Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 101

Russia might not have been successful in its efforts to halt NATO’s eastern expansion, but a joint Russian-Ukrainian aircraft project is threatening to derail one of NATO’s most ambitious joint procurement projects. Seven NATO nations–France, Germany, the UK, Belgium, Italy, Turkey and Spain–have been working on the design of a Future Large Aircraft (FLA) that would replace their fleets of aging military transports. For several months these countries had been looking at the possibility of cooperating with the Russian-Ukrainian company producing the An-70 turbo-prop transport. Last week, officials of the Airbus Military Company that will build the FLA announced that their plane would not be based on the An-70. This prompted Germany to suspend its participation in the FLA project while it takes a second look at the An-70. The Germans were to buy seventy-five of the projected 288 FLAs. The program’s largest customer, their defection would probably doom the whole effort.

The An-70 was designed by the Antonov design bureau in Kyiv. The first prototype was lost in February 1995 after a mid-air collision during its fourth test flight. A second prototype first flew on April 24, 1997. Russia–which needs as many as 500 of the new transports–has supported the program from the beginning, though on a starvation budget. The two countries have formed a Medium Transport Plane (STS) consortium, headed by Pyotr Balabuyev, the chief designer at Antonov. Due to enter serial production later this year, the planes will be built both in Kyiv and Samara, Russia.

While the FLA remains on the drawing board, the An-70 is flying and impressing audiences wherever it has been shown. Equipped with unique, 16-blade twin propellers on each of its four engines, the An-70 can land on fields as short as 600 meters. It is also slightly larger than the FLA, thus able to carry more cargo. Despite its promising technology, there are a number of hurdles to overcome if the plane is to be sold in the West. Price is one: Antonov has indicated is would be sold for as little as US$50 million per copy while some Western analysts suggest this might be wildly optimistic. The plane’s new technology itself could pose a problem, as it could take years for the various European agencies involved to certify the An-70 airworthy. The plane’s future could well be decided in Bonn where Chancellor Helmut Kohl seems inclined to make a political statement in supporting Russia and Ukraine. (Russian and Western media, May 22-25)