As Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine enters its second month, its impact – as a result of sanctions against Russia – on the global aviation sector is becoming clearer.
For airlines, there is the uncertainty over rising fuel costs and airspace restrictions, to name a few. Major lessors are already counting the impairment costs on aircraft leased to Russian airlines that have been impounded by Moscow.
Airframers, and the general aerospace sector at large, have to contend with supply chain issues, such a shortfall on titanium owing to sanctions. Russian airframers have also had their European type certifications suspended.
As yet, however, little has been said about how sanctions could impact the Sino-Russian CR929 widebody programme, which is still in development and which has faced a string of delays.
Neither China’s Comac nor Russia’s United Aircraft (UAC), partners in the CR929’s CRAIC joint venture, have publicly spoken about their strategy for the CR929 in recent months, not least in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis.
Indeed, while the immediate impact of sanctions will not be felt by the Sino-Russian consortium – given how the aircraft is still in development – industry observers say the crisis will force both Comac and UAC to reexamine their expectations and priorities.
The sanctions on Russia will inevitably shift the dynamics of the Sino-Russian partnership, one that has been lukewarm at best.
In the early days of the programme back in 2016, both parties were optimistic, eager to take on the Airbus-Boeing duopoly with the new widebody.
As managing director at AeroDynamic Advisory Richard Aboulafia puts it: “[The CR929 programme] was designed for a future where Russia and China could cooperate to avoid having to rely on the west for technology, and for jetliners.”
In July 2020, however, reports emerged from Russia that the CR929 delivery timeline had to be shifted because of purported “difficulties” in working with Chinese counterparts.
Among issues between both parties was allocation of responsibilities: Comac had wanted exclusive rights to sell the CR929 to the Chinese market, a larger, faster-growing market than Russia.
Aboulafia says it is clear that both Chinese and Russian airframers are “wildly divergent” in their expectations and goals from the programme, and that this could “reinforce doubts” about the viability of the CR929.
“Russia expects to get paid for its intellectual property, and that is their definition of a joint venture. China expects to get technology in exchange for market access, and nothing more,” he tells FlightGlobal.
“Sooner or later, the two countries are likely to decide these objectives are not reconcilable. That day of reckoning might well I’ve been hastened by the sanctions and by the conflict.”
Sanctions on the sale and supply of Western technologies to Russia will impact the development timeline, pushing the planned first flight well beyond 2025.
While Comac and UAC have not stated their choice of suppliers for the CR929, the aircraft is envisaged as relying on Western systems, similar to Comac’s ARJ21 and C919.
As recently as March 2021, Leonardo said it was interested in extensive aerostructures work on the CR929. Honeywell has prevoiusly expressed interest in the project, as has Liebherr Aerospace. Aviage, an avionics joint venture between AVIC and GE Aviation, has also talked up the opportunity afforded by the CR929.
Quite apart from the Ukraine conflict, the USA has become increasingly concerned about Western companies sharing advanced aerospace technologies with China, as this will indirectly aid Beijing’s massive arms buildup. The US government’s Military End User list, which complicates the process of obtaining export permits, already covers a broad number of Chinese and Russian aerospace companies.
And – most critically – the CR929 will initially rely on western engines from either GE or Rolls-Royce.
To help reduce their reliance on Western systems, China and Russia are improving their indigenous technologies: Russia is hoping to carry out the first test flight for the in-development high-thrust Aviadvigatel PD-35 engine by this year. China, meanwhile, is working on its CJ-2000 turbofan, aimed at powering the CR929.
However, analysts stress that such efforts take time – and money. The Russian government recently allocated a further Rb44 billion ($518 million) for PD-35 development.
With sanctions now a new obstacle to the programme, could China and Russia call it quits?
Ascend by Cirium senior consultant Richard Evans says that it is “always possible” that China and Russia could split up over the programme, noting: “It is difficult to even understand what the programme share is on the [CR929] programme.”
However, he believes that Comac will wait for the C919 to enter service before making any major decisions about its role in the CR929 programme.
“The current war in Ukraine simply adds another major obstacle to its development,” says Evans.
Adds Aboulafia: “Comac has the resources and the market to go it alone, but it would be extremely expensive. Russia has no such ability, but it is noteworthy that the old USSR was the only individual country other than the United States that developed and built a widebody on its own.”