Irkur boss warns that funds must be targeted at technologies such as UAVs and network-capable weapons systems

Russia must increase spending on modern air defence systems and divert funds from obsolete combat aircraft or the country's military aviation industry will not survive past 2008. So claims Valery Bezverkhny, vice-president of production plant Irkut APO, who says the government needs to increase spending on aviation from 13% of the defence budget - $650 million of $5 billion in 2003 - to 35% over the next five years. At present levels, he says, "in five years there will be nothing left but ash".

The situation is made worse because much spending goes on maintaining legacy aircraft intended to defend the old Soviet Union against NATO, "projects that are not in line with reality…[and] our real future and present needs", he says. The Sukhoi Su-32 long-range strike aircraft is a good example, he says: "This is a heavy combat aircraft designed for wars in the past. It is huge and very expensive, but what do we need it for?"

With its survival at stake, Bezverkhny says, the aircraft industry will have to lobby the Russian government to override the bureaucratic momentum of "useless projects" like the Su-32 and channel the funds instead into technologies such as unmanned air vehicles and network-capable weapons systems.

Projects, he says, "must be attractive to foreign partners. We cannot be isolated in Russia any more, even on military programmes." The industry's future is not as a simple supplier to Western aerospace companies. Instead, he says, "our core competence today is the design and development stage; this is still in Russia because of our huge manufacturing historyÉ it will be key for future co-operation".

Bezverkhny urges quicker progress towards industry consolidation. A single national aviation company, as deputy prime minister Boris Alyoshin proposed earlier this year, would have far more lobbying power and stand a better chance of survival, as well as being more efficient to run, he says (Flight International, 12-18 August).

But the planned restructuring - which includes an initial public offering by Irkut and a merger between Irkut, Sukhoi and Yakovlev, and is planned to end with a single, 75% privately owned aircraft manufacturer - is not certain to go through, with politicians such as deputy industry minister Alexander Brindikov doubting whether privatised companies should be allowed in the defence sector.

Bezverkhny takes a sanguine view: "We will find out in December, when the government decides whether or not to approve the Sukhoi-Irkut merger. In the [aviation] ministry some people can't understand the reason for the merger, but the minister will stick to the policy. I think there is a 75% chance it will be approved."

Irkut signed an agreement with EADS and Rolls-Royce Deutschland earlier this year to jointly market the Beriev Be-200 amphibian aircraft.

Source: Flight International