Guests attend the presentation of the new AN-132D aircraft demonstrator in the final assembly shop of the Antonov aircraft plant in Kiev, 20 December 2016. Source: Vostock-Photo
Ukraine may be coming apart at the seams but the country marked a geopolitical milestone when the Antonov AN-132D, the first Ukrainian plane built without Russian components, took to the air on March 31.
An evolution of the hardy AN-32 turboprop, the twin engine aircraft features Pratt & Whitney Canada engines and avionics supplied by Honeywell. Plus there’s a generous dollop of petrodollars. According to Flight Global, Antonov State Company, a Ukrainian aircraft manufacturing and services company, financed the project by partnering with two Saudi organisations – King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology and Taqnia Aeronautics, which provide Saudi Arabia with a 50 per cent ownership in the project.
The Ukrainians, who have declared their intention to sever all ties with Russia, made it clear on the occasion of the test flight that the aircraft is aimed at the export market. While Saudi Arabia is looking to initially procure six AN-132D aircraft, the next big push will be into Africa and South Africa. Roman Romanov, the Director General of the export cartel UkrOboronProm, says the company has “received a number of calls from potential partners from across the world”.
There is little doubt that Ukraine is taking aim at Russia’s market share at the behest of Kiev’s western backers. The choice of Saudi Arabia – a U.S. satellite – as the financer indicates it is a western project in all but name.
While the new Antonov has to pass a series of tests before it becomes available for export, it may not be such a game changer as its backers envision.
Ukraine cannot match the Russian defence industry, which is the world’s second largest exporter. But Kiev can play spoiler. Considering its pro-western backers and partners, the AN-132D looks suspiciously like a geopolitical project aimed at undercutting Russia in an aviation segment in which it has little to offer at present. With a cruising speed of 500 kph and a maximum payload of 9 tons, the Ukrainian aircraft is designed for short and medium-haul routes. Most Russian cargo aircraft are in the heavy lift category. While the lightweight aircraft has miles to go before it can steal market share from Russia, it could pose a threat if Antonov is able to develop a family of aircraft on the basis of the AN-132D. Therefore, Russia must not underestimate this new threat from the west.
Ukraine inherited a highly industrialised base including flagship brands like Antonov from the Soviet Union. But today the country is a rustbelt. Most of its exports were to Russia. Antonov, for instance, designed some of the greatest aircraft ever built, but production was scattered across the Soviet republics – mainly Russia. By trying to distance itself from Moscow and tie its fortunes to the West, Ukraine has frittered away all its advantages.
The Soviet legacy ensures that Ukraine continues to have a well-trained work force. Antonov alone has 13,000 workers plus 70,000 in other plants produce parts for it. Ukraine has announced a reform strategy which aims to create five clusters, namely: aviation, armoured vehicles, shipbuilding, high-precision weapons, radar and communications.
The Ukrainian defence industry’s best year was 2013 when it notched up $2 billion in exports. The civil war took the edge off its export thrust. Ukraine, therefore, has the potential to be a significant defence exporter.
Do bears love honey? Ukraine has supplied hundreds of T-80 tanks to Pakistan, which is Kiev’s second largest weapons buyer after China. With the U.S.-Pakistan defence partnership now on its last legs, Islamabad hopes Ukraine will be able to supply high tech weapons. While Russia and the U.S. exercise some restraint in who they supply weapons to, and factor in the ramifications of these sales, Ukraine has no such scruples. If the AN-132D leads a revival of the Ukrainian defence sector, there could be flow of weapons to Pakistan.
Recently Russia and India scrapped a 2012 agreement to jointly build a multirole transport aircraft (MTA) in the medium lift category, but the project was scrapped earlier this year over disagreement over the size and shape of the aircraft. Ukraine, which has overhauled the Indian Air Force (IAF) fleet of over a hundred AN-32s, would be keen to offer an alternative. Ukraine’s stock is currently low in the IAF after Ukraine’s state-owned Ukrspetsexport temporarily lost five aircraft and later Ukrainian engineers walked out of an upgrade job in Kanpur.
If that happens, Ukraine may effectively be blackmailing India. But it may not be such a bad thing. Saudi Arabia does it all the time. It is the world’s largest weapons buyer, acquiring high-end weapons – mainly from the U.S. and UK – as a quid pro quo for Western protection.
Buying out Ukraine won’t cost a lot. The dollar goes a long way in the former Soviet republics and Kiev is no exception. India’s buying power will ensure it can offer a better price for any weapon the Pakistanis seek. Indian cash will get those Ukrainian factories going while also keeping high-end hardware away from Pakistani hands.
The Indian defence forces don’t have to use these weapons if they don’t need. They can be mothballed or resold to friendly countries.
Russia currently has no alternative in the light transport category although it can quickly build one. In the nineties Russia wanted to develop the Il-112, but ultimately went for the seemingly easy option of the Ukrainian An-140. The civil war led to Kiev cancelling that deal.
So it’s back to the drawing board. According to Ukrop News 24, “It is expected that the first flight of the Il-112 will take place next year.”
The cost of the AN-132D aircraft is estimated to be from $30 million to $50 million. It seems a bit steep for a light transport aircraft. If Russia can offer a cheaper Il-112, the Ukrainian Antonov may fail to get off the ground.
Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and foreign affairs analyst. Read more of his articles here.
Views expressed in the column are personal.
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