Future prospects of the United Aircraft Corporation

In today’s VPK, Ilya Kramnik discusses the prospects of the UAC. Here are some highlights. This is in the context of the removal of Aleksei Fedorov as the company’s director and his replacement by Mikhail Pogosian, the general director of the company’s Sukhoi and MiG divisions.

Military Aircraft

Kramnik notes that the prospects of the Sukhoi division are much better than those of MiG. Sukhoi’s strength is based on the success of its Su-27 fighter plane, which has not only become the mainstay of the Russian air force, but has been exported to 17 countries. These planes are used by countries as diverse as Angola, Eritrea, China, and Indonesia, as well as several former Soviet states. Kramnik argues that delays in the production of NATO’s F-35 will ensure continued exports for the Su-27 in the coming decade.

Sukhoi’s future success in the domestic market lies in the 4++ generation Su-35 fighters and Su-34 bombers, as well as orders of Su-30MKI fighters, which were previously manufactured exclusively for export. Down the road, Sukhoi will be building the fifth generation fighter aircraft (known variously as the PAK FA or T-50), both for the domestic market and for export to India. In addition to the construction of new aircraft, Sukhoi will be busy modernizing existing Russian air force planes, including the Su-25 close air support planes, Su-24 bombers, and the older Su-27 fighters. After modernization, these planes may be expected to serve another 15-20 years.

Compared to Sukhoi, MiG is in fairly poor shape. Few of its MiG-29 fighters have been sold abroad in the post-Soviet period, while the Russian air force has focused on modernizing Su-27s rather than its MiG-29s. The crashes of two MiG-29s in 2008, which led to an investigation that revealed serious corrosion in the tail sections of 80 percent of existing MiG-29s, was a further blow to the aircraft’s reputation.

MiG is now betting on two projects. The MiG-29K is the naval version of the MiG-29, and will be used on the Indian Vikramaditya carrier and most likely on the Russian Admiral Kuznetsov. The MiG-35 is a 4++ generation fighter aircraft that is in the running in the Indian Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition. Prospects for victory in the tender seem somewhat poor, given rumors that MiG-35 was not on a list of finalists. Without a victory in this tender, its prospects are unclear, given that the Russian air force is focused primarily on procuring Su-35 and PAK FA fighters. Unless the MiG-35 wins the MMRCA tender, UAC may well fold the Mikoyan division into Sukhoi.

Passenger Aircraft

Kramnik argues that UAC’s prospects in building commercial aircraft are relatively poor. UAC no longer builds long range commercial aircraft, while the construction of the Tu-204 mid-range aircraft was recently in crisis with the possibility of a construction freeze under discussion until recently because of production problems and a lack of orders. A recent order by a Russian airline for 44 Tu-204SM aircraft has revived this plane’s prospects. Its production is scheduled to end in 2014 in favor of the MS-21 aircraft currently in design, though there is little confidence that the new plane will be ready by then.

The joint Russian-Ukrainian An-148 regional jet has achieved significant popularity, with 237 planes ordered by companies and governments in nine countries. However, only eight planes have been delivered since the An-148 first went on the market in 2009 and slow production continues to be a problem.

The An-148 may be displaced by the SSJ regional jet, which is being built by a joint venture between Sukhoi and an Italian company. This plane is currently undergoing certification but may be ready for operations sometime in the next year. Over 180 planes of this type have been ordered by airlines from seven countries.

Despite the relatively high number of orders for UAC’s regional jets, production delays and the lack of a viable long range commercial airliner products has clouded the prospects for UAC’s commercial aviation division.

Cargo Aircraft

Existing Russian cargo aircraft are getting old. Most of the fleet are Antonov planes, built in Ukraine. The largest and most modern of these are the An-124, which have been in the fleet since the 1980s. An-12, An-22, and An-26 aircraft are much older, with many dating from the 1960s.

UAC’s Ilyushin division will fill the bulk of the Russian air force’s cargo plane needs in the coming decade. The Il-76, built by UAC, is the mainstay of the Russian air force and common in civilian use as well. The average age of these planes, however, is 30 years, so they are rapidly approaching the end of their useful lives. The air force is planning to modernize about 100 of its Il-76s, including the installation of new engines, which would allow them to last another 20-30 years. Kramnik believes that it’s possible that some could be used for as long as a total of 80-100 years, with suitable maintenance and occasional engine replacements.

In addition, UAC is planning to build a modernized version of the Il-76, labeled the Il-476, with digital flight controls, new avionics and new engines. 30-40 of these will be purchased by the Russian air force beginning in 2014.

UAC will also build smaller cargo planes, including the light Il-112 and medium Il-214, though neither is expected to enter serial production before 2015.  Some experts believe that neither of these planes will be built because of excessive cost increases. If these planes are canceled, the air force will have to order planes from abroad. Kramnik suggests that the Ukrainian An-178 could be a substitute for the Il-112, while the Italian C-27J Spartan might be bought instead of the Il-214.

Seaplanes

UAC’s Beriev division builds Be-200 special purpose amphibious aircraft designed for search and rescue operations, maritime patrol, and fire fighting. Several Be-200 planes are operated by the Russian and Azerbaijani Ministries for Emergency Situations, with another 10 on the way for the Russian MES.

Assessment

Though the situation in the Russian aircraft industry is better now than it was a few years ago, many problems remain. Most importantly, the average pay of workers and engineers at Russia’s main aircraft plants is lower than of sales people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, while the technical education system is much worse at preparing new workers for this field than in the Soviet period. Furthermore, most of the main plants have not been substantially modernized. As a result of these problems, we are likely to see continued production delays for most of the aircraft described above.

3 thoughts on “Future prospects of the United Aircraft Corporation

  1. What about the production of the Il-78 tanker? Some nations want this tanker (specifically China) and have actually been trying to negotiate the procurement. Would Russia just sell their own equipment, or would UAC reopen the lines?

    The same goes with the Il-476. Will Russia begin taking orders and exporting these by 2014?

  2. On the Il-476, Rosoboronexport is clearly planning to market these abroad. There have been reports that it has already been specifically offered to China. The 2005 Chinese order for Il-78 tankers has been suspended. It’s possible that they could fit some of the Il-476s for tanker purposes, but I haven’t seen any indication of this for now.

  3. One has to wonder if the Russian leadership has put any thought whatsoever into maintaining / restoring the Soviet technical education system to produce new workers. Do they think the Soviet legacy will just last forever? I worry that the Russian arms industry may fade away into nothingness if something isn’t done.

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