Warplanes: Russia's Got the Jet Engine Blues

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May 25, 2007: Russias answer to the American F-22 (a "Fifth Generation Fighter") is still being designed, and is not expected to fly until 2010. But already the Russians are having problems with a traditional weakness; engines. Russia always had problems building competitive engines. In order to get the power needed, they built engines that lasted only a fraction as long as Western engines. The Russian engines needed more maintenance, used more fuel and broke down more often. The Sukhoi T-50 design is the basis of the new Russian fighter, and initial sketches reveal an aircraft that looks a lot like the F-22. Originally, the NPO Saturn company was selected to develop the engine for the T-50. This effort was expected to cost about $3 billion, or about 30 percent of the cost of the entire project. But Saturn has already run into problems with its 117A engine, and the Russian Air Force wants to hedge its bets by giving the other contender, Salyut, a shot. The Salyut AL-31 family of engines are used in the Su-27/30 series of fighters, and is the basis for the Saturn 117A. But if Saturn cannot keep its promises (of producing a "Western Class" engine), then it looks like Salyut will get the engine contract, and the F-22ski project will be put back a year or two.

Meanwhile, Chinese engineers have managed to master the manufacturing techniques needed to make a Chinese copy of the Russian AL31F engine. This Chinese copy, the WS10A, is meant for Chinese J-10 fighter, which recently entered service. China has long copied foreign technology, not always successfully. But in the last decade, China has poured much money into developing a jet engine manufacturing capability. The Chinese will encounter many of the same problems as Russians when developing their engine design and construction skills further.

 


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