If the USA remains the last political superpower, then it must be seen, also, as the last aerospace superpower. Just as the Byzantine Soviet empire has been torn apart by centrifugal forces, so has its aerospace industry been shattered, perhaps beyond hope of repair, by the collapse of the old-style command economy.

The latest in a litany of projects under threat of falling state funding looks to be the Sukhoi Su-27M advanced derivative of the Flanker fighter. Mirroring the plight of the country's manufacturing industry, the Russian armed forces are also in dire circumstances. The chief of the air-defence forces (PVO), Col Gen Victor Prudnikov, is threatening to ground the Mikoyan MiG-31 Foxhound A interceptor. Given the level of flying being clocked up by air- defence aircrew - an average of 19h a year - the Foxhound, warns Prudnikov, is a death trap.

The gravity of the situation can be gauged by the consideration that the Foxhound was the jewel in the crown of the air-defence forces: the apotheosis of the PVO's might. Now, it is in danger of representing no more than a threat to its pilot and weapons officers' lives.

The Foxhound, MiG-29 Fulcrum, and now the Flanker upgrade programme - projects which were all launched in the 1980s and, under the old regime's timetable, meant already to be in service - have faltered. Fifth-generation combat-aircraft projects, such as Mikoyan's 1.42 fighter, are fading through lack of committed and sustained financial nourishment.

The sorry plight of Russian military aerospace is also reflected, and surpassed, in the civil sector, where Ilyushin, Tupolev, and Yakovlev are all struggling to survive. At least Sukhoi and MAPO-MiG have managed to secure fighter export orders to bring in much-needed currency - the same is not true of their civil counterparts, where the present range of products measures up badly against Western competitors.

It is easy to parrot the credo of competition and the free-market economy: it is far more difficult to implement such a regimen in a country where there is a near vacuum of governmental power and policy, coupled with there being only a fraction of the funding necessary to follow projects through to the end.

What the Soviet aerospace industry needed to replace the dictatorship of the proletariat was a dictum from the new regime covering the macro-economic framework of the industry, with the micro-economics being left to individual enterprises.

This did not happen, despite pleas from those within the industry, and any strategic decisions which were made have fallen by the wayside as the Russian economy went into free-fall. Industry has been left to limp along as best it can, attempting to cope with the vagaries of what passes for government policy.

As, however, Sukhoi's success in securing export deals to China and India show, the situation is not beyond rescue. What needs to be done is to focus what scant resources there are on a limited number of high-priority military and civil programmes to address both internal and export opportunities.

There are indications from within the air force that it is making a virtue of necessity. In the near term, it appears to have decided that Flankers and Fulcrums, perhaps with limited upgrades, will meet its fighter needs. Rather than pour the bulk of its slender resources into a fifth-generation fighter, its priority seems to be to acquire an improved strike aircraft, in the form of the Su-27IB, to replace its Su-24 Fencers.

Hammering out a strategic plan between industry, the armed forces, and the Government will not be easy - especially given the doubts over the future of President Boris Yeltsin and the jockeying for position of his prospective heirs.

This is not to say that the attempt should not be made, nor that difficult decisions be abrogated. Should such an over-arching strategy be agreed, famous civil and military aircraft marques would almost certainly disappear. Yakovlev for instance could be reduced to little more than the manufacturer of sports aircraft - while MAPO MiG could find it has a trainer programme but no state funded fighter project for the foreseeable future. This, however, is likely to be the price of long-term survival for the rump of Russia's aerospace sector.

Source: Flight International