Monday 7 February 2022

Untapped Potential: Turkey And Ukraine Join Forces To Develop Antonov Aircraft

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

As a pioneer in the aerospace sector, Turkey has designed a number of advanced manned and unmanned aircraft types. Most of these have been for the benefit of the Turkish Air Force and other air arms around the globe. Still, Turkey once had ambitious plans to enter the civilian aviation market with its TRjet domestic airliner project, which was cancelled in 2017. While this appeared to have put an end to any concrete plans to design and produce civilian aircraft at that time, it is certain that Turkey's ambitions in this sector continued to simmer in the background.
We've already covered Turkey's interest in completing the second An-225, the world's largest cargo aircraft, earlier on this website. [1] This article will attempt to provide a rationale for Turkish participation and close cooperation in a number of other Ukrainian aviation projects. This includes the An-132 turboprop transport aircraft, the An-178 medium transport aircraft and the An-188 strategic airlifter. Turkey has already publicly voiced its interest to co-produce the latter two designs on a number of occasions since 2018, most recently in October 2021. [2] [3] [4]

While one could argue that the Turkish Air Force currently has little need for an additional type of transport aircraft beyond the CN-235, C-130 and A400M already in active service, Antonov's designs could not only address future requirements of the Turkish Armed Forces, but also enjoy considerable export success around the globe. A good sales share could be obtained through the integration of Turkish parts, technologies and payloads while also benefitting from Turkey's worldwide influence to achieve impressive sales results in Africa, Europe, Asia and South America.
Turkish involvement could see a breakthrough not only in improving on the designs of the An-132, An-178 and An-188, but also in providing the stimulus for the aircraft to actually enter mass production through Turkey's modern technology support. The (partial) production of these aircraft in Turkey would fit neatly in the Turkish government's long-sought goal of turning Turkey into a manufacturing hub for advanced innovative technologies such as electric cars, unmanned aircraft and high-speed trains among several other projects. [5] [6]

The An-132 and An-178.

As Turkish aerospace companies are currently busying themselves with finalising the design of the Hürjet advanced jet trainer and the TF-X stealth air superiority fighter, both by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), and the MIUS unmanned combat aircraft by Baykar Tech, it is unlikely that any Turkish aerospace company currently has the capacity to carry out the design of truly indigenous civilian airliners and cargo aircraft. This is not to say that such projects won't be launched by Turkish companies in the future, with Baykar Tech's Cezeri flying car perhaps offering a glimpse of the company's future design ambitions. [7]

Turkish Aerospace Industries for its part is already cooperating with PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) on the N-219 and N-245 turboprop passenger aircraft projects. [8] Placed in a market segment with less competition than the jet airliner market, these aircraft could potentially enjoy huge commercial success in Africa, a continent where Turkish influence is on the rise. Strong political backing behind the projects with PTDI and Antonov could also end up a major factor in boosting the export sales of the aircraft types involved. The potential benefits of Turkish involvement in the N-219 and N-245 projects can be read here.
The TRjet project launched in 2015 similarly sought to maximise the use of existing designs to speed up the project and limit the risks inherent to a project of this magnitude. TRjet was to spawn the eventual production of four aircraft models – a jet (TRJ328) and a turboprop (TR328) with 32 seats for short-haul fights, and a jet (TRJ628) and a turboprop (TR628) with 60 to 70 seats intended for medium-haul flights. [9] Only the TRJ628 and TR628 would be new designs, with the TRJ328 and TR328 being advanced derivatives of the German Dornier 328Jet and Dornier 328.
A similar renaming scheme could be implemented for the Antonov aircraft, with the An-132 becoming the TR132, the An-178 the TRJ178 and the An-188 the TRJ188. While Antonov enjoys brand recognition in most parts of the world (though not always a favourable one), it can be argued that Turkey's rise to a great power in international politics could play a significant factor in the planes' commercial succes. In this sense, a designation that is associated with the planes' country of origin (Turkey or Türkiye) could certainly be of benefit: Meet the TR132, TRJ178 and TRJ188.

An artist rendering of the ill-fated TRJ628 and TRJ328.

While the An-178 and An-188 are aimed mainly at the military market, the An-132 turboprop transport aircraft could also be a success on the civilian market. Designed as an improved version of the An-32, the An-132 incorporates Western parts and technologies to make it more appealing to potential customers while retaining the ruggedness and flight capabilities that made the An-24/26/32 family such a commercial success. The An-132 design is powered by two Pratt & Whitney PW150 turboprop engines and features Western-made components instead of Russian parts.

The An-132 project was famously acquired by Saudi Arabia in 2015 to kickstart the Kingdom's aviation industry, with a production line for the type to be set up in Saudi Arabia. But despite an early pledge to order 80 aircraft and later placing an actual order for six An-132Ds for use with the Saudi Air Force, the promising project was ultimately shelved by Saudi Arabia in 2019. [10] Especially the Saudi Air Force was opposed to the An-132 project, apparently feeling it was being pursued solely for industrial reasons rather than to meet an actual requirement by the country's military.
Antonov had previously pitched the same 'aircraft building scheme' to several other nations that expressed an interest in manufacturing aircraft. [10] Under this scheme, Antonov would develop and test an improved variant of one of its aircraft types and then transfer the intellectual property rights to the partner nation, where a production line for the aircraft would be set up. Iran was the only other country to take advantage of this deal, seeking to produce An-140 and An-148 airliners, although only a small number of IrAn-140s were assembled before sanctions killed the project. [11]
With the Saudi deal having collapsed in 2019, the An-132 project is now essentially dead in the water. The prototype flew for the last time in 2019, and its registration has meanwhile been revoked by Ukrainian authorities after the aircraft's airworthiness certificate expired. [10] This provides a unique opportunity for Turkey to step in and revive the project, perhaps incorporating some of the aspects of the scheme previously pitched by Antonov, albeit with increased Turkish involvement and the integration of Turkish-made parts, technologies and payloads.

It would be a mistake to quickly dismiss the An-132 as merely an improved version of an older generation aircraft, as this line of reasoning would apply to nearly every type of transport aircraft sold on the market today. The highly popular C-130J Super Hercules is a comprehensive update of a 1950s design while the C-27J and C-295 are advanced derivatives of 1970s and 1980s-era aircraft respectively. The C-27J and C-295 also happen to be the An-132's direct competitors, and have achieved significant success on the export market since their introduction in the late 1990s.
While their continued commercial success proves there's indeed a large market for aircraft like the An-132, it also means that many prospective customers of the An-132 are by now already operating the C-27J or C-295. The An-132 would thus have to improve on these aircraft's parameters, offer novel features such as advanced payloads and most important of all, be less expensive to acquire and operate than its competitors. Strong political backing by Turkey could also be a contributing factor to incentivise friendly countries to purchase the aircraft.
The An-132 design already improves on many of the characteristics of the C-27J and C-295 (see below), and has the capability to operate from unprepared runways where other transport aircraft fail to operate. This also makes the aircraft an attractive option for civilian cargo operators in South America and Africa, which often maintain services to remote airstrips deep in the jungle. Several cargo airlines in these continents continue to make use of the An-26 and An-32 specifically for their ability to operate from dirt strips, with no aircraft currently available to truly replace them.
The An-132 could not only achieve success on the civilian market, but also attract military customers that lack the funds to procure the C-27J/C-295 or that want to replace their An-26/32s with a more advanced iteration. In Africa, such nations include Mozambique, DR Congo, Sudan, Libya, Ethiopia, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria while South American countries like Peru, El Salvador and Colombia are other probable operators. Closer to home, Ukraine and Iraq could settle on the An-132 to replace their An-26/32s. While most of these countries would likely sign for just a few aircraft each, sales numbers could quickly stack up when combined with possible sales to cargo airlines.

The payload options of the An-132 and a comparative chart with the C-27J and C-295. Click on the images to enlarge.

In addition to its roles as a military cargo aircraft and commercial freighter, the An-132 can also fulfill a range of specialised tasks that include firefighting, electronic warfare (EW) and MEDEVAC; even gunship and maritime patrol (MPA) variants of the An-132 were once envisioned. Although not all of these tasks are necessarily of interest to Turkey, with projects for EW aircraft and future (jet-based) MPAs already underway, such variants could still be interesting for certain export customers. In 2017, Ukraine's Ukroboronprom and Turkey's Havelsan already concluded an agreement for the development of the MPA and ISR variants of the An-132 to meet a possible requirement by Saudi Arabia, which ultimately failed to materialise after the country abandoned the An-132 project shortly thereafter. [12]

Arguably the most interesting An-132 variant for Turkey is the An-132FF dedicated firefighting aircraft. Although Turkey once boasted a fleet of some nine CL-215 and eleven PZL M18 firefighting aircraft, these have all been retired in recent years, leaving a fleet of chartered Russian Be-200s amphibious aircraft and Mi-17 and Ka-32 helicopters to take over their valuable work. [13] The 2021 Turkey wildfires once again brought awareness to the benefits of operating its own firefighting aircraft rather than relying on leased aircraft and helicopters. Consequently, October 2021 saw the announcement that four firefighting aircraft would be purchased. [14] The An-132FF could meet a Turkish and Ukrainian requirement for more firefighting aircraft as forest fires in both countries are on the rise. If such an acquisition occurs, the An-132 also becomes an increasingly interesting candidate for adoption by the Turkish Air Force, which operates a fleet of some 50 CN-235s dating from the early-to-late 1990s that are likely slated for replacement in the next decade.

The An-132FF.

For all the (commercial) potential of the turboprop An-132, Turkey has so far only ever publicly voiced its interest in the An-178 and An-188 jet transport aircraft. The Antonov An-178 medium transport aircraft was designed as a cargo derivative of the An-158 airliner with an identical flight deck, wing panels, tail section and many of the onboard systems. The fuselage however was newly created to hold up to 16 tonnes of cargo that can be flown to a range of 1620km (or 4700km with 5 tonnes of cargo). Both aircraft are powered by the same Progress D-436 or AI-28 engines produced by Ukraine's Motor-Sich, which almost got taken over by China in 2017 before the U.S. government forced the Ukrainian government to step in and freeze the deal for national security reasons. [15]

Ukraine has also been mentioned as a possible partner to revive Turkey's plans to produce civilian airliners. [3] This could see a Turkish interest in the An-158 airliner for its commonality with the An-178. Whilst mainly active in the military market, Antonov has designed several airliners as well. This includes the turboprop An-140 and An-148/158, neither of which have proven very successful on the international market. Ambitions once ran much higher, and in the 1990s Antonov began work on the An-180 and An-218 commercial airliners and even the An-418, a passenger version of the An-124 strategic airlifter that was meant to compete with the Airbus A380, unfortunately to no avail. [16]
For all its efforts, the An-148 and the stretched An-158 proved commercial disappointments. Just two airlines in Ukraine and Russia still operate a total of seven An-148s. Sales outside these countries included two An-148s to North Korea's Air Koryo and six An-158s to Cuba's flag carrier Cubana de Aviación, which grounded all of its An-158s in 2018 due to numerous technical issues plaguing the type. While the An-158's similarity to the An-178 makes it seem like a logical candidate to fulfill Turkey's airliner ambitions, the An-158 would end up remarkably similar to the TRJ628 from the TRjet project, the further development of which was cancelled after it was deemed economically infeasible. [17]

While an investment in the An-158 passenger aircraft is unlikely to yield any positive net results, the An-178 has a slightly more attractive balance of risk and reward. Contrary to the An-132, which would need to catch up with its competitors, the An-178 could be an early entry in the medium-airlift transport aircraft market before most of the competing aircraft arrive. These would consist of the Brazilian KC-390, the future Il-276 by Russia and a smaller derivative of the Airbus A400M (tentatively dubbed the A200M or A410M). [18] Prospective customers for the An-178 include Iraq, Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan and Peru.

An An-178 is being loaded with three HMMWVs.

The An-178 also has some potential for future growth through new engine options, which could increase its maximal takeoff weight and fuel efficiency. Indeed, the acquisition and operating costs will be decisive factors in the aircraft's success. The integration of Turkish components to further westernise the aircraft could also increase the chances of foreign sales. Yet it can be stated that the export potential of the An-178 is lower than that of the An-132, with the An-178 unlikely to attract widespread interest from cargo operators. This has little to due with the soundness of the An-178's design, but rather a market preference for either smaller designs or larger, longer-ranged aircraft with an increased payload capacity.

In an effort to make the An-178 more appealing to international customers, Antonov has proposed a number of variants for the aircraft. [19] This includes aerial refuelling, MEDEVAC and search-and-rescue versions. Considering Antonov's plans for the similar An-148, which included the An-148-301MP MPA, the An-148-301ISR and even the An-148-301AEW airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, it's not unlikely that other variants could also be proposed. [20] This would ultimately depend on the amount of interest in such specialised variants.
The extent of interest among countries for the An-178 is currently difficult to predict. The An-178 fills an uneasy gap between the An-132/C-295/C-27J and the C-130/Il-76, and most countries will simply opt to use either of these aircraft types to carry out the missions for which the An-178 was optimised. Countries or service branches that currently lack an aircraft in the class of the C-130 are most likely to settle on the An-178. Ukraine and Peru have so far ordered three and one An-178s respectively, although the status of the deal with Peru is currently uncertain. [21]

The range of the An-178 when taking off from Ankara and a comparative payload chart with the C295/C-27J and C-130J-30.

Arguably the most remarkable aircraft Turkey has shown interest in (aside from the An-225) is the An-188 strategic airlifter concept. The An-188 is a progressive development of the An-70 propfan medium-range transport aircraft that was developed in the late 1980s as a replacement for the Soviet An-12. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, development of the type slowly continued under joint Ukrainian-Russian ownership. After the 2014 Russo-Ukrainian War, Russia was officially kicked out of the An-70 programme by Ukraine. This move was mostly symbolic however, as Russia had already withdrawn from the programme in 2013 to focus on a domestic aircraft. [22]

Up until 2014 the An-70 programme had been anything but a smooth ride, with the aircraft still lacking certification some twenty years after its first flight in 1994. In those twenty years, the An-70 programme was plagued by a lack of funding and internal disagreements between Russia and Ukraine. After a brief cooperation with China (which later went on to develop the Y-20), a potential breakthrough for the programme came in the late 1990s as Germany and France began to evaluate the An-70 for their Future Large Aircraft programme to replace the C-160. [23] An evaluation by the German Ministry of Defence found a westernised An-70 to be technically superior and an estimated 30% cheaper than the A400M design offered by Airbus. [23] In the end, the A400M design was chosen for practical reasons.

In an effort to market the An-70 to foreign customers since, Antonov has made a number of proposals to win over potential clients. This has included the An-77, a westernised version of the An-70, the An-170, a version with more powerful propfan engines, the An-112KC, an aerial refuelling version for the USAF that would have had its four propfan engines replaced with two jet engines, the An-70-118, An-70T-300 and An-70T-400 that were to be powered by two to four Progress D-18T or French-American CFM56-5C4 jet engines and the recent An-188, an improved variant of the An-70 fitted with four jet engines, Western components and the ability to refuel combat aircraft. [24] [25]
Apart from being the most promising version of the An-70, the An-188 is also the only viable option to resurrect the An-70 programme. The An-77 project that sought to replace the An-70's Russian components with Western counterparts quickly proved infeasible as certain parts have no Western analogues. [26] The An-70/77's powerful Ukrainian-designed Progress D-27 propfan engines are unique to the aircraft, and feature several Russian parts that can't easily be produced elsewhere. In a 2020 interview, Ukraine's Minister of Strategic Industries Oleh Urusky referred to the programme as ''a dead end road'', a clear indication of the An-77's commercial infeasibility. [26] The Ukrainian Air Force continues to operate a single An-70 after the aircraft officially entered service in 2015. [27]

What perhaps could one day be reality: The An-/TR188.

The An-188 programme was first announced at the 2015 Paris Air Show as a four jet engine-powered heavy-medium transport with aerial refueling capabilities, bigger wings equipped with winglets, and Western components. [28] The An-188 can be equipped with four Progress D-436 or AI-28 engines (that will also power the An-178) or with four CFM International LEAP as a Western engine option. [28] The An-188 is intended to fill the gap between the C-130J-30 and the C-17, thereby positioning itself as a direct competitor to the A400M by Airbus.
The An-188's spacious cargo cabin allows for the carriage of up to 40 tonnes of cargo (depending on the engine choice), including armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), UAVs, helicopters, and even Turkey's upcoming unmanned surface vessels (USVs). The aircraft can also accommodate up to 300 persons or more than 200 injured on two decks when deployed in a MEDEVAC configuration, or more than 130 fully-equipped paratroops in a troop transport configuration. [29] The aircraft can also act as a tanker when fitted with two under-wing refuelling pods.

In May 2018, it was announced that Turkey and Ukraine were discussing co-production of the An-188. [28] The discussions revolved around the share of work each country would take up, licensing agreements, technology transfers and the possibility of exporting the aircraft to other countries. For any co-production deal to go ahead, a Turkish official was quoted as saying that the aircraft must be made NATO-compatible. [28] In addition to being a Turkish Air Force requirement, this will also greatly increase the competitiveness of the aircraft on the export market.
The Turkish Air Force currently operates a fleet of ten A400Ms and sixteen C-130B/Es military transport aircraft. Turkey's C-130s were originally manufactured in the 1960s, and are in need of replacement at the end of this decade. At the same time, Turkish air operations have drastically expanded over the last several years, with frequent flights to Libya and other destinations throughout Africa. With the acquisition of more A400Ms uncertain, the An-188 is an increasingly attractive alternative to replace Turkey's C-130s.
The Ukrainian Air Force could similarly settle on the An-188 to replace its ageing Il-76s, possibly signing for at least half a dozen aircraft. Possible foreign customers for the An-188 include Indonesia, Angola, Libya, Nigeria, the Philippines, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Peru. The An-188 could also meet demand from the commercial market to replace the Il-76s that remain in service with a number of cargo airlines around the world. Commercial interest in the An-188 is uncertain however, and air forces would likely be its primary customer.

Turkey is a rising power in international politics and has a proven track record of making difficult projects a reality. As the country strives to become a global manufacturing hub, Turkish companies are embarking on innovative routes to deliver advanced technologies. In 2022, Turkey will begin mass production of the country's first indigenously-designed electric passenger train, the TOGG national electric car and even electric tractors. [30] [31] [32] Turkey's efforts to follow up these achievements with the design and production of airliners and cargo aircraft form a logical next step in the transition towards a global manufacturing hub.

Turkey's technical cooperation with Ukraine is based on mutual benefits and the potential of capitalising on untapped opportunities. Both countries possess technologies and expertise the other country is in need of, creating a level playing field. Turkey is a trusted source for advanced weaponry such as Bayraktar TB2, which will soon enter production in Ukraine as a Ukrainian-Turkish drone. [33] In turn, Turkey has reaped the benefits of Ukraine's established engine industry to power the Bayraktar Akıncı and the future unmanned combat jet the MIUS.
Both countries could further expand and deepen cooperation in the science and technology fields through the joint design, production and marketing of the An-132, An-178 and An-188 to meet the future needs of both countries' militaries and hopefully export the aircraft around the world. Turkish technology, expertise and its worldwide influence combined with Antonov's existing designs and experience could end up as the golden combination to achieve something what neither country could have done alone.

The Turkish government is sure to be realistic in its future aircraft construction endeavours, a fact highlighted by the cancellation of the TRjet programme in 2017. The opportunity to skip large parts of the design process by using Antonov's existing designs will surely be appreciated, as will be the possibility to set up a production line for them in Turkey. As the Bayraktar TB2 is soon set to become Ukrainian-Turkish in terms of technological content, the An-132, An-178 and An-188 could perhaps soon become Turkish-Ukrainian in their technological content as well. [33]

The second An-225 that remains in an unfinished state to this day. President Erdoğan raised the idea of completing the aircraft in October 2020. [1]

[1] Sky Giant: Turkey Mulls To Complete The Second Antonov An-225 Mriya
[4] Ukraine, Turkey develop plans to join forces in Antonov aircraft production, - Kuleba
[5] The Market Leader: Turkey’s Indigenous Unmanned Surface Vessels (USVs)
[6] Turkey to start manufacturing 1st indigenous electric train locomotive in 2022
[10] Taqnia An-132: the curious tale of Saudi Antonovs 
[11] ANALYSIS: How Iran's aerospace dream began and ended with the licence-built IrAn-140  
[13] An Unmanned Firefighter: The Bayraktar TB2 Joins The Call
[15] Pandora Papers: How A U.S. Law Firm Attemped To Sell A Defence Giant To China
[16] Post-Soviet wide-body Neverland. Part 2: Superjumbos  
[19] AN-178 Medium transport aircraft
[21] Spetstechnoexport gives its version on Peruvian An-178 delays
[22] Самолетостроение как разменная монета
[24] Ан-70: строить нельзя закрыть программу
[25] Paris Air Show 2015: Antonov reveals An-188 strategic transport aircraft 
[26] Вице-премьер Уруский: "Воздушный старт" может стать для Украины национальной идеей 
[30] Turkey to start manufacturing 1st indigenous electric train locomotive in 2022
[31] Minister Varank: TOGG will start mass production at the end of 2022
[33] Ukraine deepens defence ties with Turkey amid standoff with Russia