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Signs of hope

Howard Gethin/LONDON

For the Russian military aviation industry, things look a little brighter than they did two years ago. For the first time in several years, Russia has ordered new military aircraft (albeit only a handful) and the manufacturers have flown new designs, with the tenuous promise of meaningful production following soon.

The ongoing financial crisis in Russia continues to limit procurement to tiny numbers of only the most vital aircraft types, however, with the emphasis being placed on potential exports as much as on the future needs of the Russian armed services.

Potentially the most significant programme to emerge has been MAPO's upgraded MiG-29SMT and two-seat UBT. The SMT represents a long-awaited mid-life update of the hundreds of basic MiG-29s in service, combining elements of the stillborn MiG-29M and MiG-35 designs with all-new technology. The upgrade markedly increases fuel capacity, curing a lingering weakness of the MiG-29, while the combination of a modernised cockpit and NO-19MP radar will bring significant multirole capability.

The Russian defence ministry is believed to have ordered five MiG-29SMTs this year and to have put in place a remanufacturing programme to modernise some 300 MiG-29As to SMT standard. The MiG-29UBT, incorporating many of the SMT's features, is to appear at the Farnborough air show this year, says MAPO.

Another potential customer for the upgraded MiG-29 is India, which has seen its indigenous Light Combat Aircraft programme crippled by the US embargo imposed after its recent nuclear tests. A purchase of new SMTs would offer considerable logistics compatibility with an upgrade for India's early-model MiG-29s. MAPO, meanwhile, has proposed a new MiG-29K - using much of the SMT's upgrade features - as a naval fighter to equip the refitted aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, reportedly offered to India by Russia.

Despite its apparent backing for the MiG-29SMT, the Russian air force remains committed to acquiring a true fifth-generation fighter rather than an upgraded fourth-generation aircraft. MAPO is continuing design work on the LFI (logkiy frontovoi istrebityel) multirole fighter, which it compares to the US/UK Joint Strike Fighter, but the configuration remains open to conjecture.

Sukhoi's S-37 Berkut forward-swept wing technology demonstrator is another contender. The aircraft has completed around 20 test missions since its first flight in September 1997, but there are no Russian air force plans to procure the aircraft. Production of a limited number of Sukhoi Su-27IB (Su-34) strike aircraft, arguably of greater importance to the air force, continues at the Novosibirsk factory - at a rate of only about one a year.

Another vital project on which the air force is keen on is the Antonov An-70 large transport, which is about to undergo its formal military acceptance trials. Despite Antonov's apparent failure to persuade the European Future Large Aircraft consortium to use the An-70 as the basis for its transport project, the air force says that is has decided to order the first 10 aircraft - as soon as the cash is available.

The competing MAPO MiG-AT and Yakovlev Yak-130 advanced jet trainer projects are also more reliant on exports than ever before, with apparent signs from the Russian air force that it may soldier on for now with its Czech-built Aero L-39s.

The air force has indicated that it wants to see a collaborative effort to build a new trainer, but the manufacturers cling to hopes of an order that will enable them to keep going it alone. Two MiG-ATs are flying, with a further handful lying idle, and MAPO is testing a light attack variant, the -AT2, with Moskit radar. The single rival Yak-130 is now being flight tested in Italy.

The Russian military helicopter industry remains in the doldrums, albeit with some signs of hope for the future. Kamov is about to begin flight testing the first Ka-60 medium utility helicopter. With the potential to replace large numbers of Mil Mi-8s, the Ka-60 and its Ka-62 civil counterpart appear to have good prospects, particularly with export customers in Asia.

Kamov also has hopes of selling its Ka-50-2 attack helicopter, modified with Israeli technology, to Turkey. The Russian army, however, remains unable to do more than fund maintenance for an ever-shrinking fleet of ageing Mil Mi-24 and Mi-8 battlefield helicopters.

While there may be some hope for individual programmes, there is still little indication that Russia's industrial leaders are prepared to grasp the nettle and begin the mergers, streamlining and plant shutdowns that are needed to create a handful of firms able to rival their US and Western European counterparts.

The first signs of such co-operation are there, with the example set by the teaming of MIG MAPO and AVPK Sukhoi to build a maintenance plant in India.

Helicopter design bureaux and manufacturing plants have belatedly begun to merge. A coalition of the Mil bureau, the Ulan-Ude production plant and Kazan Helicopters has taken the first steps towards becoming Mil Helicopters Holding.

Kamov is also discussing the formation of a joint company with the Kumer-Tau and Arsenyev plants. In February this year, Sergei Mikheyev, Kamov's general director, visited the Kumer-Tau plant in the republic of Bashkiria (where the Ka-32 is produced) to discuss this with the local government, which is interested in investing in the venture. The move may reflect disillusionment with Kamov's position in the MIG-MAPO group, which has so far been unable to attract a helicopter manufacturer.

There is also talk of co-operating to develop next-generation fighters, mostly instigated by an air force increasingly alarmed at its poor prospects of a fifth-generation fighter. Given the scarcity of domestic orders, however, it remains to be seen just what will be left to merge after a few more years of decline.