By Craig Hoyle
Encapsulating the mood of a Russian aerospace industry buoyed by the recent resumption of state orders for military equipment and increasing domestic demand for commercial air travel, Irkut president Alexey Fedorov could not be accused of lacking ambition.
Responsible for about 15% of Moscow's annual arms exports business and with an almost 80-year heritage in military aircraft manufacturing at its Irkutsk plant in Siberia, Irkut is produces selected models from the Sukhoi Su-30 family of fighters and the Yakovlev-designed Yak-130 advanced jet/combat trainer.
Major recent successes include the company's receipt in late 2011 of a contract to supply the Russian air force with 55 Yak-130s, and a January deal to produce 30 Su-30SM strike aircraft for the same service. Deliveries under a launch export order for the Yak-130 were also completed late last year, according to Russian media reports, referring to a 16-aircraft programme for the Algerian air force.
Continued business linked to India's growing Su-30MKI fleet, potential domestic orders for additional Su-30SMs and other export prospects mean Irkut's work on the type will remain "steady" for at least the next 10 years, Fedorov says.
"Military orders have a long history within Irkut, and in the near future we plan to preserve the level which we have now," he says. This should equate to defence-related sales worth between $1.5 billion and $2 billion per year during the next decade.
But with the company having no production involvement in Sukhoi's fifth-generation PAK-FA/T-50 fighter and potentially only a small manufacturing role to be had in the Russian air force's interim Su-35, it must pursue new routes if it is to sustain its current standing in the military sector.
It is with the Yak-130 that such a goal could be achieved. One of the company's development aircraft is due to be flown at the Farnborough air show, with the combat trainer to arrive immediately after making its debut UK appearance at the Royal International Air Tattoo.
With the first export deal completed and a strong domestic commitment also in hand, Fedorov says a company target to eventually sell between 300 and 400 Yak-130s is a realistic one. Earlier this year, he revealed that "pretty intensive discussions" have been held with at least 10 potential new export buyers, and that at least one of these is expected to sign an order in 2012.
"For a few years we haven't participated in air shows with our aircraft, because they were under intensive tests," he says. "Starting with this Farnborough, we plan to start flying our aircraft at all air shows. Potential customers would like to see the live aircraft, not just the model."
As well as stepping up its international marketing activities, another key activity will be to further expand the Yak-130's operational flexibility. "We will increase the combat capabilities of the aircraft. Our development envisages that a radar will be installed, along with an electro-optical complex. They will be used both for combat and training purposes," Fedorov says. The Russian air force has, however, opted against acquiring a proposed light-attack version, and will fund the development of a dedicated replacement for its Su-25 ground-attack aircraft instead.
But while the company's heritage is rooted deeply in the military sector, a vital part of its future business will come from its more youthful civil aerospace activities. Early successes have already been scored and Irkut's orders backlog - worth about $7 billion - is divided evenly between the military and civil sectors.
Approval to launch the development of the narrowbody MS-21 airliner came five years ago, and the first aircraft from the three-model family - which will cover the 150- to 210-seat market - will be flown in 2014. The twinjet will be available with a choice of engines: PD-14s from Russia's Aviadvigatel; or Pratt & Whitney PurePower PW1400Gs.
Now in its detailed design phase, the short/medium-range type is expected to eventually be responsible for between 65% and 75% of Irkut's orders, with Federov identifying a target to secure sales of $4-5 billion in the next decade. The first examples were originally expected to be ready for airline use in 2016, and while Irkut has extended its target by one year, its president dismisses claims that this could slip further. "I am absolutely sure that the aircraft will enter service in 2017," he says.
"We have already started to transfer technical drawings and 3D models to our manufacturing facilities, and these will expand within the next two years to create the first flight vehicles. In parallel, we are signing contracts with our main partners and suppliers," Fedorov says.
A prototype of the aircraft's 10m (33ft) composite wing box was recently subjected to operational loads and frequency tests at the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI). The work culminated with the structure being placed under extreme stress, and to destruction "in the expected range".
Fedorov says a dedicated pavilion for the MS-21 at Farnborough will showcase Irkut's partnerships with suppliers including P&W and Zodiac Aerospace, with the latter involved in creating the aircraft's interior.
"The most important of the systems is the interior for our aircraft. During the flight, the passengers and the flight attendants don't care that much about the engines. The seats and the environment have to be comfortable and the air-conditioning should be effective - that's what really matters to them," the Irkut boss says.
"Our goal is to suggest to the airlines a big number of options and different combinations of interior equipment, and suggest the optimum layouts for different kinds of flight. We have been talking to different airlines for long-range flights or budget/low-cost use, and their requirements are pretty different. Our task is to be as flexible as possible."
Sales so far have been in Russia, but the CIS, Southeast Asia and India are all viewed as holding major potential. "We also hope that the aircraft will sell in Europe and the North American market," Fedorov says.
"We performed a big market investigation with our partners, including Pratt & Whitney, and the consolidated assessment is 1,200 aircraft." While Irkut does not expect to overturn the dominance of Airbus and Boeing in the narrowbody sector, Fedorov says: "We believe that in the near future this market is going to be added to by one or two players. We think it is going to be Russia with the MS-21, and probably China." Bombardier's CSeries can fill only "the lowest level" of the sector, he believes.
The MS-21 programme received a fresh vote of confidence on 27 June, when Irkut announced the signature of a deal with Rostekhnologii's leasing arm Aviakapital-Servis. Firming up a previous option on 35 aircraft with a combined list price of more than $2.3 billion, this built on a firm order for 50 MS-21s signed at the MAKS air show in Moscow in August 2011. The new commitment is for 18 150-seat -200 versions and 17 in the 181-seat -300 configuration. Deliveries of the PD-14-engined aircraft will run between 2022 and 2025, Irkut says, with "mainly government customers expected to be the operators".
This takes the firm orderbook for the MS-21 to 110 aircraft, with options and soft orders increasing the total interest to about 235. "We believe this is acceptable for the stage where we are now," Fedorov says.
Referring to the MS-21 and Sukhoi's smaller Superjet 100, he notes: "Today's task is to be successful in regional and narrowbody aircraft. We have to achieve a high technology level and organise the manufacturing of a big amount of aircraft. But maybe the most complicated task is to organise the [in-service] support to the highest international level."
As for Irkut's longer-term plans, Fedorov says it could even consider a future foray into the twin-aisle, widebody airliner sector. While Airbus and Boeing are dominant here, the experience being gained in developing narrowbody products by Russia and China could potentially support such an activity.
"We have the potential and all the ambitions to go to the large-body programme as well," Fedorov says. "It's quite possible that we can unite our efforts, as we're talking about very big investments." Asked whether such a collaboration between Moscow and Beijing could ever happen, he comments: "I wouldn't like to exclude any possibility."