Farnborough Air Show

War Makes for Grim Prospects for Ukraine's Aviation Industry

 - July 12, 2022, 12:00 PM
Motor Sich was able to make rotor blades for the Mi-24 attack helicopters before Russia destroyed the Ukrainian company’s factory. (Photo: Alan Norris)

Thousands of skilled engineers and workers in Ukraine have little or no work after a dozen key aerospace enterprises suffered destruction or damage from Russian bombing.

Yet another strike took place on the night of May 25 when the Russian air force launched four long-range cruise missiles at the Motor Sich aero-engine plant in Zaporizhzhia. Motor Sich is more than 100 years old and carries extensive experience in turbofan, turboprop, and turboshaft engine manufacturing. The company has customers in about 100 countries, to which in better times it shipped up to 300 engines a year.

The Russian defense ministry took responsibility for the strike, which it said it executed to ensure that Motor Sich no longer has the ability to assemble unmanned combat vehicles (UCAV) and their engines.

Several years ago, Turkey reached a framework agreement with Ukraine on a long-term partnership in combat aviation. The deal called for the Ukrainian armed forces to purchase the Bayraktar BTB2 MALE UCAV (both ready-to-use and kits) and for Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar to buy Ukrainian-made engines for the Akıncı drone and other types.

The Akıncı made its international show debut at Teknofest Azerbaijan in late May, with an experimental prototype having flown 1,000 nm nonstop from Turkey. Two Ivchenko-Progress AI450 engines power the 3,000-pound drone. The turboshaft version of the engine has proved itself on a dozen refurbished Mi-2 helicopters.

Motor Sich attempted to produce rotorcraft and UAVs under foreign licenses as well as designs of its own, but the effort bore no fruit. A more successful program involved the refurbishment of in-service Mil Mi-2 and Mi-8 helicopters. Because designers retained the original gearboxes (although some were "beefed up"), the installation of more powerful engines resulted in better flight performance in hot-and-high conditions.

Meanwhile, Motor Sich gained the ability to produce rotor blades for the Mi-24 attack helicopter, allowing the Ukrainian armed forces to return a dozen of the helicopters to airworthy condition on the eve of the Russian invasion and use them with some success against enemy targets. Apparently, that contributed to the Kremlin’s decision to drop bombs on the plant in Zaporizhzhia.

Motor-Sich TV3-117 engines power the refurbished Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters. Although the TV3 was developed by chief designer Izotov at Klimov in St. Petersburg, some of its evolutionary offspring came from the Ivchenko-Progress design house in Zaporizhzhia, where Motor Sich also bases operations.

Russia stood as the largest customer for Ukrainian-made aero-engines and Antonov aircraft until 2014, when the government in Kyiv banned all military and, effectively, high-tech exports to its eastern neighbor. The move prompted the Kremlin to ask local companies to undertake support of Antonov An-124 military freighters and outsized cargo aircraft and their Ivchenko-Progress D18T turbofans. Klimov also established a second TV3 production line in St. Petersburg (product designation VK2500), while Moscow-based Salyut mastered manufacture of the Ivchenko-Progress AI222 turbofan for the Yakovlev Yak-130 weaponized jet trainer. 

Today, assembly of the TV3 and AI222 series runs in parallel in both Russia and Ukraine. Motor Sich sells its products in many countries that operate Antonov, Mil, and Kamov designs.

Motor Sich came under heavy criticism from the U.S. for exporting AI222-25F reheated turbofans to China. Those engines power the Hongdu L-15 supersonic jet, the trainer for China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force. An evolved version of that engine could power a lightweight carrier-borne aircraft intended for the PLA Navy. Earlier generation Chinese K8 Karakorum trainers feature WS-11 turbofans, which are licensed copies of the Ukrainian AI25TLK. 

Responding to the U.S. critics, the government in Kyiv took some steps to slow the progress of Sino-Ukrainian cooperation in defense. Simultaneously, it offered Western partners the opportunity to buy Ukrainian aerospace products, but they declined.

With sales to Russia prohibited and no orders from the West, Motor Sich began seeking closer cooperation with China. In 2017 Beijing-based Skyrizon Aviation acquired a major stake in Motor Sich with the promise to invest $250 million in existing facilities and help erect a new plant in Chongqing.

The latter would undertake the production of several Ivchenko-Progress designs, including the AI222 and D436. The latter powers Antonov’s An-148/158 regional jets and could potentially replace the General Electric CF34-10A on the Comac ARJ21, to reduce China’s dependence on U.S. technologies and supplies.

Alarmed by the possible outcomes, the White House placed Skyrizon on the Military End-User (MEU) List and urged the Ukrainian government to take action. Consequently, Kyiv prevented Motor Sich from falling into Chinese hands. In retaliation, Skyrizon demanded $3.5 billion in compensation for the disrupted investment deal, then escalated the figure to $4.3 billion.

In 2020-2021, the Ukrainian government nationalized the aero-engine plant "to return Motor Sich to the Ukrainian people." Soon thereafter, it offered a 50 percent stake to Turkey. As with many other attempts to raise funding for the ailing aerospace industry, that effort also failed. Because of insufficient investment and orders, Antonov aircraft are difficult to produce in worthwhile numbers, despite the fact that the An-132 and An-178 prototypes successfully underwent flight trials and the An-140/148/158 saw some revenue service with Russian, Ukrainian, and Cuban airlines.  Now, after the Russian bombing of Motor Sich, as well as Antonov facilities in Kyiv and nearby Gostomel (Russian assault troops destroyed the flight-test base there), future prospects for the Ukrainian aviation industry seem darker than ever.