Pie in the Sky: Putin’s Plan to Revamp the Russian Aviation Industry Runs Into Reality
April 15, 2024
  • Nikolai Petrov

    Visiting researcher, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik)
Political scientist Nikolai Petrov explains why a plan to switch to domestic aircraft, adopted under pressure from Putin, turned out to be completely unrealistic. In reality, the fleet of planes in Russia continues to steadily decline due to problems with servicing leased Boeings and Airbuses that were seized by Russia.
The MC-21 is a Russian passenger aircraft. Mass production of the aircraft was supposed to begin in 2017 but was repeatedly postponed and is currently planned for 2025-26. Source: Wiki Commons
In March, right after the annual presidential address, the Ministry of Industry and Trade and the state corporation Rostec officially announced that deliveries of all Russian passenger aircraft being developed to replace the Western fleet that was seized – the SJ-100, MC-21, Tu-214 and Il-114-300 – would be delayed by 1.5-2.0 years, from 2024 to 2025-26.

This announced disruption in the government’s “comprehensive program for the development of Russia’s national aviation industry through 2030” hardly came as a surprise to experts. Still, the history of the program’s adoption and implementation is illustrative of the regime’s governance model amid sanctions.

The program

Many years ago, back during preparations for the 2014 Olympics, Putin spoke about a special quality of Russia: we are, they say, programmed in such a way that we can take forever warming up, but when it is really urgent, when strict deadlines are set and obligations made, we can do everything quickly. Though this was more or less true when it came to big construction works, it now looks dubious in relation to complex technical projects.

The president and the government approached the adoption of an aviation development program differently: for the former it was about politics, while it was a technocratic issue for the latter. The political approach prevailed, however, and after discussions that lasted for a month, at the end of June 2022, a single, overly optimistic version of the program was adopted. For the Kremlin, this is not simply about ambitions and plans for the future, as, say, in the case of ultra powerful nuclear icebreakers (Russia.Post covered that here);
“It is a matter of maintaining air transport and supporting Russians’ confidence that the country is not affected by the war or Western sanctions.
Yuri Borisov, who oversaw the space and defense industry, stepped down as deputy prime minister in the summer of 2022, when the program for developing the aviation industry was being put together. Source: Wiki Commons
As the aviation development program was being adopted, the most high-profile personnel reshuffle of the war occurred, when the effective Yuri Borisov, the deputy prime minister responsible for realizing the president’s whims in the field of aviation and import substitution in general, was replaced by Denis Manturov, closely linked with Rostec and its head Sergei Chemezov.

One can only guess as to why Borisov stepped down. But the urgency with which this happened (Duma deputies were called back from recess to approve the reshuffle), as well as the timing (July 15, a couple of weeks after the official adoption of the aviation development program, during the preparation of which Borisov toured the main aircraft factories), suggests that Borisov, understanding from the very beginning that the program was absolutely unrealistic, might have disagreed with the president. The replacement of Borisov with Manturov, Chemezov’s creation – Manturov chairs the supervisory board of Rostec – can be seen as a move to almost entirely turn the aviation development program over to the “chaebol” of Rostec.

Since 2018, United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), which brings together all the main assets in the field of military and civil aircraft manufacturing, has been part of Rostec. It includes 30 manufacturers, including those that make the SJ-100 and MC-21 – the focus of the aviation development program.

In 2013, nine aircraft service plants of the Ministry of Defense were transferred to UAC. In total, more than 90,000 people work at UAC enterprises. The chairman of its board of directors is former Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

The limits of import substitution

When in 2014, after the introduction of sanctions over Crimea, import substitution was launched, no one – neither manufacturers nor the government – imagined that it would be necessary to replace not just aircraft or individual large components, but literally everything, down to the last detail. Even the February 2022 shock did not bring about a full understanding of the scale of the problems.

It seemed that with a little more effort, import substitution, estimated at 80% before the war, could reach 100%. However, in the case of the MC-21-310, the flagship of the Russian fleet, saw its weight increase 5.75 tons versus the previous version, the MC-21-300, which used foreign components and Western engines. Its range, assuming a maximum commercial load of 20 tons, would be 2,800 km at best, versus the stated 4,000-5,000 km, with a maximum operational altitude of 7 km, considerably below the original plans and Western peers.

An import-substituted version of the SJ-100 aircraft, with Russian on-board systems, first took flight on August 29, 2023. However, to speed up flight testing on the first prototype, French SaM146 engines were used – the performance of the planned Russian PD-8 engines during bench tests did not meet expectations, and at the end of 2023 they were sent back for further work.

In the process, it became clear that it is extremely difficult not only to produce new aircraft, but also to continue operating existing domestic SJ-100s using foreign engines.
Maintaining the French engines in the absence of proper spare parts is proving impossible, while using Russian engines – and thus modifying the aircraft for them – costs the same as building a new plane.
At the start of the war, Russian companies operated 980 passenger airliners, 777 of them leased from major Western companies, including the Airbus A320 (pictured), among the most popular Airbus models in the world. Source: Wiki Commons
With all these problems, the already-high dependence on leased Boeings and Airbuses still in Russia is only increasing. Russia continues to pay for the leases, but in rubles and into accounts from which foreign companies cannot get the money.

Adopted in June 2022, the aviation development program was based on the assumption that over several years large-scale production of domestic aircraft would begin to replace the seized foreign-leased aircraft, which would remain in operation until then. Yet this assumption turned out to be completely unrealistic for a number of reasons.

First, it is impossible to effect a several fold increase in the production of even ready models amid an acute shortage of skilled labor, machines and equipment. According to the general director of the company Aviasystems, Dmitri Khoruzhik, to produce about 10 aircraft a year, “you need to hire about 5,000-7,000 metalworkers, just riveters, who are not physically available. This problem is generally felt industry-wide. You must scoop them up across the whole country.”

Second, there are no ready models of airliners or engines, and it remains unclear when they will be available. What was considered “ready” while the aviation development program was being prepared includes a large number of imported components, meaning back to the drawing board.

Third, a rapid and radical transition to entirely domestically produced aircraft would be a super-ambitious task by itself. Yet at the same time the Kremlin is dealing with other tasks that it considers no less important, like producing military equipment (including planes) in a long war of attrition. Thus, the aviation development program in its current form has turned out to be an impossible flop, as shown by analysis of the first batch of results.

Unrealistic plans

The aviation development program requires adjustments. Nevertheless, in August 2023 the increasingly unrealistic production deadlines were left unchanged, while an acceleration in production of Soviet Tu-214s and Il-96s was called for. Before that, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin held a meeting at the Kazan Aviation Plant on all civil aircraft projects. It was decided that within a year and a half – by 2025 – the plant would produce 10 Tu-214s a year and 20 a year by 2027. This implies a more than doubling of the plant’s current capacity by 2025 (to be exact, a 2.4-fold increase) and a more than tripling by 2027 (a 3.6-fold increase).

Putin loves to demonstrate his knowledge of details and give himself credit, especially when he ignored experts, insisting on doing things his way, and events proved him right. For example, for years he spoke with pride about a sharp uptick in the population, supposedly thanks to his maternity capital program (in reality, demographic indicators improved for natural reasons – a larger generation entered childbearing age).

Regarding aviation, he has two favorite stories: that airlines should have long ago bought domestic rather than foreign aircraft, as he always urged them to do, and how, despite Western sanctions over Crimea, domestic industry managed to develop a wing made of composite materials for the MC-21 that is superior to Western peers.

Government officials do not dare to object, hence the completely unrealistic aviation development program. In February 2023, addressing Transport Minister Vitaly Savelyev, Putin noted that “he has always said... that more attention needs to be paid to the purchase of domestic equipment. If we had done this in previous years, maybe it would be easier now.” Savelyev, previously the long-time head of Aeroflot, resignedly listened to Putin, but responded toughly and argumentatively when faced with similar criticism from senators.
The domestic aircraft industry has always been oriented toward producing military equipment, and since Soviet times it has not developed a single competitive civil model.
On September 7, 2022, UAC signed an agreement for more than a trillion rubles with Aeroflot to supply 339 aircraft, which are to be transferred to the airline by 2030, including 210 MC-21s, 89 SSJs-New and 40 Tu-214s. Deliveries were due to begin last year.

However, this agreement, even if it were fulfilled, would mean that these 339 aircraft would be transferred to a single company – Aeroflot. All other airlines, meanwhile, would be unable to maintain their fleets as their foreign aircraft, lacking the necessary service amid sanctions, go out of service.

According to the aviation development program, the fleet of foreign passenger aircraft is to be halved by 2030. As a result, firstly, airlines will be forced to look for aircraft in the secondary market of “friendly” countries; secondly, domestic air transport will be partially carried out by foreign companies of such countries; and thirdly, the Ministry of Transport may be forced to concentrate the fleet within the country and limit foreign routes.

In this situation with civil aviation and the aviation development program, we see two realities. One is Putin’s, where the leader’s will is the law, and by his order – on paper – everything is done as he wants. In Putin’s reality, everything looks good as long as the focus remains on ambitious plans, the implementation of which does not need demonstrated.

The other reality is the actual one, where Mishustin, like Borisov and others before him, tours aircraft factories, trying to squeeze everything out of them to boost the production of old, Soviet-era airliners. At the same time, the government is trying to legalize the operation of foreign aircraft in Russia by purchasing them from lessors and establishing schemes for their maintenance and the provision of spare parts amid sanctions.

In 2023, 150 aircraft (only a small share of the total number of leased aircraft) that previously belonged to foreign owners were bought out with RUB 300 billion allocated from the National Welfare Fund. Eighty-six of the aircraft belong to Aeroflot Group. This means they can be used on routes abroad, to countries where Russian airlines are still allowed to fly, though it does not solve the problem of maintaining them whatsoever.
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