runs in the other direction. In the 21st century everyone talks about commercial-off-the-shelf  products in the military sector instead of defense spin-offs. That means if you have no commercial aircraft industry you now cannot really afford a military sector.

This goes a long way to explaining why Russia has not produced a new fighter for more than 20 years. At the MAKS show visitors could see many new and extremely impressive innovations in engines, radars, weapons, materials, avionics, but little evidence of a new fighter.

Of course, any talk of a new commercial market in Russia centers on the Russian Regional Jet, but even it would be produced by a military firm, the Sukhoi Aircraft Co.–and with substantial support from Western partners such as French engine maker Snecma.