Paris Air Show

Ukrainian Industry Expands Niche In Several Markets

 - June 14, 2019, 3:30 AM
Motor Sich’s AI-222-25 turbofan powers Hongdu Aviation’s L-15 trainer built in China. (Photo: Reuben F. Johnson)

Ukraine’s portion of what was once the Soviet Union’s sprawling aerospace industrial empire had a difficult start in the early days following the breakup of the USSR. With the exception of the production plants related to the Antonov aircraft design bureau, very few companies in Ukraine turned out a complete product.

Instead they mostly produced subsystems that were shipped to Russia and inserted into a final-assembled aerospace platform, leaving Ukraine with few non-Russian customers to turn to. In the intervening years, Ukrainian expertise in defense electronics, aero engines, electronic warfare (EW), radar, and air defense systems has allowed its firms to find numerous niche markets and has made it the center of activity for two distinct types of customers.

One customer base has been those nations still operating legacy platforms that they acquired during the Cold War or in the immediate post-Soviet period. These platforms require upgrading, which means replacing the older-generation onboard Soviet design subsystems—such as traveling waveguide tubes (TWT)—with modern, digital electronics.

The second type of customer is those countries seeking to establish their own industrial capability. They look upon Ukraine as a place where they can acquire certain types of technical expertise that is lacking in their own country. Despite Russia’s massive defense sector, say customers from more than one nation, Ukraine still has capabilities in the design of large transport aircraft, radar systems, and propulsion that are unique and not found in Russia.

One of the companies that has demonstrated an impressive fluency with both classes of customers is the Ukrainian defense electronics firm Radionix. This private, small enterprise, founded after Ukraine attained independence in 1991, has a long association with the electronics and radar technologies on board Russian platforms. 

Among the company’s products are:

• A set of modules and modernized components that are used to upgrade the Suhkoi Su-27’s NIIP N001 radar set and the Mikoyan MiG-29’s Phazotron N019.

• A complement of new air-to-air (AAM) missile seeker heads that can be retrofitted to the Vympel R-27 (AA-10) and R-77/RVV-AE (AA-12) air-to-air missiles (AAM). One of the seekers, designated the Onyx, is rated as being a significant improvement over the AGAT/Istok 9B-1350E seeker that is fitted to the RVV-AE export version of Russia’s medium-range AAM. Another, the Topaz, is an anti-radiation homing AAM that can lock on to another aircraft’s radar emissions.

• Digital electronics upgrades of both the P-18 radar set and the Soviet-design S-125 (SA-3) Pechora air defense complex.

• A scalable, modular airborne EW system called Omut-KM. Among other applications, this system replaces the older-generation TsNIIRT L203B Gardenia system that was originally designed for the MiG-29.

• The company’s most ambitious project to date is the design and construction of a prototype radar set called Emerelda that would replace the Soviet-era design N001 and N019 radar sets for any export users of the MiG-29 and Su-27.  The primary target customer for the product is India, which operates more than 350 aircraft of this type.

Radionix executives explained to AIN, “The Russians have proven to both unreliable and very overpriced when it comes to support services and upgrade options.  It is why many of their customers are always looking for alternative suppliers. This creates a significant market opportunity for us.”

Ukrainian Engine Maker

Another well-known Ukrainian aerospace firm is the aero-engine production enterprise Motor Sich (Hall 5 F210) in Zaparozhye. The company is co-located with the Ivchenko/Progress design bureau that is responsible for the development of many of the engines produced in the Motor Sich plant, and the two companies cooperate on numerous projects.

Several product lines have kept Motor Sich solvent in recent years, one of the most prominent of which is the TV3-117 series of helicopter engines. The company had been the sole supplier for numerous customers that operate one or more versions of the Mil Mi-17.

Another is the 5,500-pound-thrust AI-222-25 turbofan engine that has several applications, including the Hongdu Aviation L-15 jet trainer aircraft that is built in China. Chinese manufacturers have numerous difficulties in designing and building jet engines, and the country still relies heavily on Ukrainian and Russian engine models for many of its programs.

During the 2012 Air Show China in Guangdong Province, China's state-run Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) showed a new engine called the Minshan that it claimed would replace the Ivchenko design in later versions of the L-15. However, the engine was never exhibited again at any subsequent Chinese expos and all mention of it disappeared.

“The Chinese have obviously hit some kind of a brick wall in moving forward with this engine,” said a senior Ivchenko design bureau spokesman. “The Chinese visit us on a regular basis and every time we ask them about this engine they do not answer and they suddenly look at their shoes.”

Ivchenko has moved forward with its engine design, developing an afterburning version of the engine, designated Ai-222-25F, with the initial “F” meaning “forsazh,” the Russian word for afterburner.

“This was a significant accomplishment for us and shows the strength of our engineering team,” said the Ivchenko representative. “We had no experience in designing an afterburner section, and we could not call on any of our competitors to help us, so we had to research and develop this entirely on our own.”

The actual engine with a mock-up of the afterburner fitted to the exhaust section was shown at last year’s Ukrainian national aerospace exposition, AviaSvit. The company also is continuing research on a new engine that builds on the design methods employed in developing the AI-222-25, but this will have a 21,000-pound-thrust rating.

The engine, which is still a design and not yet in prototype development, is the AI-9500F and has been in the design stage for years. Ivchenko describe the engine as being a candidate for a “lightweight tactical fighter” program, but no specific design or customer nation has been designated. The engine would be close to the thrust rating needed by China for its Shenyang FC-31 fighter that appears to be an analog to the Lockheed Martin F-35, but there have been no reports of the Chinese being willing to finance putting the engine into production.