Russians ponder the future

  • 05-Aug-2008 02:11 EDT
FI08 MC-21-200 CIMG7232.jpg

The Irkut MC-21-200 is one of a proposed new generation Russian 150-seat airplane family that hopes to compete with Western designs and could meet growing internal Russian domestic needs.

For years, the Russians have provided spectacular military air displays at air shows featuring Sukhoi and Mig fighters, but at Farnborough this year those show-stoppers were absent. Instead the consolidating Russian aerospace industry concentrated on showing new models, mostly civil airliners and helicopters, as well as the latest fighters.

As Western manufacturers consider the future of the 150-seat civil market, the Russians are also investing in new designs that they hope will have wider customer appeal beyond their own domestic market and traditional “client” states. Irkut, part of the new United Aircraft Corp. (UAC) of Russia, is offering a new family of airliners with a passenger capacity between 150 and 210, replicating the segment occupied by the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families. Claimed to offer a lower operating cost alternative, the MC-21 presents an opportunity for Russia to re-enter the short-haul market with its own design.

At Farnborough, UAC President Alexey Fedorov said that he hoped the MC-21 would eventually capture 10% of the global market, though the desire to offer a product that can reduce fuel consumption by 20% will mean that a completely new engine will be needed. Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney have been approached as a prelude to forming a partnership that might develop such an engine with Russia. P&W might wish to offer a geared turbofan design but of higher thrust than planned for the Bombardier CSeries, while Rolls is known to be at an advanced stage of developing designs for an open-rotor competitor in the same thrust range.

Whether the prospect of increased sales to Russia would justify the considerable technology transfer involved is not clear, but Rolls will be aware that previous success in supplying large-thrust RB-211 turbofans for the Tu-204 757-size airliner did not result in more than a handful of sales. Clearly the potential global market for an all-new engine in the CFM-56 and IAE V2500 class is big enough to motivate both leading Western engine manufacturers regardless of Russia’s needs for the MC-21. This airplane would also incorporate composites for its primary structure, following the composite fuselage trend pioneered by the 787.

In the meantime, the new Sukhoi Superjet 100, which made its first flight last May, is progressing with its flight-test development program, and first deliveries have slipped slightly to the third quarter of next year. Italy’s Alenia is a major partner and current plans envisage a final fitting out facility near Venice for Western customers. So far orders come mostly from Aeroflot and small Russian-sphere operators, though the company says that interest from leasing companies and corporate customers is growing.

Total sales are just over 100 but Alenia believes that the wider market may reach 1000 over the next decade. There is a significant Western content in the Superjet 100 and this should give it an added appeal, though it is up against established competition from market-leader Embraer. The Russian airliner has SaM146 engines produced by the Snecma and NPO Saturn joint venture, Power Jet, and claims to offer a 15% lower operating cost than its Brazilian rival, due to a high level of commonality across its thrust range options, built-in maintainability features, and low fuel burn.

The Russian presence at the show revealed an industry that is slowly getting its act together in terms of design but which is still far from mature when it comes to offering fully funded programs. Some models that were on display will remain small-scale and never make it to production, others will continue to struggle with a trickle of state orders keeping things moving (just), but there were some highly innovative designs, including a 20- to 30-seat high-speed helicopter.

Russia is consolidating all its rotary wing manufacturers into a new consortium known as Russian Helicopters, part of the Oboronprom United Industry group. Over the last decade, production has slumped but the government intends to increase helicopter output significantly, modernizing current production types before embarking on a phased program of new military and civil designs. They are expected to feature fly-by-wire controls, composite structures, and advanced blade designs. Annual helicopter deliveries are expected to ramp up from the present total of just over 100 to more than 500 by 2015.

As Russia’s own airlines have re-equipped with Boeing and Airbus fleets, reliability and safety have improved, and there are now substantial engineering support facilities in place to keep those fleets operational. Training for engineers and aircrew is also another area where Western suppliers have been active, helping Russian companies deliver a higher standard of air transport service.

At a political level, it seems the Russian leadership now believes that the country should be more self-sufficient in providing new aircraft in the future. Though this may seem a longer-term threat to Western aerospace business, in reality it is probably not, as Russia’s domestic aerospace sector will have to remain open to Western partnerships if it is not to slip back into the near-crisis state it was a few years ago.

Even allowing for a large growth in domestic air traffic, the development of new Russian aircraft programs will require a broader sales base to satisfy the business case for going ahead. Any new airplanes will need avionics and communications systems that fully meet Western standards if they are to open up export sales, and to do that they must keep open the domestic market to overseas suppliers.

Russia has in recent times remained a sleeping giant, rich in design and engineering innovation but suffering from a lack of investment and management skills. By partnering with Western companies, it could gain in market acceptability as long as the day-to-day task of joint management remains mutually workable. This is an area where progress in the aerospace sector is being made, but in the wider context of Western/Russian commercial cooperation, there is still a long way to go.

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