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The Great Plane Robbery

Russia’s troubled Sukhoi Superjet 100.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Farnborough Airport

The Great Plane Robbery

The great white hope of Russian civil aviation, at the Farnborough air show.

Russia’s aerospace industry is trying to convince the world that it has turned the corner and is about to be able to compete in the commercial aircraft market. Soon, we are told, we will see the Sukhoi Superjet 100 regional airliner parked on the ramps right next to Embraer, Boeing, and Airbus. Having experienced a long drought in commercial aircraft sales, Sukhoi would have us believe that the Superjet is now selling almost as fast as Apple’s iPad.

Except that the entire program may be a scam on a level that is unprecedented even by Russian standards. Several “orders” for the aircraft were just announced at the Farnborough International Airshow in late July, but whether they are real, whether the carriers placing the orders will ever be able to use their Superjets, and whether the aircraft will even be delivered is unclear.

Worst of all, the European firms that are partners on the program and the EU agencies charged with maintaining aviation safety standards show a casual indifference to problems with the aircraft’s design and repeated failures of the engine during certification testing.

There are numerous critics of the Superjet in Russia asking worthwhile questions. First: Why was it necessary to design a 75-95 seat short-haul aircraft from scratch when Brazil’s Embraer would have been happy to sign a deal to license-produce its E-series of regional jets in Russia—an aircraft in the same class. The Superjet design represents one of the more expensive examples in history of reinventing the wheel.

Sukhoi built nothing but fighter aircraft for decades. The latest estimates for the Superjet’s development costs are at about $3.5 billion—more than four times the original projected cost. (Embraer’s E-series, by comparison, cost approximately $1 billion to design and develop.)

Countries that have an aerospace industry sometimes reinvent the wheel anyway—as designing or building a plane locally rather than buying it from another country is good politics. It costs more money, but also preserves jobs, retains a core set of personnel and technological competencies, keeps politicians in their elected seats, etc. But nothing about the Superjet has anything to do with trying to preserve Russia’s aerospace industry.

When I asked one of the most senior Russian industry officials a few years ago about the objectives of this program, he simply shook his head and said, “no, skolko deneg spizdili (“you cannot believe how much money they have f—ed off with”). “Like so many other high-profile, government projects in Russia, the Superjet has become a fabulous mechanism for people to put money into their own pockets,” said another Moscow-based colleague.

There is an almost tacitly accepted tradition in Russia that high government officials are supposed to take advantage of large, state-funded initiatives to enrich themselves. Ever since Count Sergei Witte oversaw the building of the major rail networks under Czar Nicholas II at the end of the 19th century—including the famous Trans-Siberian railroad—and became a nouveau riche St. Petersburg courtier in the process, the persons in charge of major national programs have used their positions to derive personal benefit.

The difference between then and now is that in the past Russia actually ended up with technological and industrial achievements that had some benefit for the economy at large. Witte became a wealthy man, but at the end of the day Russia also had a functioning railway system. In contrast, it remains to be seen if the Superjet will ever amount to anything that benefits anyone other than a small circle of the select.

The Superjet was supposed to spur a financial revival for Russia’s aerospace sector, but the industry has seen little windfall from the spending on this program, says a senior editor at one of the most respected industry publishing houses in Moscow. “There has been some work for GSS [Sukhoi Civilian Aircraft] and the engine designers, but when you start talking about the third-tier suppliers—people who make hydraulic systems, actuators, and the other smaller bits of an airplane—all of this kit on the Superjet is made by foreign suppliers, so this is not saving jobs or putting Russian aerospace industry back to work on any kind of a measurable scale.”

Confirmation of this came three years ago from GTK Rossiya, which operates the fleet of aircraft used by Russia’s presidential administration—and by Vladimir Putin’s alma mater, the Federal Security Service. They rejected the Superjet in 2007 partly on the grounds that it contained far too many foreign-made components. Specifically, the aircraft’s SaM146 engine is produced by PowerJet, a joint venture of France’s Snecma/SAFRAN consortium and Russia’s NPO Saturn/Rybinsk Motors.

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