Russian airforce in need of eastern promise

A Russian cabinet official has warned that his country may have to pool resources with China or India to build a new-generation fighter jet to re-equip its air force.

Russia may pool resources with China or India to build a new-generation fighter jet to re-equip its air force and help secure a competitive edge over prospective US and European designs.

China and India are the top customers for Russia’s aircraft makers, who have received almost no orders from their own government in the decade since the Soviet collapse. Both countries have recently bought large batches of Russia’s Sukhoi fighter, and purchased licenses to manufacture more.

But Russian Aerospace Agency Director Yuri Koptev warned that Russia risks being edged away from lucrative export markets unless it urgently starts work on a new fighter.

Russia is the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter, behind the United States, Britain and France, and fighter jets have been its top export item.

‘Such planes as the Su-27 and the MiG-29 and their modifications can stay competitive only for another seven or eight years, as the United States is developing new-generation planes,’ Koptev told a Moscow news conference. ‘We need a new plane both for defence purposes and for preserving our position in the arms market.’ Russia has lagged behind the United States and Western Europe in the development of a fifth-generation fighter, which follows four previous generations of fighter aircraft developed since World War II.

The US Air Force plans to re-equip with the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, which has superior manoeuvrability and can make long flights at supersonic speeds. It plans to begin operating the first unit of F-22s in 2005.

While a Raptor prototype first flew in 1997, Russia’s response is still in the design phase.

In recent years, Russian aircraft makers have said that their Sukhoi S-37 and MiG MFI experimental fighters were equal to or even outstripped the Raptor, but officials later acknowledged both planes were prototypes never meant to enter service.

The largest portion of the new fighter’s development costs involve building a new engine, Koptev said. It’s expected the new aircraft would first have an upgrade of the AL-31 engine that equips the Su-27 and its derivatives.

It would cost between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion to modify the engine for the new fighter and another $600 million to $800 million to then turn it into a completely new engine, said Koptev.

The money is far beyond the capability of the military, which has bought just a handful of aircraft since the Soviet collapse and is struggling to raise money to maintain existing planes and buy kerosene for flights to train its pilots.

Koptev said the Sukhoi and MiG companies are competing to meet an end-of-the year deadline to present their proposals for the new generation fighter to a government commission, which will determine the winner during the first quarter of 2002.