The Russian aircraft industry is struggling. After peaking early in this decade, oil-price reductions and sanctions imposed by Western countries have caused both civil and military aircraft production to dwindle.
At the same time, development of the military’s next-generation programs has slowed. And even as those programs draw closer to maturity, industry officials wonder whether the nation is losing essential next-generation design expertise.
Fixed-wing aircraft production in modern Russia reached its zenith in 2014, when the United Aircraft Corp. (UAC) produced 158 airplanes. Helicopter production hit a high mark in 2012, when 290 were built. By 2018, the numbers had dwindled to 121 fixed-wing aircraft and 169 helicopters, according to indirect sources, a number in line with much of the last quarter-century. In the past two years UAC has united most fixed-wing aircraft manufacturers in Russia, while Russian Helicopters has consolidated rotorcraft manufacturers, restricting access to production figures.
The collapse in helicopter production was particularly severe, with the greatest difficulties affecting the Russian rotorcraft industry’s premier product, the Mi-8 transport helicopter, produced in Kazan and Ulan-Ude. Previous large orders placed by the Russian defense ministry, China, India and the U.S. for the Afghan National Army Air Corps have already been fulfilled, and new contracts are much smaller. Russia’s government stepped in to help, launching a state air medical transport program, something only spoken about for years. Sixty helicopters were delivered to medical emergency service in 2017-18, and 150 more have been ordered.
The 15-seat Kamov Ka-62 is to be “conditionally debuting” at the International Aviation and Space Salon MAKS 2019 in Zhukovsky, Russia, with both static and flight displays debuting for the first time in the European part of Russia and for the general public. The entirely renewed Ka-62 (a continuation of the Ka-60 design) is powered by French Turbomeca Ardiden 3G turboshafts and Austrian Zoerkler Gears gearboxes and transmission. It started flight tests in April 2016 in Arsenyev in Russia’s Far East.
Two helicopters, the Mil Mi-38 and Kazan Ansat, will debut in their VIP versions. The well-known Kamov Ka-226 will be presented for the first time in a border-patrol version adapted for ship-based operations, with folding rotor blades.
It may be difficult for government spending to reverse this downturn. Russia’s 10-year State Armament Program provides 19 trillion rubles ($292 billion) from 2018-27, a quarter of which funds the aerospace forces— the same as the amount allotted in the previous decade. But during that period, the Russian ruble lost half of its value against the U.S. dollar.
Facing an unavoidable reduction of orders from Russia’s military, the aircraft industry is looking abroad. Rosoboronexport arms trade company’s CEO Alexander Mikheyev says military aviation exports amounted to $6 billion in 2018—about 23% of the Russian aviation industry’s production output. Russians claim that new export customers are asking for combat aircraft that were used in the Syrian campaign. For example, negotiations of the first export contract for Su-34 fighter-bombers are in an advanced stage; the customer is not disclosed. However, arms exports are being throttled by the U.S.’s Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (Caatsa) of August 2017, which discourages other nations from buying Russian hardware.
Increasing civil aircraft production might be another solution. In January 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin assigned the task of increasing the proportion of civil production to 30% by 2025 and 50% by 2030.
At a meeting with President Putin in July, Rostec Corp. CEO Sergei Chemezov requested an additional 300 billion rubles ($4.7 billion) from the government. Rostec controls UAC, Russian Helicopters, United Engine Corp. and many other defense industry enterprises. “We will need a capitalization increase to complete the financial restructuring of all of the corporation’s enterprises,” Chemezov said, citing the civilian MC-21 airliner and other projects. “We are counting on your support here,” he said to Putin.
Despite the financial difficulties, Russia has been re-equipping its fighter fleet in the last 10 years. Legacy MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft are being replaced with Su-30SM and Su-35S fighters, respectively; the navy is receiving Su-30SM multirole fighters as a replacement for Su-24M tactical bombers. In the Russian Aerospace Forces, Su-24Ms are being replaced with Su-34s. Under large contracts signed before 2014, 20 Su-35S and 10 Su-34 aircraft are to be produced in 2019-20.
Assuming the renewal of the fleet in 1:1 proportion, the demand for fighter aircraft under the current 10-year budget plan includes 60-70 Su-30SMD (this is an upgraded Su-30SM with the Su-35S’s engines), 100 Su-34M and about 80 Su-57 tactical combat aircraft. Orders exceeding these numbers are also possible, if needed to form new operational units.
The Russian aircraft industry’s next-generation Su-57 fighter is in line to become a primary product for decades to come. The Su-57 is designed to meet requirements for supersonic cruise and maneuverability, reduced visibility, as well as sensor fusion and integration into defense networks. New sensors, including the N036 AESA radar and new internal-carriage weaponry are being developed, especially for the Su-57; the new engine is undergoing testing. The heavy combat unmanned vehicle S-70 Okhotnik, meaning hunter, being developed as a wingman for the Su-57, made its first flight Aug. 3 at the Akhtubinsk test-flight center.
The Su-57 program received a huge boost on June 27 when Russia’s Defense Ministry placed an order with Sukhoi for 76 fighters to be delivered by the end of 2027. Previously, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov had sought the purchase of just 16 aircraft by 2027. The expanded order will certainly help to perfect this new platform, as improvements cannot be made with prototypes only. The first of two aircraft of the pre-production batch will fly near the end of this year, 10 years after the first T-50 prototype.
The problem is that the Su-57 is still in an intermediate configuration and will require a lot of work and funding to become mature. Alexey Krivoruchko, the deputy defense minister for procurement, said last year that from 2023 on the Su-57s would be delivered in a second-stage configuration, with new engines and probably upgraded equipment. Aside from some assertions from the company that “everything is going as planned,” there is no information about the real status of work on the Su-57’s systems and weapons.
Though the defense budget did not provide for the large order of Su-57s, Putin said that after negotiations the company reduced prices by almost 20%. That price reduction may have allowed the increased order of Su-57s as well as Su-35S fighters. Both types are manufactured at the same production facility in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The Russian newspaper Kommersant quoted an industry official attributing the price reduction to the “modification of the internal layout of the Su-57 and unification of the technical solutions,” among other things. In this case “unification” may mean a downgrade with the use of some systems from the Su-35S. Kommersant reported the price as “160-170 billion rubles” for 76 Su-57s, ($35 million per aircraft), which seems to be a significant value for the price.
At MAKS, the Su-35 nonflying T-50-KNS full-scale mockup intended for ground-based synchronization of all components, will be one of the key aircraft on static display.
UAC will be promoting the Mikoyan MiG-35, which needs export clients. The Russian Air Force prefers Sukhoi fighters and orders only a minimum quantity of MiGs. In August 2018 Russia’s military ordered six MiG-35s, to be delivered by 2023. At MAKS 2019, three MiG-35s, including a novelty—the first series-production airplane flown earlier this year—will be exhibited at MAKS 2019.
Looking ahead, Russia is still developing a stealthy subsonic strategic bomber under the PAK DA (or Future Air Complex of Long-Range Aviation) program. The Tupolev PAK DA bomber has enough financial support for the test examples to be built during the budget cycle ending in 2027.
Research and development work is at the stage of developing individual components. That includes Izdeliye FR engines at the Kuznetsov company in Samara, a radar at NIIP in Zhukovsky, a navigation system at the Moscow Institute of Electromechanics and Automatics in Moscow, a flight-control system at MNPK Avionica in Moscow, crew life-support system at NPP Zvezda in Tomilino, an auxiliary power unit at OMKB Engine Design Bureau in Omsk, and weapons at Raduga in Dubna. The PAK DA is claimed to be a subsonic flying-wing aircraft with a range of 15,000 km (9,321 mi.) without refueling.
The PAK DP (or Future Air Complex of Long-range Interception) is intended to replace the MiG-31 after 2030.
The LMFS or Lightweight Multifunction Tactical Aircraft, is to be a successor to the MiG-29. The SVTS, or Medium Military Transport Aircraft, is to be a new 20-ton payload military transport aircraft, followed by the 80-plus-ton-payload PAK VTA, or Future Air Complex of Military Transport Aviation. A new aircraft carrier and dedicated carrier-based fighter have been announced as well as a next-generation combat helicopter.
Meanwhile, the Russians have also extended production of older aircraft. In 2015, the PAK DA strategic bomber program was “a bit postponed,” as the then- deputy defense minister Yuri Borisov said, by the new idea of resuming the Tu-160 Blackjack bomber production. On Jan. 25, 2018, the defense ministry placed an order for 10 new-production Tu-160M2 bombers; the first aircraft is due to fly in 2021.
In 2006, the Aviastar-SP factory in Ulyanovsk was tasked with launching production of Il-76MD-90A transport aircraft. In Soviet times, the Il-76s were made at the Tashkent plant in Uzbekistan. The Ilyushin Design Bureau was granted more than 6 billion rubles ($200 million) to update the aircraft design, and the Aviastar-SP plant received 8.5 billion rubles for renewal of the production tooling.
However, even this seemingly simple task is facing serious difficulties. The Russian-made prototype flew as recently as 2012. Thirty-nine airlifters contracted by the defense ministry in 2012 were to be delivered by 2018, but the military has received only four aircraft and just three more are promised by the end of 2019. The Aviastar-SP management complained in 2017 about a significant increase of production costs and prices at subcontractors, which made production unprofitable; the original contract was for 3.57 billion rubles ($110 million at the 2012 exchange rate) per aircraft.
The new-production Il-76MD-90A serves as platform for the new Il-78M-90A tanker and the A-100 Early Warning Aircraft. The first tanker flew on Jan. 19, 2018; its public debut is planned for the upcoming MAKS show.
The Lukhovitsy production facility, belonging to RSK MiG, is launching production of the 64-seat Il-114-300 turboprop; the first Il-114 version made its first flight in 1990. This is not a commercial program. The program’s stated objectives are “to provide utilization of capacity of the aircraft industry enterprises,” and “to reduce dependence of the Russian air transport on purchases of foreign aircraft.” The first Il-114-300 version based on an example produced at Tashkent in 1994 is expected to fly this year; the first fully new aircraft is to fly in 2021.
Meanwhile, the VASO production facility in Voronezh is preparing production of the Il-96-400M widebody aircraft. The Il-96-300 prototype first flew in 1988; the new Il-96-400M is to be ready by 2021.
The declared common goal for these efforts to resume Soviet-era aircraft programs is to restore design-team competencies and production facilities to develop and build new-generation aircraft of each of these types in the future. The Russians refreshed the design and documentation of the Il-76 to restore an engineering and production cadre that will be able to undertake new challenges, including development of entirely new medium SVTS and heavy PAK VTA transport aircraft. Similarly, resumption of Tu-160 bomber production is intended to to lead in to development of the PAK DA next-generation strategic bomber.
However, the Russian aerospace industry may end up resuming legacy aircraft production without a next generation to follow. It is hard to gain competence to develop 21st-century aircraft by repeating designs that are decades old, even if they are upgraded. It may turn out that some design teams, such as Tupolev and Ilyushin, which have not developed a new program in 30 years, are no longer able to implement a breakthrough project. Despite numerous attempts, the essential mid-level scientific and engineering cadre has not been restored after the previous collapse during 1990-2000. Most Russian aerospace companies (with a few exceptions, Sukhoi and Yakovlev/Irkut) are staffed with a group of experienced employees of retirement age and inexperienced younger employees (who will probably not remain there long if there is not enough money or interesting work).
The Il-112V light transport aircraft project exposed many of these problems. The program, originally launched in 1994, was subsequently revived and modified on several occasions. In 2014 the project resumed with new, reduced requirements. However, the Il-112V prototype that flew in Voronezh on March 30 does not meet even these scaled-back requirements. Ilyushin’s chief designer Nikolay Talikov admits that the aircraft is overweight due to poor design work. The company plans to reduce the first prototype aircraft’s weight by up to a ton and the second prototype aircraft by up to 2.5 tons. It was supposed to debut in Zhukovksky this summer. Officially it will not leave Voronezh because the airfield there is closed for runway repair.
“A generational change of designers took place in the aircraft industry. The new staff was weak; technical colleges lost their popularity,” Talikov says. “In 2010, when the work on Il-112 stopped, five departments left our company and passed to Irkut, where wages were almost three times higher.”