Air Fleet Day in Russia was marred by bad weather. Rain, wind, and low clouds all threatened to upset the air shows set for Monino, with a flying display of legendary Second World War warplanes, and for Zhukovsky, with Russian, Italian and French aerobatic teams going to demonstrate the abilities of modern combat aircraft. Even so, the spectators who came to the aerodromes did manage to see in the skies the stunts of both the Flying Legends, the Russian Knights, the Frecci Tricolori, and the Mirages. The festival went on contrary to all obstacles. This episode, that is, a success despite all complications, resembles a general situation in Russian military and civil aviation. For lack of finance the renewing of Russia's fleet of warplanes is proceeding much slower than the top brass and pilots would like it to. Yet this year, as General of the Army Vladimir Mikhailov, commander of the air force, said, a full regiment of upgraded multi-role Su-27SM fighters joined the force. In their combat characteristics they are close to fifth-generation aircraft. Eight tactical Su-34 bombers are passing their final tests at an aerodrome in Akhtubinsk (Astrakhan region). This unique plane capable of an eight-ton combat payload - high-precision missiles and bombs - can fly over the terrain at minimum altitude with supersonic speed and automatically, with no human interference, hug to the terrain contour. The bomber is flown by two pilots, with their seats, unlike in all previous models, arranged in parallel, not back-to-back, which adds to comfort in the cabin and allows the pilots to stay up for more than ten hours at a stretch. Several years ago this aircraft set a world record by flying non-stop from the Moscow region to Sakhalin and back again. Upgraded Su-24 tactical bombers, too, are joining the force. Equipped with a new radar and a fire control system, they went through their paces at a recent tactical exercise of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation in the Tien-Shans.
Russian aircraft builders also have something to boast about. The Sukhoi concern practically completed its two big contracts to deliver Su-30MKI and Su-30MKK fighters to India and China. Specialists of its plants in Irkutsk and Komsomolsk-on-Amur are now helping the Indians and Chinese to begin production of these aircraft under a Russian licence at their own plants. Another Russian aircraft manufacturer - RSK MiG - is also deploying its export potential. Delivery of several MiG-29 fighters to Sudan has caused wide repercussions recently, but the firm merely fulfilled its contract obligations under an agreement concluded long before the events of Darfur. One of these days a further contract valued at up to 3 billion dollars is expected to be signed with Algeria.
MiG's share in overall Russian arms and military equipment exports, thanks to this contract, will rise appreciably. And perhaps MiG will be able to surpass even Sukhoi, which makes up to two billion dollars from the sale of its combat equipment annually. Military hardware export is a paradoxical business, with successes breeding new problems. On the one hand, it makes it possible for aircraft making corporations to earn good money for the maintenance and development of their own high-technology production and build up a reserve for modernising earlier produced models and building aircraft of the next generation. On the other, the air market gets saturated.
Countries buying Russian warplanes need them less and less. As a minimum they are trying to start their manufacture at their own plants. And although it is a far from simple business to launch quantity production of a modern fighter, even with a licence, blueprints and all the necessary production equipment available, the dependence on the seller weakens, and its receipts from overseas sales drop. True, it is still possible to make some money from modernisation and supplying spare parts. But these sales are not a big item in absolute figures as sales of hot products. What is to be done?
The answer is well known: diversify production. Which is being done: the flagship Russian aircraft building firms known for their combat planes are gradually converting to the development of a civilian - passenger and transport - fleet. AKhK Sukhoi, NPK (Research and Production Corporation) Irkut, the Tupolev corporation, and the Ilyushin KB (Design Bureau) have displayed plans for such aircraft at an air show in Farnborough in Britain. These are families of Sukhoi regional airliners (RRJs) seating 60, 75 and 95 passengers, being developed in cooperation with French, American, German, and other corporations, the passenger MS-21 with 110-170 seating capacity of the NPK Irkut backed by the Yakovlev KB and Brazil's firm Bombardier, and the Tu-204, Tu-214 and Tu-334, which are likely to be built together with China and Iran. Strengthening cooperative ties between Russian aircraft builders and foreign firms are not only a sign of the times and the world tendency of the international division of labour, but also a forced measure. Fifteen years of the systemic crisis that swept over all Russian industry following the collapse of the Soviet Union are making themselves felt, as is a serious lagging behind in the development of a low-noise and powerful aero engine. Noise and environment requirements to such engines are increasing all over the world, while Russian motor builders are unable to catch up with them. The situation emerges when Russian passenger airliners, especially of the Tu brand, will soon be turned back not only from Europe, but also Asia.
The way out is not only to buy engines from Snecma, Pratt and Whitney, and Rolls-Royce, which is expensive enough, but also to organise co-production of such engines at Russian plants, as is being done by French Snecma itself with Russian NPO Saturn. And also to generate interest among foreign partners who because of Russian inefficiency have in recent years cornered practically the entire market of air carriage - that is, in the international division of labour, and, naturally, dividends. For no one has the monopoly right to passengers and cargo. No one alone, not even Boeing and Airbus, is in a position to meet the planet's needs in such services. True, while Russian aircraft manufacturers are establishing international corporate links and trying to get back to the world air service market, Russia's own air fleet is ageing swiftly. According to Transport Ministry figures, by 2010 nearly half of 1,500 Russian civil airliners will have outlasted their usefulness, while by 2015 this fleet will be cut back by 80 per cent. The Federal Agency for Industry, however, plans to build only 34 airliners by 2004, 52 by 2005 and 61 by 2006. Too few to plug the gap in the country's requirements.
Russian aircraft carriers are left with the only chance - to lease or buy used foreign airliners. Especially since in cost terms they are much cheaper than similar new Russian liners. For example, the Boeing-757 medium-haul airliner costs 14 million dollars, while a Tu-214, which is still on an assembly jig, 32 million dollars. And dumping has nothing to do with it, believe some Russian experts, although foreign firms resort to it to gain a foothold in the Russian air market. Simply, many aircraft manufacturing corporations cannot rid themselves of the burden of problems they inherited from the Cold War years. These are, above all, huge production capacities of the previous era, which have to be kept serviceable but which are unlikely ever to work at full capacity.
The situation in Russian aircraft industry, as in military aviation, passenger carriage, and transport services, is a complicated one. It resembles the weather of the past holidays: now rain, now wind, now dense and lowering clouds. Yet despite all this the momentum is maintained. Russian aircraft have enough room both in the skies and on the ground.