Dubai Airshow

Russia Sees Middle East as a Primary Market for New Airliners

 - November 8, 2021, 1:30 AM
United Aircraft has re-engined the original Pratt & Whitney-powered Irkut MC-21 (below, right) with a pair of Russian PD-14s in reaction to tightening economic sanctions by the West.

The Kremlin views the Middle East as an important market for new Russian civil aviation products, such as the Ilyushin Il-114-300, Irkut MC-21-310, and reworked Sukhoi Superjet 100. So far, however, sales into the region have involved solely military aircraft, while all attempted campaigns in the commercial aviation sector have either failed completely or borne little fruit.

Realistically, in the coming years the Kremlin can only hope for sales to Middle East countries under economic sanctions with the West, such as Iran and Syria. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions against Russia effectively have encouraged trade between Moscow and Tehran, and Damascus.

Russia has made a number of attempts to sell airlines to Iran, starting with the 102-seat Tu-334 and the 210-seat Tu-204 passenger jets, but local carriers preferred buying used Western airliners through Ukraine instead. More recently, the Kremlin tried hard to market the Superjet 100. Several ministers lobbied the product heavily when visiting Tehran for talks on the nuclear issue and promotion of mutual trade through “oil for wares” and similar barter schemes.

Unfortunately, the European vendors, many of whom contribute to the Superjet program, did not like the idea for the fear of a possible U.S. reaction to their components going into Iran as part of the final product. That encouraged Moscow to accelerate its “import substitution” program to reduce dependence on the West for components and systems. Instead of the PowerJet SaM.146 turbofan with the Safran DEM.21 core, a reworked Superjet now under development will rely on the locally designed and made Aviadvigatel PD-8. That new engine went on display for the first time this past July at Moscow’s MAKS air show, even while new cases of Covid-19 surged.

The pandemic has reduced Iran’s interest and ability to buy machinery from Russia, but as the two countries counter the virus with homemade vaccines, they have resumed trade talks. Ebrahim Raesi, the newly elected president of Iran, pledges to accelerate trade development with Russia and China, while blaming the previous Rouhani administration for putting too much faith in the West. Even though U.S. President Joe Biden wants to restore the U.S. as a member in the nuclear deal with Iran, a return to the Airbus/ATR/Boeing deals signed five years ago does not seem possible due to Tehran’s view of the collective West as an “unreliable partner.”

The situation has given Russian aerospace products a new chance in Iran, provided the earlier agreed “oil for wares” barter scheme finds its way into everyday practice. Without it, Iran will be unable to pay, as the U.S. economic sanctions have deprived the country of $100 billion of income over the past four years.

Replacing the current fleet—a mixture of outdated types—with a combination of the 100-seat SSJ100 twinjet and 64-seat Il-114 turboprop could boost Iranian domestic air traffic, while the 160-seat Irkut MC-21-310 keeps a window open to the outside world. That constitutes the essence of the Russian offer.

China could provide more competition with an offer of the ARJ21 regional jet, MA-600 turboprop, and C919 narrowbody. All those types, however, use U.S. technology and imports, including engines and avionics, which in view of the current geopolitical situation, seems an insurmountable obstacle. Politically, the best solution for Iran would involve a joint Sino-Russian product, like the CR929 widebody; however, that model appears too large for Iranian needs and unlikely to become available in worthwhile numbers before 2030.

 Today, the main challenge for the Russian aerospace industry centers on the timely availability of completely indigenous products with passable technical performance and price. That will open a window of opportunity to sell them to local carriers and pariah states, which appears a large enough market with which to start. Should Russian products come late, their sales might suffer from the availability of similar Chinese wares, with pricing on Beijing’s side. That scenario has already played out in the market for military aviation, with Chinese manned and unmanned aircraft successfully challenging Russian ones in a number of Arab countries. On key “import substitute” programs in civil aviation, the Russian aerospace industry remains several years ahead of China’s, however.

Apart from the aforementioned airliner programs, Russia has recently decided to replace the French engines on the Ka-62, Ansat, and Ka-226T helicopters with the Klimov VK1500, VK800, and VK650 turboshafts, respectively. The move increases their sales prospects in Iran, especially for the Ka-226T, whose shipments to Syria have started recently. Iran already operates the larger Mi-8/17 series, and at one time considered the Ansat, but its current production with Pratt & Whitney PW207K turboshafts precluded any sale.

Russia could also score some export sales of the Ilyushin-96 jetliner beyond those to Cuba. Even though the baseline Il-96-300 entered service in 1988, it remains the only widebody passenger transport currently in production outside the West. The Kremlin has not only kept ordering new Il-96-300s but also purchased and funded refit of second-hand airframes to press them back into service to reduce Russia’s dependence on imported Boeing and Airbus airliners in view of the tightening economic sanctions the U.S. and its European partners apply to Moscow.

President Putin often flew to the Middle East in a lavishly furnished quadjet, and used every opportunity to show the airplane to the receiving party. On few occasions, it carried in high-ranking foreign guests, including Turkish president Erdogan in 2019.  

Next year the Il-96-400M, featuring a 30-foot fuselage stretch, will enter flight trials. Later, plans call for that aircraft to become available in a twin-engine version through the replacement of its four outdated Aviadvigatel PS-90As with a pair of modern PD-35 turbofans. Under current plans, the PD-35 will become available in 2025 or 2026, with the first application on the Il-96, and then the CR929. Thus, those nations that cannot buy widebody transports from the West might get them from the East.