Russia has turboprops, regional jets, narrowbodies and – alone and in partnership with China – widebodies in production or development. It also is working on new high-bypass turbofan engines for single- and twin-aisle aircraft. And the government is encouraging a newly consolidated cadre of systems integrators to displace Western suppliers on Russian-built aircraft.

Russia’s commercial revival recalls the closing days of the Cold War, when the mighty Soviet Union still tried to match European and US offerings from regional turboprops to intercontinental supersonic transports.

But this time it prompts a fundamental question: why? Airbus and Boeing are powerful global competitors, as Bombardier has discovered by daring to attack even a thin slice of the single-aisle segment. Russia and China are taking an even bolder approach, attacking the duopoly head-on with the MC-21 and C919, respectively.

It is no mystery which aspiring usurper has the advantage. China is expected to be the fastest-growing market for single-aisle aircraft in the world over the next two decades, so its investment in the C919 can be repaid with domestic orders placed by state-owned carriers. To recoup its spending on the MC-21, Russia will likely need an order backlog populated mainly by export customers, but once-reliable Soviet-era clients have long since converted to Airbus and Boeing.

MC-21 ground - Irkut


The logic of capitalism is clearly not driving Russia’s commercial aviation revival, but that does not mean it is fundamentally illogical. Moscow – perhaps inevitably – appears to be playing a different game.

If short-term profits are not the priority, Russia has other advantages to gain by rebuilding a domestic civil transport enterprise. Its government, not least, may enjoy more options in foreign policy matters if the threat of being cut off from Western technology is removed as a negotiating ploy. In the long term, the advanced technologies pioneered by the MC-21, like its state-of-the-art fly-by-wire controls and structural manufacturing processes, may pay off if transferred to the Sino-Russian widebody project, which shows great promise of competing aggressively with the West.

But there is a catch. In one of the most global industries, extricating existing or new types fully from Western supply chains is tricky, if not impossible. Its widebody project will require engines made by GE Aviation or Rolls-Royce to compete with Airbus and Boeing for exports. Best-in-class systems suppliers remain exclusively based in Europe or the USA.

Source: Flight International