22:34 GMT +3 hours27 November 2014
Analysis & Opinion

Hazy Future for Ground-Effect Craft: Who Will Pay for Sea Skimmers?

Analysis & Opinion
Russia is taking up the development of wing-in-ground effect (WIG) vehicles again. At least, the “development heirs” to the Soviet-era designers plan to offer new variations of these slightly aboveground craft. But questions as to how these fuel efficient vehicles are to be used and whether they will be economically viable are still open.

Russia is taking up the development of wing-in-ground effect (WIG) vehicles again. At least, the “development heirs” to the Soviet-era designers plan to offer new variations of these slightly aboveground craft. But questions as to how these fuel efficient vehicles are to be used and whether they will be economically viable are still open. 
Radar MMS, military radio electronic developers, and the Alexeyev Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau have decided to cooperate by breathing new life into Soviet-era ground-effect vehicle technology. According to a spokesman for Radar MMS, the new concept provides for the design of ground-effect craft capable of lifting between 50 and 600 metric tons. They hope to launch production as early as 2016. Future plans include the development of vehicles with a lifting capacity of 2,000 to 3,000 tons.
“Our country, which has vast expanses of water, is likely to find applications for ground-effect vehicles,” Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said recently.
It was also reported that the federal targeted program Development of Civil Marine Technology for 2009-2016 will allocate 8.5 billion rubles for the project.
A wing-in-the ground effect vehicle is something between a heavy aircraft and a light-weight boat. Like a hovercraft, it is generally designed to travel above a water surface but at speeds approaching an airplane. Government regulating agencies have difficulty classifying a WIG, some designating an airplane and others a boat.
A WIG takes off and lands on a water surface like a seaplane. But the flight altitude is very low, just meters above the water. Despite the massive size, a kind of ground-effect cushion is formed under the body. This ground effect keeps the flying machine above a smooth surface with less thrust than an airplane. The vehicle flies on this cushion, jumping over small obstacles such as islets. 
This technology was pioneered by the Alexeyev Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau in Nizhny Novgorod. At that time, Alexeyev himself headed the bureau. The Raketa, Meteor and other hydrofoils familiar to many people in the Soviet Union are among the bureau’s developments.
But in the 1960s, Alexeyev set his sights higher, on larger projects of interest to the military. One was code-named KM (or the mock-up ship). Western observers, impressed by its performance, dubbed it the “Caspian Sea Monster.” The name became an umbrella term for all Soviet-era craft of that type.
The monster itself was scrapped in 1980, but it had some surviving younger cousins. In a fairly large family of Russian ground-effect vehicles built for demonstration purposes, two military projects stand out – Project 904 Orlyonok (a transport and landing ground-effect craft) and Project 903 Lun (the star of the collection), a strike ground-effect vehicle on which three twin 3M80 Moskit anti-ship missile launchers were carried piggyback.
But in the early 1990s, the Lun and Orlyonok were forgotten: a few of these interesting half ship–half aircraft are now simply rotting outside.
The case can be made that the technology is “unique” or “unmatched” and one can argue about who is to blame for it never reaching production, but the facts are inconsequential The main force behind ground-effect vehicles was Dmitry Ustinov, secretary for defense in the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and, from 1976, the Defense Minister of the USSR.
WIGs took his fancy in the early 1960s when he led the Military Industrial Commission under the Council of Ministers. Stern and efficient, this people’s commissar from Stalin’s days had a reputation for impulsiveness – for pushing his programs in spite of any resistance from specialists or the military who was the ultimate user of the hardware supplied by the Soviet military industrial sector. Top party functionaries were frequently indiscriminate when it came to defense spending.
The military, which had initially planned to purchase the Orlyonok by the hundreds, turned skeptical after the test results of its tactical performance and dragged its feet until the issue sorted itself out.
The issue was finally sorted in 1984 when Ustinov died. His successors in the Defense Ministry closed the ground-effect program in the mid-1980s.
What is amiss with these intriguing and powerful vehicles whose low level flight fascinates?
For one thing, WIGs are costly. This stems from their size and energy needs. The takeoff procedure, for example, required a great deal of thrust and thus, additional engines. The Orlyonok had an unconventional propulsion system: turbojet engines for takeoff and turboprop engines for cruising. In addition, a low-altitude flight profile is not the best in terms of turbulence.
The craft are also very sensitive to the water surface conditions which rules out using them in rough seas, and they are less efficient at higher altitudes.
It is, however, mainly rough seas that limit the “window” for possible takeoffs and landings. During Caspian Sea trials the Orlyonok and Lun managed to operate in waters as rough as 2 or 3 on the sea state code scale (wave heights under 1.25 meters). However, the crews did not feel comfortable in these bumpy conditions.
The combat stability of ground-effect vehicles is also doubtful. But more to the point, most combat missions that could use a ground-effect craft would be more effectively handled by traditional equipment.
What’s more, these “traditional” platforms are capable of tackling a wider range of tasks, are easier to relocate, and can be used in weather that is forbidding for ground-effect vehicles.
So what are we left with? There is little debate that a wing-in-ground effect vehicle is a feasible but costly and specialized technology with questionable advantages and with few possibilities to be integrated with mainstream equipment. A white elephant: intriguing and difficult to give up on, but really serving no useful purpose.
All of this added up to a lack of interest on the part of the military by the 1980s. This leaves civil and specialized aviation as the only chance for further development.
Civil aviation offers greater latitude. The first option that comes to mind is sea rescues, although even here ground-effect craft risk running afoul with weather conditions.
Local passenger and cargo transport (down a coast or along a large river) is also questionable. On the one hand, a WIGs lifting capacity may excite commercial interest. They are roomy and spacious and require no airfield (just an unobstructed water way), and although a WIGs speed is below that of most aircraft, it is still good and better than boats or ships.
On the other hand, the economics of a new technical family has not been calculated in detail yet. It is logical that a ground-effect craft is capable of fulfilling some role or other. But the question should be posed differently: is there a niche where it enjoys clear advantages over traditional alternatives? No clear answer has been offered at this point.
It cannot be ruled out that a civilian ground-effect vehicle program could be justified and could recoup itself in Russia, but only on one condition: that its engineering and production be developed by the military with eventual civilian models in mind. Given today’s technology and market conditions, purely civilian developed ground-effect vehicles could find themselves high and dry.
But the military seems to be in no hurry to embrace the “Caspian Sea Monster.” This means we must rely on somebody to come up with the money to make a risky technology viable.
It is also unclear who the ultimate client would be after billions of rubles in research and development are allocated for a commercial ground-effect vehicle. Arms plants and design offices needn’t worry: they will have their slice, work through it and report on the results.
The Russian state is wealthy and can come up with money for practically anything it wants. But who will buy what public funds have developed?


The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.