The death of Tupolev

To continue the aircraft theme of the last few weeks, I just read a very informative article by Ruslan Pukhov that appeared in last week’s NVO. In this article, Pukhov contrasts the state of Russian aircraft design bureaus that have successfully made the transition to the post-Soviet economic environment, such as Sukhoi and (to a lesser extent) MiG, with those that haven’t, such as Ilyushin and (especially) Tupolev.

One might have expected quite the opposite situation, as MiG and Sukhoi designed aircraft exclusively for the military during the Soviet period, while Ilyushin and Tupolev combined military and commercial aviation. Given the complete lack of government financing for military procurement during the 1990s, one might have thought that a greater diversity of projects and clientele might have helped the latter two companies to come out of the 1990s in better shape than the purely military design bureaus.

Pukhov describes the many false starts made by Tupolev in its efforts to remain competitive in the commercial aircraft industry, including such recent howlers as a proposal for in-flight refueling of passenger aircraft. But the main source of its problems resulted from an inability to launch full serial production of its Tu-204/214 medium-range passenger airliner, which was designed in the late 1980s and has now become somewhat outdated. The situation was made worse by Tupolev’s difficulties in servicing these aircraft. Other potential projects, such as the Tu-334 regional jet and the supersonic Tu-444 business jet have fared even worse. The Tu-334 was recently canceled with only two prototypes built after two decades of effort, while the Tu-444 is unlikely to ever move beyond the concept stage. As a result, Tupolev seems poised to be completely shut out of the commercial airliner market in the very near future

Tupolev’s position in military procurement is not much better. Tupolev’s core military business was in long range and strategic bombers. While there are ongoing plans to modernize existing aircraft, these programs are proceeding very slowly. Pukhov believes that if the military ever decides to develop a new long range bomber, it is unlikely that Tupolev would get the contract for this work. Tupolev’s Soviet-era efforts to develop UAVs is largely useless for the types of missions required of 21st century UAVs. There is no chance that Russian efforts to design UAVs would be based on Tupolev’s experience in this field.

By contrast, Sukhoi in the last decade has not only developed a number of successful new combat aircraft, but has also entered the commercial aircraft market with the SSJ-100. The difference between these manufacturers goes a long way toward explaining the differences in the Russian military’s ability to relatively quickly restore the potential of its combat aircraft, versus the problems it is having in modernizing its transport aviation and developing an indigenous UAV capability. As Pukhov argues in his conclusion, the failure of companies such as Tupolev and Ilyushin to adapt has opened the door for new entrants to take over the commercial and military transport aircraft sectors. In addition to Sukhoi, the leading candidate for this role is Irkut, formerly just a manufacturing concern, which has now entered the design field with a new mid-range commercial airliner currently in developed and expected to enter production in 3-4 years. Tupolev, for its part, is likely to face closure in the next few years as United Aircraft Corporation consolidates its holdings.