Supersonic ambitions

By spending just RM6.5b, Russia may produce the new-generation supersonic plane in only 9 years


Every big and expensive project meets resistance. So it’s small wonder that Russia’s idea of recreating the programme of a supersonic airliner raised doubts, if not outright derision, in Russia itself. It’s a huge waste of money, say the experts. There is no way such a project could bring in any profits.

There were two supersonic liners in the world, the Anglo-French Concorde and the Russian Tu-144. Both were very much operational in the 1970s, the Tu (the first to start commercial use) has made 55 flights, carrying two thousand passengers. Both projects have been scrapped due to spectacular catastrophes, and ever since that time nobody was nostalgic about liners capable of crossing the Atlantic in just three hours, guzzling amazing amounts of fuel in the process.

But the world is changing, so now we hear that, by spending just US$1.6 billion (RM6.53 billion), Russia may produce the new-generation supersonic plane in only nine years.

To note, the previous Russian civilian jet projects needed bigger investments. The Sukhoi Superjet regional liner cost around US$2 billion, only to produce designer papers, and is still not profitable, having sold 172 machines when you need 600 to cover costs. The other project, that of the MC-21, costs US$7 billion.

And look at what you promise us for your US$1.6 billion, sneer the sceptics. You promise us a 70-tonne business jet for only 30 passengers, a toy for those wishing to fly faster to their oil wells.

Not to mention the fact that you cannot have an international certification for your toy, since it’s currently forbidden to fly with supersonic speeds over land — and why should anyone make exceptions to that excessively ambitious nation, Russia? You may just say that you want to play with government’s money and have the time of your life.

No, the project is not impossible, answer the excited designers. We now may have the money for it. Look at just one recent deal, that of delivering to India assembly kits for 18 Su-30mki fighter jets. That, as well as recent deals with Myanmar, Armenia and other nations, helps to maintain the cashflow to JSC Irkut Corp, that makes the fighters and participates in the civilian supersonic project, too.

In any case, only 20 years ago there were serious doubts about Russia’s ability to produce any new planes, at least the civilian ones. Money is not the main problem in such cases, you, first of all, need a sufficient number of talented people capable of designing and assembling something new.

But the moment you start design and production of one new plane, you may be very sure you’ll have plenty of ideas about other machines, not to mention the factories ready to assemble them.

In a way, the Superjet project gave birth to the MC-21, and from that point on we have a whole rejuvenated industry, very capable of moving into a new technological age. 

So the start of works on the future high-speed liner is now almost official, with Denis Manturov, the Minister of Trade and Industry, making optimistic speeches about it.

The most interesting feature of the ambitious supersonic project is exactly its lack of clear financial feasibility. It seems that here we have a typical case of a mad new technology which is just asking to be born, and the money, so far, is not the goal.

It’s like with the steam engine, the idea of which looked weird in the era when horses were abundant, and the concept of a separate road made of two endless rails seemed totally crazy. But the nations that did not hesitate to spend money on such an idea, ruled the world for decades afterwards just because, at the start, they were delirious enough to risk some serious money on a not-very-serious idea.

Technological progress lives in cycles. First, we have mad ideas and mad spending on them. Then, we discover that some fruits of these mad ideas are making investors crazy rich. And, finally, we see that the potential for these new technologies has exhausted itself, the small improvements take more money with less results, and it’s time to have a look at some totally insane new ideas.

In all such cases, the industry groups and the nations that are driving the new technological cycles are dominating the markets, if not the world in general. And the global fight for that dominance may get very hot. It’s what we see now in the oncoming global battle for supremacy in the 5G technology.

In Russia’s supersonic case we see, at the very least, the thinking demonstrates that some people there are very much aware of these realities. Plus, we see that financially and technologically that project is not absolutely impossible. It’s enough for at least watching the process with avid interest.

  • Dmitry Kosyrev is an author of 8 novels and a book of short stories, as well as a columnist for 2 Moscow publications. Orientalist by education (Moscow University), he has a special love for Malaysia. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the stand of the newspaper’s owners and editorial board.