SibNIA remains center of Russian innovation

Farnborough Air Show » 2006
November 15, 2006, 10:09 AM

Russian military aviation has a long history of fierce competition between the two major design bureaus–Mikoyan and Sukhoi–and their associated production centers. One consequence of this rivalry was that many of the major enterprises and research institutes associated with military aircraft production became primarily associated with one design bureau or the other. And so, historically, the Siberian Aeronautical Research Institute (SibNIA) in Novosibirsk has been Sukhoi’s brain trust for advanced aerodynamic and structural testing.

SibNIA staff performed most of the original aerodynamics development for the Su-27 and the family of aircraft that followed, and they continue to support the development of advanced derivatives to this day. The latest of these derivatives, the Su-34, is produced at the Chkalov Aircraft Production Association, which is co-located with SibNIA. The research institute has supported the ambitious task of turning the fast, high-flying Su-27 fighter design into a much heavier fighter-bomber that can replace the roles currently performed by the Su-24 and Tupolev Tu-22M aircraft of the Russian air force.

Far From Moscow Is Good

SibNIA officials told Aviation International News that their distant location and their much lower profile has been a plus in trying to meet the goals given to them by Sukhoi designers. “One of the most significant differences between us and TsAGI [the Central Aero Hydrodynamics Research Institute], which was more well-known because it was so close to Moscow, is that a much larger percentage of our work is actually dedicated to a specific aircraft program,” said one senior SibNIA scientist.

TsAGI, because of its proximity to the capital and its association with other research centers in Russia, was in some ways a very big university with a very small student body. Much of its work was experimentation or nonprogram specific research. “For SibNIA, being in Novosibirsk means that there are [fewer] distractions and less interference from the cornucopia of ministries and state agencies that Moscow is so full of, so we are left more on our own to get the job done,” explained the scientist.

SibNIA’s accomplishments in improving the performance of and advancing the design of the Su-27 is no small list. Among other challenges the institute’s staff were able to develop the Su-33, a carrier-based version of the Su-27, which included modifying the aerodynamic configuration by integrating a set of moveable canard foreplanes.

The SibNIA team also had to redesign the structure of the Su-27 by adding an arresting tail hook and creating load paths that would distribute the stresses created by the rough landing on a carrier at sea. The institute also had a hand in designing subsequent canard-equipped derivatives of the Su-27, including the Su-27M/35 and the Su-30MK.

But, being far away from Moscow has also had its drawbacks–namely that the several time zones between Novosibirsk and the Russian capital also meant that SibNIA was much farther away from sources of funding. For good or bad, Moscow is where the major money fountain in Russian aerospace is located, and SibNIA had to find ways to keep its coffers full and pay its staff.

This has forced SibNIA to go into the business of exporting its skill and expertise in aerodynamics and aircraft design technology, mostly to some of the major purchasers of Su-27/30 fighter aircraft. Most prominent among these has been the work that the institute has performed for aerospace enterprises in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). SibNIA officials would not discuss the details of their work for the Chinese, but they would talk about what they see as the state of Chinese aircraft design and what they see as the path that the PRC’s Chengdu aircraft enterprise took to develop the J-10 lightweight fighter.

Partners with Chinese Industry

SibNIA’s work with the PRC started out as helping the Chinese understand how the Su-27 and Su-30s they were purchasing from Russia actually performed and how Chinese industry could improve in its efforts to license assemble and support these aircraft. But SibNIA found itself acting as an instructor and scientific “guide” in helping the Chinese understand how to design a new aircraft from the bottom up.

According to SibNIA, the J-10 is a melting pot of foreign technology and acquired design methods. “The aircraft is more or less a version of the [Israel Aircraft Industries] Lavi,” say those Russian designers who have worked with the Chinese on this program, “but there are a number of other pieces of other aircraft or technologies that are part of the configuration that they have acquired from different sources.” Those who have observed the process of the J-10’s design also stress that the Chinese not only needed external help in acquiring the building blocks of the aircraft, but they needed assistance to synthesize all the elements they had acquired into a cohesive design.

The fact that SibNIA, which has arguably been one of the most advanced research facilities in all of the former USSR, had to essentially go fishing for ways to make money from external sources to keep the institute’s doors open also demonstrates the inherent weakness of Russia’s aerospace sector today. While the production enterprises and design bureaus are still able to come up with interesting design studies and paper airplanes, there is some question about whether or not the detailed, aerodynamic validation of these designs can be carried out in the same manner it was in the late 1970s when the Su-27 was a brand-new design. If Russia is not able to perform this baseline type of analysis, its ability to produce a next-generation aircraft design is in question.

What also remains to be seen is what SibNIA’s new role might be once the formation of the new Russian Unified Aircraft Co. (OAK) begins to take shape. The institute’s senior scientists told Aviation International News that since RSK-MiG general director Aleksei Fedorov–named by the Russian prime minister to lead this new conglomerate–has been closely associated with SibNIA most of his professional life, it is likely he will turn to it first to solve technical problems associated with the development of a next-generation fighter and other major programs.

But, in the short term, say SibNIA officials, there needs to be some plan or program that details their role in the development of a new-age fighter in Russia. In their view, the development and advancement of basic aerospace science and technology is something that needs to be nurtured over a long period of time and cannot be instantly created by throwing together various firms. “If OAK is to be a success, then we need to be a part of its plan for the future of Russian aerospace,” one senior manager concluded.

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