Paris Air Show

Ukraine Industry Enhancing Independence From Russia

 - June 12, 2019, 2:30 AM
The An-132 cargo turboprop, an updated version of the An-32, has flown demo flights at Aero India 2019 and could find new life as part of the “Make in India” program. (photo: David McIntosh)

Antonov (Chalet 315) has long been the most visible and well-known of the many Ukrainian aerospace and defense firms. The company made history at Le Bourget 30 years ago when it flew the massive six-engine An-225 Mriya cargo heavy lifter with the then-Soviet space shuttle Buran mounted on the upper fuselage.

Since the fall of the USSR, the company has been the aerospace industrial giant of independent Ukraine, but several of its programs that were originally developed in the last days of the Soviet period have failed to develop into series-production lines that would keep the aircraft maker as busy as it was during the Soviet period. One of the more prominent examples is the An-70 turboprop military transport that was designed to replace the many aging An-12 models in service at the time.

The An-70 and other programs of the immediate post-Soviet period relied on cooperation with Russian industry that largely failed to materialize. Only two An-70 prototypes were built and the program never received the orders from Russia’s military that would have been required for the aircraft to be economically viable.

Partners Sought

In the intervening years, the company’s production rate has been close to anemic. In the past decade, the company has produced only 22 aircraft—or two per year. What has sustained it for many years is the air cargo division of Antonov that operates the An-225, a number of An-124 Ruslan heavy-lifters, and a fleet of other aircraft that perform charter flights for specialized payloads.

What had showed great promise for Antonov was an agreement to build up to 300 An-132 cargo turboprop aircraft for the Royal Saudi Air Force. The aircraft, an updated version of the An-32, was to be built under a joint venture contract signed three years ago between Antonov and Taqnia Aeronautics in Saudi Arabia. Aircraft would have been built on production lines in both countries and would have used Western engines and avionics. The cost per unit was estimated to be $30 million.

However, in the last week of April the president of Antonov, Aleksandr Donets, told the Ukrainian national news agency, UNIAN, “For reasons not related to Antonov state enterprise, in Saudi Arabia there was a change of the program partner, and the process was halted. There have been changes in the project partners in Saudi Arabia. Antonov did not freeze the An-132 project.”

Ukraine and Russia have had tense relations for more than five years, since the invasion and occupation of Crimea by Moscow in March 2014. The Crimean annexation was followed by a civil war started by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine Donbas regions of Donetsk and Lugansk and included active support of Russian military units. 

The head of Antonov had also stated that the project is not being shelved and that the company is instead looking for a new customer. “We are looking for both a customer and a partner,” he said in late April.

That new partner may turn out to be India, Donets also told UNIAN. Three months ago, an An-132D made a demonstration flight in Bangalore at Aero India 2019, the national airshow. The head of Antonov said, “The plane made a good impression, largely because it was created on the basis of the An-32, which is [already] well-proven in the operation of the Indian Air Force.” Mostly supplied to New Delhi during the Soviet period, India’s air force operates 104 of the older-generation An-32 cargo airplanes, which were produced in the 1980s. Some additional units were delivered later in the 1990s in the aftermath of the USSR’s collapse.

Antonov has signed a commitment to participate in the “Make in India” program, which signals the company’s willingness to set up a production line in India should New Delhi decide to acquire the aircraft. As with the Indian fighter tender that is still in process, this program will be decided only after the May general election’s outcome has resulted in the formation of a new government and procurement plan.

The Ukrainian aircraft company points out that since 2016, Antonov sales and production deals that were being negotiated with Azerbaijan and Turkey have both collapsed in their final stages. Ukraine aerospace industry analysts have suggested that the failure of both of these initiatives may have been at least partially related to the fact that these are both nations that spend no small effort to maintain good relations with Moscow.

In 2016, an Azeri company was interested in purchasing 10 An-178 military transport jets but the order did not materialize because the Azerbaijan firm could not secure financing for Antonov to acquire suitable replacements for Russian-made components. The second project was a venture to build an An-188 military transport, a jet-powered version of the dormant An-70 program.  

“From the Turkish side there was great interest,” Donets told UNIAN. “But at this stage, interest is diminished, perhaps due to lobbying the interests of large aviation concerns.”

Interest in Regional Models

Other than these projects, the Ukrainian operators SkyUp and FANair have expressed interest in Antonov’s regional commuter jet models the An-148 and An-158. The fear that the Ukrainian firm has is that Boeing, Airbus, Bombardier, and Embraer are easily capable of outcompeting with Antonov on financing.

“As far as I know, An-148s are being built in Voronezh at the VASO enterprise,” Donets said, in reference to Voronezh Aircraft Production Association, a Russian manufacturer that has produced these 100-seat passenger jets under license from Antonov, which presents another competitor for Antonov’s Ukraine-based production lines.

The Antonov chief says that for now, the company’s strategic plan will be for production of about 20 midsize military cargo aircraft per year. He explained that due to the scale of production assets required it is not economical to build massive, Soviet-era cargo jets like the An-225 and An-124.

Another issue is the financing of the start-up of production lines, so Antonov has been seeking the approval of the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, for a $50 million project to complete programs of import substitution, which would permit the company to build analogs of the parts that used to come from Russia components, or source them from Western suppliers. Some of Antonov’s aircraft designs were originally built with up to 60 percent parts content from Russia, so the program will require some major effort to complete.

In another try to sever any remaining ties of dependency on Russian components, the Ukrainian firm is working with Boeing’s spare parts and support affiliate, Aviall. The company is building a warehouse in the Ukrainian capital Kiev that will be stocked with Western components that are to be used in Antonov aircraft. Under the Antonov-Boeing contract, Aviall will provide support for all new buyers of Antonov planes. In a separate program, Antonov plan to open a service center this year in the United Arab Emirates to maintain Antonov aircraft flying in the Middle East and Africa.

The warehouse will be “located on Ukrainian territory in [the city of] Gostomel,” Donets said. “This warehouse will deal with products, materials, metals, non-metals—with all the components that we are not able to get from our former partner, the Russian Federation.” Gostomel has been used by Antonov for many years as its base of operations for its cargo services and has additionally been pressed into service to provide logistical support for Ukrainian military units fighting in the Donbas.