MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Viktor Litovkin) - Journalists accompanying Russia's Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to the Volga region reported from Nizhny Novgorod that a national shipbuilding strategy for the 2008-2015 period would be approved the following year.
Under this plan, Russia will develop and produce high-speed hovercraft and wing-in-ground (WIG) craft. These transport systems will also be used in the civilian sector.
However, experts have serious reasons to doubt that the unique, albeit extremely costly, WIG craft, which fly several meters above the water at a high speed, can be used to carry passengers. Moreover, it appears that their production will not be resumed in the near future for several reasons.
It is, however, a real sensation that Kremlin leaders are now focusing on the futuristic WIG craft, which were developed in the Soviet era and were likened to alien space ships only a few years ago.
Soviet aircraft designer Rostislav Alekseyev (1916-1980) from Nizhny Novgorod, director of the Chkalovsk-based Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau, devoted his entire life to surface skimmers and developed the first Soviet WIG craft in the 1960s. These planes utilize the wing-in-ground effect, which forms an air cushion at low altitudes and which enhances aircraft performance. Anyone who has traveled in the well-known Raketa and Meteor hydrofoils would be interested to know that they were also invented by Alekseyev.
Apart from implementing civilian projects, Soviet design bureaus were supposed to strengthen the national defense capability. Anyone who thought otherwise could not hope to set up his own design bureau.
Alekseyev and his colleagues offered two main types of WIG craft, the Mk 904 Orlyonok and the Mk 903 Lun, for the army and the navy. The 58-meter-long Orlyonok, which was primarily intended to conduct theater-level amphibious landings, had a take-off weight of 120 metric tons, a 20-ton load-carrying capacity and a maximum speed of 350 kph. This WIG craft had two turbofan take-off engines in its nose section and one sustainer turbofan engine in the keel section.
The Lun, with its 380-metric-ton load-carrying capacity, had a length of 72 meters and could fly at over 500 kph. It was intended to attack enemy carrier task forces and to conduct amphibious landings and rescue operations. Six Moskit SSN-22 Sunburn supersonic anti-ship missile launchers were located on top of the Lun's fuselage; and its eight take-off engines provided sufficient lift for carrying six marine companies with armored vehicles. If necessary, the Lun could be converted into a flying hospital for 1,500 patients.
WIG craft possessed many advantages, including low radar visibility due to their low-altitude flight at up to 12 meters above water level, high speeds and the water's large reflecting area.
The top-secret Orlyonok and the Lun, which did not require any improved runways or piers, could be deployed on any sand bank or ice floe.
They say the wingless fuselages of the first WIG craft were floated from Chkalovsk down the Volga River all the way to the Volga delta for subsequent tests on the Caspian Sea. The Orlyonok and the Lun were only tested at night, and their fuselages were covered with cardboard for greater secrecy.
The Soviet people knew nothing about the WIG craft program, but a U.S. spy satellite took pictures of a Lun prototype, the so-called WIG craft mock-up, while flying over the Caspian Sea. Jane's Aircraft subsequently published those photos and nicknamed the WIG craft "the Caspian Monster". Pentagon experts analyzed the images and calculated the Caspian Monster's dimensions: wingspan about 40 meters, fuselage length over 90 meters, and maximum speed up to 560 kph.
Russian aircraft designers claim that the United States tried to build a similar aircraft from those photos and spent a lot of money on its abortive WIG craft program.
The Soviet WIG craft program was declassified in the early 1990s. At that time, Boris Chubikov, who replaced Rostislav Alekseyev as chief designer of the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau, was invited to the United States. There, Chubikov delivered a report on Alekseyev's brainchild and showed documentary footage of WIG craft tests to U.S. businessmen, aircraft designers, engineers and generals. His revelations caused quite a stir; the U.S. side suggested building a WIG craft together with Russia and allocated some $600,000 to begin the project, including construction of an experimental WIG craft model. The project involved experts from General Dynamics, General Electric and Lockheed, the leading U.S. defense contractors.
The Pentagon reportedly set aside $15 billion for a 5,000-metric-ton WIG craft with a 90-meter wingspan. The United States also paid $200,000 for a demonstration flight of the Orlyonok WIG craft, which had been moored for several years at the Kaspiisk naval base.
U.S. experts, who visited Kaspiisk, measured the Orlyonok from nose to tail, took several hundred photos and filmed several kilometers of video footage. But the joint project never got off the ground for several reasons.
Some experts said the United States never planned to build a WIG craft together with Russia because its price would have considerably exceeded the original $15 billion earmarked for the project. Washington, which did not want to help Moscow, its former theoretical enemy, streamline the Orlyonok's design, instead collected all its secrets and can now do without the Alekseyev Design Bureau.
Other experts claimed that an inexperienced crew had crashed the Orlyonok on take-off, and it would apparently cost more to train new pilots and to certify the Russian WIG craft in line with international standards. The U.S.'s initial intentions are therefore unclear.
Russian experts and officials in charge of awarding new defense contracts have some doubts concerning the use of WIG craft as missile platforms and rescue planes. Their low cost-effectiveness and combat efficiency are the main problem.
First of all, it no longer makes any sense to chase U.S. carrier task forces, which do not threaten Russian territory. Second, long-range cruise missiles or submarine-launched anti-ship cruise missiles can accomplish this objective, if need be. A-40 Albatros (Mermaid) or Beriyev Be-200 flying boats can effectively conduct high-seas rescue operations. Russia, which cannot simultaneously finance both programs, therefore has to choose between them.
Moreover, it is unclear whether WIG craft should be affiliated with the Air Force or the Navy and whether they should be called aircraft or ships. It therefore turns out that nobody needs these unique flying machines.
But many defense industry executives, as well as generals and admirals, reject this approach and believe that WIG craft production is a vital objective for Russia and its armed forces.
Sergei Ivanov recently said in Nizhny Novgorod that WIG craft could also serve as commercial cargo-passenger transport systems, especially if such countries as India, China and insular South East Asian states joined this program.
Many countries have developed heavy-duty WIG craft which remain on the drawing board. But small WIG craft weighing several hundred kilograms to several metric tons are currently in use.
The Russian-made experimental Strizh WIG craft, which has a take-off weight of 1,650 kg and a 200-km range, is used to train pilots of larger WIG craft. Still, it is unclear when such giants will take to the skies.
The Lun and the Orlyonok are still moored in Kaspiisk, a sad reminder of Alekseyev's efforts, and an incomplete Spasatel WIG craft can be seen at a shipyard of the Alekseyev Central Design Bureau.
These flying machines, which are a monument to an unrealized dream, symbolize a bygone era. They remind us that mankind can conquer the skies and the seven seas if it chooses the right priorities.