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"The Irkut Corporation will gradually move to building civilian, rather
"The Irkut Corporation will gradually move to building civilian, rather than military, aircraft, and its main product will be the aircraft of the future, the MS-21."

Those are the words of Oleg Demchenko, president of the Irkut Corporation, one of Russia's leading aircraft manufacturers. You could be forgiven for thinking this was just routine corporate bombast. After all, it is not uncommon for an ambitious executive to make his mark on a company by signaling a change in strategy. And what company launching a new product would not dub it the car, soap, or soft-drink "of the future"?

Yet this is no ordinary rebranding. Irkut, like most Russian aircraft manufacturers, has traditionally focused on military aircraft. But the industry has recently fallen on hard times. Riding on the success of the $3.5 billion MS-21 project, contends Demchenko, is the survival of an entire industry.

Alongside, the MS-21 project is part of the Federal Civil Aviation Program till 2015.

"If our country fails here by not producing a jet incorporating advanced materials, avionics and engines and featuring paperless design and international cooperation," he says, "we could say good-bye to our aircraft manufacturing."

The MS-21 is not the only medium-range civilian aircraft to emerge from Russia recently - Sukhoi Civil Aircraft's Russian Superjet-100 (RRJ) shares similar characteristics. But the significance the industry attaches to the MS-21 is evidenced by the host of Russian aviation companies involved in the project. These include such iconic names as the Yakutsk Design Bureau, Sukhoi, the Beriev Taganrog Aviation Scientific Technical Complex, famed for its Be-200 seaplanes - Tupolev and Antonov. Several western corporations are also involved.

The initial stages of the project, covering the basic elements and design ideas for a prototype, have already cost 1.5 billion rubles (over $60 million). In September of this year a conceptual design will be prepared and digitization (preparation of digital drawings) of the plane's components will begin. The aircraft will finally be rolled out for flight testing in 2010.

To maximize their competitive edge, the designers have consciously avoided the long-haul market. The market for wide-bodied passenger aircraft is dominated by Boeing and Airbus. It would be useless to compete with their latest designs, such as the Boeing-787 Dreamliner or the giant Airbus A-380, which can seat between 500 and 800 passengers.

The niche for narrow-bodied jet liners carrying 150 to 180 travelers is another matter. True, there are rival models here, too: particularly the Boeing-737, the Airbus A-320. But Airbus is set to phase out the A-320 to provide room for new orders. By the time the MS-21 is certified and airborne, A-320s will no longer be produced, leaving a gap in the market that Irkut hopes to exploit.

Irkut has actively cultivated the impression of the MS-21 as the heir to the A-320, promising to make it 15% to 20% more efficient than the Airbus plane. Demchenko guarantees that the new model will also be more comfortable than its Russian counterparts.

Above all, the objective is to make the new aircraft as competitive as possible on the international market.

"We will enlist the best in the world to develop the MS-21," Demchenko says. This follows the strategy used by Sukhoi as it developed its RRJ. Such an arrangement helped the firm not only to have the airliner certified for its main characteristics, but also to secure firm orders from both Russian and overseas operators.

Building up facilities for the development and manufacture of the MS-21 will be one of the main planks of an international cooperation program to build the Aircraft of the Future. In the next two years Irkut will invest $80 million in retooling and new equipment. At the same time, it will adopt new management standards.

"Such a strategy is a must," say Russian aircraft firms, "if you want to enter international markets with your products."

Secondly, the MS-21 will make extensive use of composites, which are particularly strong and very light. Sukhoi has already accepted Irkut's proposal to make a carbon wing for the liner, which performs better than wings from other materials.

In addition to newly configured wings, the MS-21 will also feature advanced avionics and a new and more efficient engine, consuming 25% less fuel than comparable models and being 15% more environment-friendly. In other words, it will have a lower noise level and be less polluting.

In August of this year, Irkut is to announce a tender for a powerplant for the airliner, and the winner will get an order for its production. But the main stipulation is that the winner must be Russian.

All moving parts and assemblies, including the air-frame, landing gear struts, tail unit, engine nacelles, ailerons and other components, will be manufactured in Russia. "We will support Russian producers," Demchenko said.

Together with the Sukhoi's SuperJet-100, the new medium-haul MS-21 will meet up to 80% of Russia's domestic requirements in new passenger planes and could compete on international routes.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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