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Russian revelation

The Sukhoi Superjet is likely to be the aircraft that brings Russia in from the aviation cold and shake up some Western prejudices

Finally, Russia has an aircraft the world might want. Unlike its Soviet predecessors, the Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ) programme has the backing of many of the industry's biggest players, including Boeing, Finmeccanica, Goodrich, Honeywell, Safran and Thales. It may - by getting the quality and reliability right, and beating the prices of large-regional jet rivals Bombardier and Embraer - achieve that crucial breakthrough on the world market.

The stakes are high. If Sukhoi and its partners get it right, the SSJ could be the catalyst for reviving Russia's ailing industry, for 40 years propped up by Cold War defence spending and a captive airline market in the Communist world. If it is rejected by Western airlines, and ends up being bought by a handful of domestic carriers only, Russian aerospace - in the process of being wrapped into one partly state-run entity, United Aircraft (OAK) - will struggle to find a plan B.

Boeing and Embraer apart perhaps, the West has every interest in Russia turning around its aerospace sector: for suppliers, a new airframer of regional aircraft loosens the grip of the big two moreover, a thriving Russian industry would be a source of new technology and lower-cost manufacturing that the whole industry could tap into. And for airlines, a third player in the regional market keeps the Brazilians and Canadians on their toes and prices keen.

Russia itself needs an exportable aircraft to breathe new life into its somnolent aerospace industry, desperate for investment and revenues after the defence tap was turned off following the fall of the Soviet Union. The country that sent the first man into space, flew the first supersonic airliner and fuelled the arms race with super-performing fighter aircraft is still fiercely proud of its aviation heritage.

The SSJ programme - which has already led to crumbling Cold War-era Siberian factories transformed into modern production facilities - could transform Western prejudices about the "Made in Russia" label. If successful, a host of investors from Europe and North America are likely to follow in the path of pioneers such as Airbus and Boeing.

Ironically, it has been Sukhoi's success in attracting Western support for the programme that plays least well at home. The large Western content on the aircraft is the factor that will sway potential customers. Yet, to an element of Russian political opinion, by relying so heavily on overseas technology, the country's aerospace establishment is selling its soul.

Sukhoi - designer of fighter jets that guarded the motherland from its enemies and an icon of Russian industry - is sensitive to such criticism. But it is a consideration Russia must consign to history if it truly wants to join the global aerospace community as an equal.

After several aborted attempts in the 1990s, with stillborn projects such as the StarLiner and a Pratt & Whitney PW2000-powered version of the Ilyushin Il-96, the SSJ finally represents that chance.




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