Paris Air Show

Sino-Russian CR929 Has Room for High-tech Input from the West

 - June 14, 2019, 6:00 AM

European companies, most notably Leonardo and Rolls-Royce, are welcome to participate in the CR929 widebody passenger jet program, targeted to enter revenue service in 2025. And yet, China Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC), a Sino-Russian joint venture managing the project, has given up an earlier idea to showcase at the International Paris Air Show 2019, opting instead to do so at MAKS’2019.

Nine weeks separating the airshows at Le Bourget and Ramenskoye were considered too short a time to relocate an exhibit measuring 73 feet in length and 20 feet in height and width from France to Russia; the CR929’s forward cabin section mockup was just too unwieldy to bring to the Paris Air Show. The current geopolitics are such that CRAIC managers find it more important to demonstrate the program to the Russian audience and President Putin himself, as he rarely misses an opportunity to open a MAKS and inspect key exhibits on display there.

Headquartered in Shanghai, CRAIC owes its foundation to Putin’s June 2016 visit, during which a government-to-government agreement was signed on the “next-generation widebody airplane.” Under the agreement, the program should be executed by the two nations adhering to the principles of equal rights, risk and investment sharing, common responsibilities, and mutual interests. Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) and Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC)—acting through its commercial aircraft arm Comac (Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China)—would set up a joint engineering center to develop a completely new design (known as the CR929 since September 2017) that would compete directly with the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. That center would be based in Zhukovsky near Moscow and report to CRAIC’s central office. The latter opened in China's largest city in May 2017.

In November (when the CR929 forward cabin section mockup was unveiled at Airshow China 2018), Putin moved UAC under control of Rostec, a powerful state corporation managing hundreds of design houses and manufacturing plants. Among other things, the respective presidential decree was meant to promote the CR929 and other cooperative Sino-Russian programs, since the Chinese partners, including AVIC and its commercial aircraft arm Comac, prefer dealing with foreign companies comparable to them in industrial capability and influence in the corridors of power. “The CR929 is being created by joint efforts of large Russian and Chinese corporations. It is a very complex yet interesting project to shape and manage,” UAC president Yury Slyusar said.

Comac general director Zhao Yuerang described the CR929 as “a strategically important project” and “a means of strengthening the relationship between China and Russia.” Since last year, when the trade dispute between the U.S. and China flared up, Chinese industrial leaders have increasingly been considering Russian vendors, especially under Rostec’s umbrella, as preferable over those from the West when it comes to the CR929’s systems and components. The recent cases of ZTE and Huawei coming under punitive U.S. measures only strengthen Beijing’s resolve to reduce exposure of large industrial giants to already imposed and further expected American economic sanctions.

The Sino-Russian project calls for a family of airplanes built around the baseline CR929-600 that would transport 280 passengers 12,000 km (6,475 nm). In a factory standard layout, the cabin would feature a first-class compartment for eight travelers, a business class for 30, and economy for 243 passengers, the latter in nine-abreast seating. The baseline version with a fuselage 63.8 meters (209 feet) in length will be followed by a shorter variant dubbed CR929-500 and seating 250, and a stretch CR929-700 seating 320. All family members share a common wing with a span of 63.3 meters and a “next-generation supercritical design.” The global market for the CR929 is estimated at about 800 units, of which China and Russia would take 250 and 50, respectively. Program costs are estimated at $13 billion, rising to some $20 billion with various customer support and sales stimulus expenditures included.

CRAIC is running a vendor selection process that is due to be finished by the end of this year. “We speak to suitable partners around the globe, but Chinese and Russian companies and their joint ventures are a priority," Slyusar said. "Through the SSJ100 and MC-21 programs, the Russian vendors are becoming more competitive. The same can be said about the Chinese vendors, which improve through ongoing national programs."

Russian Contributions

A current vision is that the Russians will provide a major contribution into shaping the CR929’s aerodynamics. They will develop and manufacture airframe parts made of composite materials including those for the center- and outer-wing sections. In turn, the Chinese side is responsible for the fuselage and empennage. Last October, Leonardo signed an MoU with local partner Kangde Investment Group on creation of the joint venture Kangde Marco Polo Aerostructures Jiangsu, which would develop and manufacture composite fuselage sections for the CR929.

Meantime, Rostec member Technodinamika is offering CRAIC an oxygen supply system for pilots and a fire-fighting/fire-protection system. The latter would be 10 percent lighter and 15 percent less expensive compared to western analogs. The fire system employs extinguisher bottles with a service life extended to 30 years, “green agent” (in accordance with the Montreal protocol), and meets ETSO-C89 and SAE AS8026 requirements. Besides, Technodinamika’s Aviaagregat is on contract with UAC to shape the undercarriage for the CR929. Other Rostec members collaborate with their Chinese partners on avionics, onboard systems and subassemblies, and composites construction materials.

The biggest and most important component Rostec wants to supply is the powerplant. This work is being led by Rostec member United Engine Corporation (local acronym ODK). Jointly with Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC), the Russians are working on prospective high bypass turbofans. Two years ago ODK and AECC’s Commercial Aircraft Engine (AECC CAE) signed an MoU to cooperate on an engine for the CR929. As a base for the joint development effort, the Russians propose the PD-35, an upscaled version of the already certified PD-14 powering indigenous versions of the Irkut MC-21 narrowbody. That engine will be ready for testing in 2022 and should win certification in 2025. Meantime, the PD-35 has largely been shaped. Computer calculations and experimental work are ongoing in order to fine-tune the future engine so as to achieve its advertised performance. The list of critical technologies that need to be available has been determined.

In case CRAIC gives timely approval of the ODK/AECC proposal for a Sino-Russian engine for the CR929, a demonstrator engine can be assembled in 2023 in view of certification in 2027. One is expected to incorporate the best solutions developed for and attested on the PD-35, and a similar Chinese design also is being worked on now.

Because the proposed Sino-Russian engine needs more time to become available tham the airframe and key onboard systems, initial production CR929s are likely to come with western engines from Rolls-Royce or General Electric. With Beijing and Moscow seeking technological independence from the West, they are likely to pursue a suitable high-bypass turbofan of their own. “We have challenged the duopoly by the decision to create jointly a future jetliner that shall be more effective, reliable, and less fuel thirsty than Airbus and Boeing airplanes. The CR929 is not only a cooperation project between the two nations; it is also meant to be a leap towards China’s and Russia’s technological independence [of the West],” Victor Kladov, director for international cooperation and regional policies with Rostec, was quoted as saying.

Commenting on the sanctions imposed by the U.S. on Chinese companies and citizens in accordance with the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) because of the Almaz-Antey S-400 surface-to-air missile and Sukhoi Su-35S multirole fighter purchases, he said that these punitive measures do not frighten the Chinese, but make them all the more furious about Washington’s behavior. China “never bends under pressure,” he observed. “Instead of curtailing partnerships with Russia, Beijing wants their expansion, so that the growing trade with Moscow and expanding cooperation in high tech areas provide a response to the American threats and sanctions.” This makes Rostec hopeful for more participation in the CR929 supply chain via specialized companies that are members of the corporation.

Despite claims that Russia and China can make the airplane they desire all by themselves, the two are still lagging behind the West in key technologies including those in avionics, onboard systems, propulsion, and interior outfit. This leaves room for European and even American vendors in the CR929 and other such projects, provided the trade war between U.S. and China, let alone the strategic standoff between East and West subsides in the near future.