Russia’s aircraft industry is endeavouring to preserve its key competences
Despite the global spread of international isolation, Russia’s aircraft industry is endeavouring to preserve its key competences in the design, development and manufacture of up-to-date commercial aircraft programmes. These efforts – urged in a new wave of reforms across the industry – are aimed at further separating the commercial segment from the defence industry.
At the forefront of this trend is Russia’s Superjet 100 (SSJ100) regional passenger jet, which remains United Aircraft Corporation’s only current completed commercial programme. According to UAC’s SSJ100 manufacturing subsidiary Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC), in 2018 it delivered 26 aircraft to customers, of which 22 were new and the remaining four remarketed. Such low delivery rates make UAC’s share of the global commercial aircraft market barely noticeable against the background of world’s largest producers Boeing (806 deliveries last year), Airbus (800), Embraer (90) and Bombardier (34). Second-tier producers of airframes with seating capacity above 19 seats include Canada’s Viking Air (10 deliveries in 2018), China’s COMAC (six), Czech Aircraft Industries (five) and Swiss RUAG (one).
The increasing consolidation of the global aerospace industry, which was further provoked in 2018 by Bombardier leaving the passenger aircraft marketplace, has resulted in the strengthening of the existing duopoly between Airbus, which acquired Bombardier’s CSeries, and Boeing which, in turn, is in the process of taking control of Embraer’s E-Jet. With such a line-up of competitive forces any producer would find it extremely challenging to increase its foothold on the global landscape. Yet, Russia – as well as China – have not abandoned their attempts to develop new commercial aircraft types, at least for their own domestic markets.
UAC’s product range development strategy has not formally changed during the past year. Along with its target of boosting sales of the SSJ100, the company’s main emphasis is on completing the development of the advanced MC-21 medium-haul narrow-body airliner and, in the more distant perspective, to also succeed with the joint Russo-Chinese wide-body programme dubbed CR929. However, a stiffening of western economic sanctions is forcibly transforming the first two programmes from the once popular format of wide international cooperation into smaller local projects.
The same factor was behind the recent transformation at UAC. When the giant, state-run Rostec holding conglomerate took control of UAC it set the wheels in motion – bringing together the subsidiaries involved in commercial aircraft production, such as SCAC, Irkut and others, thereby creating a unified ‘civil aviation division.’ This division deliberately separates it from UAC’s defence business to preserve the opportunity of cooperation with western partners such as suppliers, customers and investors. Simultaneously, Rostec may decide to optimise the new division’s production structure, which may currently appear to be excessive for the existing commercial aircraft output.
Although the consequences of western sanctions for international cooperation in aircraft production have been widely discussed in Russia for quite some time now, the symbolic point-of-no-return was passed in the autumn of 2018, when the sanctions reached Aerocomposite and Technologiya, two of UAC’s subsidiaries that manufacture composite aircraft parts, thereby cutting off access to western supplies of composite materials. The resultant need to find locally resourced substitutes for western composites pushed back the MC-21’s certification schedule by a further six months to the end of 2020, and its service entry is now set for early 2021.
This is yet another delay for the MC-21 programme from its initial timeline, but is not critical for the existing sales backlog which has remained unchanged for several years at 175 firm orders, mainly from state leasing companies. Aeroflot is set to become the launch customer, with a firm order for 50 aircraft and options for a further 35. But the composite materials hiatus has revealed the technological vulnerability of the Russian aerospace industry, which remains heavily exposed to political risks. It has affected not just the MC-21 programme, but also the SSJ100 towards wider localisation and import phase-out. On the one hand, this spells good news for domestic suppliers for whom the situation opens new windows of opportunity to take on leading roles in significant projects. For example, it has forced the acceleration of the PD-14 engine development, Russia’s first all-new commercial engine that is being adopted for the MC-21. In turn, this engine programme may grow into a platform for a family of engines.
On the other hand, it is obvious that not all western-made systems employed in the MC-21 and in the SSJ100 may be promptly and easily replaced with locally made alternatives, which means that the risks for these programmes in the case of a further stiffening of the economic sanctions remain quite high.
UAC’s only completed commercial project to have successfully entered service, the SSJ100, lost its connection with the Sukhoi brand name after Sukhoi ceded its share in SCAC to parent company UAC. The aircraft is now promoted as simply the Superjet 100.
The growth of the SSJ100 operational fleet has created new challenges though. In 2018 the combined fleet of SSJ100s in service expanded by more than 40 per cent, reaching 140 aircraft, mostly with Russian operators. Supported through the Russian state-subsidised leasing of the SSJ100 via the State Transport Leasing Company (GTLK), this has proved to be an efficient promotional mechanism for the programme. So the growing number of Russian SSJ100 operators, including Azimuth Airlines, which operates a fleet based entirely on the type, is reason for optimism. But, at the same time, the presence of the SSJ100 in markets outside Russia has been shrinking. Irish CityJet, the type’s first European customer, which used to wet lease the Russian-made aircraft to European airlines such as Brussels Airlines, finally abandoned its plans and Mexico’s Interjet, the first customer in the Americas, has also voiced numerous concerns regarding challenges in operating the type. The main complaints coming from operators both inside and outside Russia are issues associated with lagging aftersales support and the paucity of spare parts supplies. Whilst large carriers such as Aeroflot are more easily able to absorb long aircraft groundings for technical reasons, smaller regional airlines like Yakutia and Yamal face sizeable financial losses. The aftersales support problems are in the process of being addressed, both through the efforts of GTLK and through a growing number of maintenance service providers that have been approved for ensuring the continued airworthiness of the type.
Clearly the SSJ100 will continue to enjoy state support in all ways possible, serving as a role model for future commercial aviation projects. Production of the type received another injection in the autumn of 2018, when state-run Aeroflot was essentially instructed to place a preliminary order for 100 of the regional aircraft.
Along with that, UAC and SCAC have been evaluating the Superjet programme’s future development paths. Whilst initially these discussions were mainly along the lines of creating a family of aircraft by adding a stretched version as well as a shortened 75-seat SSJ75 version, it now seems the priority has shifted towards maximising the share of Russian-made components on the aircraft. It is hoped that this ‘Russified’ version could open new niche markets for the SSJ100, especially those closed to western aircraft types.
The new wide-body airliner project dubbed CR929, which is being jointly developed by plane-makers Russia’s UAC and China’s COMAC, has reached the design definition stage, which is expected to be completed before the end of this year, along with the first-tier supplier line-up.
Flight tests are scheduled for the period between 2023 and 2025, with service entry anywhere between 2025 and 2027. According to the president of UAC, as of mid-2019, the programme has accumulated some 200 letters of intent, but neither the Russian, nor the Chinese side of the joint venture has disclosed the names of potential customers, although, traditionally, these are likely to be state-controlled airlines and leasing companies. Clearly, trying to push the CR929 beyond its home markets will be a challenge, as it will face stiff competition from Airbus and Boeing wide-body aircraft.
At this stage, though, the main challenge facing the Russo-Sino co-operation is the distribution of design responsibilities between UAC and COMAC. The fact that two years on from the programme’s official launch and the creation of the CRAIC joint venture with its headquarters in Shanghai, the partners have still not been able to organise a joint engineering centre, may indicate significant concerns about the roles of the partners in the project.
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