The latest round of economic sanctions imposed against Russia by the U.S. and European Union (EU) did not directly target the civil aerospace and air transport sectors, but they might yet inflict collateral damage on those industries. The U.S. sanctions, announced on September 12, included the Rostec defense group, which harbors ambitions in the civil sector, such as its planned joint venture with Canada's Bombardier to build Q400 regional airliners in Russia.
On the same day, the latest wave of EU sanctions specifically named United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), the state-backed conglomerate that encompasses most of Russia's military and civil aviation ventures. However, in both cases, the small print in the complex sanctions documentation indicates that the bans on exporting technology to those ventures do not relate to non-defense-related programs, such as the SSJ-100 airliner marketed by the Superjet International joint venture between UAC subsidiary Sukhoi and Italy's Alenia Aermacchi group.
"We don't see any effects on the civil aviation sector," said a Superjet spokesperson. "As a consequence, this will not affect Superjet International's activities. For the time being, we have not suffered any particular restrictions."
A Bombardier spokeswoman pointed out that Rostec does not appear on the list of Russian companies covered by existing Canadian government sanctions. However, she acknowledged that the company recognizes the implications of the increasingly strained political atmosphere between Russia and Western countries over the military crisis in Ukraine, even as it continues discussions aimed at agreeing plans for a Q400 assembly line in Russia. "We are meeting with [Rostec] on an ongoing basis, and we remain optimistic that we'll be able to conclude [negotiations] in 2014," she told AIN. "However, considering all of the developments of late, we're now being realistic in that the timeline could shift." So despite the immediate absence of Canadian sanctions targeting Rostec, Bombardier must contend with what the spokeswoman referred to as "other barriers in the way" and "ongoing sensitivities we need to be mindful of."
What seems clearer is that sanctions are significantly affecting the ability of leading Russian banks to raise new capital in U.S. and EU markets, raising great concern within Russian industry, including aerospace. UAC president Mikhail Pogosyan told Russian news agencies this week that the squeeze on credit is constraining the group. "It is not easy," he commented. "On one side, there are not any catastrophic consequences that may stop everything tomorrow. On the other, the cost of borrowed money is rising and lending mechanisms have become notably more complicated." UAC often acts as the guarantor of loans to fund developments by subsidiaries such as Sukhoi and Irkut.
At the same time, Russia's rouble has collapsed in value on currency markets, last week dropping to a low point against the dollar not seen since the country's banking crisis in 1998. If the situation continues, it will weaken the buying power of Russia's aerospace industry for importing Western equipment. Meanwhile, the domestic economy is clearly suffering, potentially manifesting itself with weakened demand for air transport.
It remains unclear whether or not U.S. and EU authorities purposely avoided the direct targeting of civil aerospace with their sanctions, mindful of their potentially negative effects on leading airframe makers Boeing and Airbus and their many suppliers. By contrast, the sanctions directly targeted the oil and gas industries. So far, Russia has not followed through on its threat to ban European airlines from using its airspace for flights to and from the Asia-Pacific region in retaliation.
Although a $2.2 billion upgrade of India's Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters is progressing, around a quarter of the fleet of 49 is grounded because a contract for spares has remained unsigned for years, AIN has learned from sources involved in the program.
"Bureaucratic holdups have caused delays. As a result, parts are being cannibalized and there are some aircraft [inactive] since 2010. Life of some parts, especially avionics, is expiring," said an engineer not willing to be identified. Repairs of the Mirages are carried out at the base repair depot in Gwalior in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. The depot also does material planning and storage of primarily third- and fourth-line spares. The Indian Air Force declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the upgrade to the 2000-5 standard is progressing. Two aircraft have completed flight trials and are awaiting certification. Delivery to HAL is expected within two months. The third aircraft is expected to fly soon. Another two will be retrofitted in Bangalore byHindustan Aeronautics (HAL). The remaining Mirages will be reassembled in India with tooling to be supplied by Thales. While a timeline of seven years has been given to upgrade all the aircraft, a defense consultant characterized as "ambitious" any projection for HAL to produce six a year. However, HAL chairman RK Tyagi told AIN, "We can produce up to 10 a year." The HAL team has already gone to France for training. Test benches in Gwalior will require upgrading, for which bids have not as yet been released.
The new capabilities include longer-range detection and weapon firing against multiple targets and an extended operating envelope that will allow a border-protection mission. The multitrack RDY-3 radar equipment on the Indian Mirage is the same generation the French air force uses on the Mirage 2000D, with range increased to 50 nm from the existing RDM radar's 40 nm.
India is ordering 164 Litening 2 targeting pods from Israel's Rafael for the upgraded Mirages, as well as for Su-30 MKIs. The nation has also cleared a proposal to buy more than 400 MICA short- and medium-range air defense missiles. These will replace the Magic II short-range infrared missiles and Super 350 MRAAM on the Mirages.
The Russian defense ministry has ordered seven more Su-30SM two-seat fighters worth 13 billion roubles ($331 million), boosting the total to be acquired to 72. Of these, the Russian air force is getting 60 and naval aviation 12. An initial contract for 30 was placed in 2012. Some have reportedly been deployed to the disputed region of Crimea.
Signing the latest order at the Girdoaviasalon 2014 show, deputy defense minister Yuri Borisov said, "The Su-30SM is a modern multirole aircraft that can be used against aerial, ground and sea-going targets. It can considerably boost the potential of naval aviation."
The latest contract comes with an option for 10 more aircraft and is timed to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the founding of IAZ, the Russian acronym for Irkutsk Aviation Plant. To date, the enterprise has shipped 29 Su-30SMs to the Russian defense ministry. This year Irkut is to deliver 15 Su-30SMs, according to IAZ plant general manager Alexander Veprev.
Russian naval aviation accepted its first batch of three Su-30SMs between June and August this year. The navy has plans for a total of 60 such aircraft. Navy and air force Su-30SMs have been operating out of Akhtubinsk, Lipetsk, Donma and Eyisk air force bases.
A number of Su-30 jets have reportedly been deployed to Crimea. They are stationed at Belbek air base near Sebastopol, the facility that played a key role in the process during which the peninsula changed hands in February and March this year. When it was controlled by Ukraine, Belbek operated MiG-29 fighters and antiaircraft defense units. It was placed under siege by pro-Russian troops until Russia took full control of the peninsula.
Sebastopol city governor Sergei Menyailo confirmed that "the Su-30 jets are already here." Local sources give the number of Sukhoi jets in Crimea at 20. Along with Irkut-made Su-30SMs, the Russian air force operates a lesser number of KnAAPO-built Su-30s and Su-30M2s, for a total of fewer than 50. The Russian government has announced plans for Belbek to be a joint-use facility for both military and civilian aircraft, a role for which the aerodrome will undergo reconstruction and expansion.
Root-cause analysis of the F135 engine failure that grounded the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter fleet in July will be completed by the end of the month. Meanwhile, the problem is already sufficiently understood for Pratt & Whitney to have devised an interim fix. F-35s are flying again, but with borescope inspections mandated every three flying hours. The flight envelope restrictions that were previously imposed now vary, with four key development aircraft cleared for greater maneuverability.
"Pratt & Whitney has put its ‘A-team' on this problem and has taken accountability," Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, F-35 program executive officer, told the Air Force Association conference this week. The company has agreed to pay for modifications to the fan section of the 150 engines already delivered, he added.
Bennett Croswell, P&W president for military engines, said that "there's more movement of the engine" within the F-35 airframe "than we thought when we designed it." Both Bogdan and Croswell emphasized that some movement is normal. The problem had not been identified earlier in the development program, because at the time the aircraft had not been cleared for "more aggressive maneuvers," Croswell said. The problem could not possibly have been detected during engine ground testing, he added.
The problem is excessive rubbing of a polyamid plate seal between the second and third stages of the F135's fan. The rub strip is flat when a new engine is built, Croswell explained, but during acceptance tests it is designed to be abraded into a groove, or trench. This method ensures that air does not leak forward, a migration that wouldreduce engine efficiency. But in the engine incident that happened while an F-35 was taxiing at Eglin AFB on June 23, the plate seal heated to 1,900 degrees C, causing microcracks to form and propagate in the arm, which eventually failed and penetrated a fuel tank, causing a fire. During inspections, three more engines (out of 165 delivered) were found to have "hard rubbing" that could potentially lead to a similar failure.
"We are validating the root cause on a ‘rub rig' at our West Palm Beach facility," Croswell continued. "We'll test different densities of polyamid, and the orientations that occur in its formation." P&W and subcontracting supplier Cobham are "pre-trenching" some stators before engine assembly, to determine whether efficiency is significantly affected. Another approach could be to specify a uniform set of flight maneuvers to "burn in" the trench, Croswell said.