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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dark Skies Looming for Antonov

With both Russia and Europe seemingly turning up their noses at its latest cargo plane, the An-70, Ukraine's Antonov airplane factory is facing turbulent skies.

The biggest, and perhaps most surprising, blow has come from the Russian Defense Ministry f which seems to have gone cold on commissioning Ukrainian-designed Antonov transport aircraft and is leaning toward a less expensive Russian-designed alternative.

Adding to the bad news was a recent unfavorable report released in Germany regarding the suitability of the An-70 adaptation being offered by the Russian-Ukrainian Medium Transport Aircraft consortium for consideration as the next generation of NATO transport aircraft.

While the NATO contract may peter out due to political considerations f the Russian-Ukrainian venture is competing against a bid put together by several European NATO members f Russia is basing its disapproval of the An-70 on cost alone, officials said.

The Defense Ministry's chief buyer, Colonel General Anatoly Sitnov, said late last month that his agency will opt for a modernized version of its Il-76 workhorse if the Ilyushin transport turns out to be more cost-efficient than the An-70, which has been developed by the Antonov design bureau in Kiev.

"We will opt for it if its price turns out be better," Sitnov said of the modernized version of Il-76, dubbed Il-76MF.

Il-76MFs cost some 30 percent less than An-70s, which are priced at around $50 million each, according to a senior designer at the Moscow-based Ilyushin design bureau that developed both the Il-76 and the Il-76MF. The Il-76MF is 6.6 meters longer, has more efficient engines and can carry 4 tons more than the basic Il-76, which was commissioned by the Soviet Air Force in 1975.

If Russia buys the Il-76MF, Kiev's efforts to secure a sufficient number of customers for its An-70 could be seriously harmed, said Ruslan Pukhov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. It has already seen chances of the An-70 being bought by several European countries shrink, he said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

That move could seriously undermine Kiev's drive to find customers for its most advanced military carrier, experts say.

Pukhov said Ukraine is unlikely to win the tender for the Future Large Aircraft, which is being run by several West European countries, with the results to be announced in 2000.

The Medium Transport Aircraft consortium is promoting a modified An-70, upgraded to meet NATO requirements and dubbed the An-7-X. They are competing against the all-European industrial FLA consortium, led by Airbus Industrie of Toulouse, France.

Both competitors estimate that Belgium, Britain, France, Italy, Germany, France and Turkey will order a total of 288 FLA aircraft, potentially worth $22 billion, in what could keep the aviation industries of Ukraine and Russia busy for years.

Andrei Savenko, a spokesman for the Antonov bureau, said Tuesday that the Russian-Ukrainian consortium has "chances of more than 50 percent to succeed." Savenko also said he is confident that the plane will also be commissioned by both the Ukrainian and the Russian air forces.

Pukhov, however, said the seven NATO nations will hardly want to have their military transportation forces dependent on the former Cold War foes. He also noted that a victory of the Airbus-led consortium will keep thousands of workers in the European aviation industry in work for years and this will also influence the seven nations' decision.

In addition, DaimlerChryslerAerospace AG of Munich published a study commissioned by the German government of the An-70 last year. The study concluded the plane was feasible, but not desirable. Germany's FLA order is likely to be the largest, at about 75 aircraft.

Top brass at the Russian Defense Ministry have given less than full support for the An-70, although Sitnov said at the Nov. 25 news conference that his ministry still plans to buy 164 An-70 aircraft to replace its aged An-12 and An-26 carriers by 2018.

The Ukrainian Air Force plans to buy some 40 An-70s, tests of which are to be completed in 2003, according to Savenko. The Russian military will also have to replace more than 150 of the reliable but aged Il-76s by 2005, according to an Ilyushin design bureau pamphlet.

Sitnov said that for the Russia military to buy the An-70, it would not only have to prove it more cost-efficient than the Il-76MF but also the engines, wings and other key components would have to be made in Russia. Il-76s are assembled in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but most of its parts are made in Russia.

It would cost the Russian Air Force less cash to put the Il-76MF into service as it already has had its pilots and technicians drilled to deal with its predecessor, chief of the Ilyushin design bureau Viktor Livanov said in an interview earlier this month.

If An-70s were bought, this personnel would have to be retrained to operate and ground infrastructure would also have to be upgraded, both Livanov and Pukhov said.

The Il-76MF can carry 320 paratroopers or up to 52 tons of payload, including either one T-80 tank or two armored personnel carriers, according to the Ilyushin pamphlet. The plane, which is to complete tests next year, can carry 20 tons of cargo up to 8,500 kilometers, a senior Ilyushin designer, who refused to be named, said Tuesday.

In comparison, the An-70 can take off with a maximum payload of 47 tons. It can carry 20 tons up to 7,400 kilometers, according to an Antonov press release.

One of An-70's merits is that cargo with width of 4.4 meters, a height of 4.1 meters, and a length of 18.6 meters can be fitted into the plane, according to Savenko.

In comparison, the Il-76 can take cargoes with a maximum width of 3.45 meters, a height of 3.4 meters and a length of 30 meters.

And even though powered by Perm Motor's economical PS-90A turbofans, the Il-76MF still consumes more fuel per kilogram of cargo than the An-70, according to both Savenko and the Ilyushin designer.

The An-70 can land and take off on runways as short as 600 meters compared with the 1,800 meters that an Il-76MF needs to take off, Savenko and the Ilyushin designer said.