When Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin visited the United States last week few were surprised that his first stop was at a Boeing plant, the American aerospace giant having developed close ties with Russia over the past decade. Russian airlines currently operate nineteen Boeing airliners under lease but, while a few more are in the pipeline, this aspect of the Boeing-Russian relationship is a relatively minor one. Far more important to Boeing is its access to Russian aerospace engineers, designers and technology. The two, for example, are active collaborators in a number of high-visibility space projects. Boeing is the prime contractor for the International Space Station (ISS), with Russia to provide one-third of the ambitious program’s components–including the first section to be put into space, the Zarya command module. Boeing also leads the multinational Sea Launch joint venture, which plans to place commercial satellites in orbit from a ship using Ukrainian/Russian launch vehicles. Moscow’s Energia provides the upper stage rocket and has a 25 percent stake in the company. Once thought to be in trouble, Sea Launch conducted a successful test launch in March of this year and now has confirmed bookings for nineteen missions. In another space-related development, Boeing recently named veteran cosmonaut Vladimir Titov to join its Moscow office as director of space and communications for Russia and the CIS.
The American company has also been operating a technical research center in Moscow for the past six years. Last year it expanded this program to include a new engineering design center. The center’s first project was a partnership with the Ilyushin Design Bureau in which Ilyushin engineers redesigned some 777 components. Throughout Russia some 350 Russian engineers and designers are at work on thirty similar joint projects with Boeing. In 1997 Boeing looked to the Tupolev Design Bureau for its experience in supersonic flight and took over a research program initially funded by NASA with an eye to developing a new U.S. supersonic transport. The test series brought a Russian Tu-144 “Concordski” out of retirement and equipped the plane as a supersonic flying laboratory. Boeing ultimately, however, decided that the time was not yet ripe for commercial supersonic flight and terminated the tests.
Without knowing it, the Soviet Union was the source of much of the titanium which went into the SR-71 spy planes built in the United States in the early 1960s. No longer needing to use the clandestine methods of the CIA, Boeing still relies on Russia as a major supplier of the titanium that goes into its airliners. Last year the company signed a five-year contract with Vekhnaya Salda Metallurgical Production Association worth some US$175-200 million.
While most of the joint projects are civilian ones, a few benefit the U.S. military. One of the most controversial, at least as far as the Russian military is concerned, is the sale to Boeing of Kh-31 sea-skimming ramjet missiles. This missile is one of the few operational ramjet missiles in the world and can reach a speed of Mach 2.7 while flying just thirty feet over the water. Built by Zvezda-Strela State Scientific-Industrial Center in Korolev, it is converted into supersonic targets for the U.S. Navy. Zvezda would also like to supply its ejection seats for Boeing’s offering in the U.S. Joint Strike Fighter competition (U.S. media, June 9, 1998-July 15, 1999).
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