Yak-130: New Russia’s Most Successful Aircraft
The Yak 130 advanced jet trainer developed by the Yakovlev design bureau is Russia’s most successful new aircraft, both commercially and technologically, since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Of all the new aircraft developed by the former Soviet states since 1991, the Yak 130 has been mass-produced in the largest numbers. Its design has also been used in two very promising models in foreign countries. The only other project which comes close to the Yak 130 in terms of its commercial success is the Su-30MKI fighter, developed specifically for the Indian market – but its design dates back to Soviet times. The Yak 130, on the other hand, is an entirely post-Soviet program.
In 1988 the Soviet Air Force announced a competition for a future trainer jet to replace the Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros made in Czechoslovakia. The new aircraft was to be used for both basic and advanced pilot training. The objective was to give pilots adequate training to graduate to the fourth-generation fighters, which were only just beginning to enter service, as well as to the future fifth-generation fighters. One of the requirements to the new aircraft was “advanced programmability” of its controllability, i.e. the ability to simulate the performance of various types of combat aircraft for training purposes.
Four Soviet design bureaus took part in the competition: the Yakovlev bureau (the Yak-UTS project), the Mikoyan bureau (MiG-AT), the Sukhoi bureau (S-54) and the Myasishchev bureau (M-200). After considering the four bids, in January 1991 the Soviet Air Force short-listed two twin-engine projects, the Yak-UTS (which was soon renamed to become the Yak 130) and the MiG-AT. The final choice was to be made after flight-testing the prototypes.
By September 1993 the Yakovlev bureau had completed the drawing board stage of the project and stared building the first prototype. The lead designer of the Yak 130 project was Nikolay Dolzhenkov. But the break-up of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic crisis led to drastic cuts in defense spending, and the government stopped funding the project.
The Yakovlev bureau tried to secure funding from foreign partners. In October 1993 it signed an agreement with Italy’s Aermacchi (which has since become Alenia Aermacchi) to jointly develop a new trainer based on the Yak 130 design, designated as the Yak/AEM-130. Italian financing revitalized the project. The developers of the Yak 130’s competitor, the MiG bureau, sought a similar solution to keep the MiG-AT project afloat, but they worked with French companies.
In order to reconcile the somewhat different requirements of the Russian and Italian partners, and also to save costs, the Yakovlev bureau first built the Yak 130D demonstrator prototype equipped with the DV-2 turbofan engines supplied by Slovakia. The prototype was used to test the aerodynamic performance of the new aircraft. It was first demonstrated on September 30, 1994, and took off for its maiden flight on April 25, 1996 from the Zhukovskiy airfield. It was later used for flight tests in Russia and Italy; it had board numbers 01 and 336, and registration number RA-43130.
The initial plan was to build 10 pre-production Yak 130 aircraft to be used for rigorous testing by the Russian Air Force in 1998-1999. But financial difficulties compounded by the financial crisis in 1998 made those plans impractical. Meanwhile, the Yakovlev bureau and Aermacchi decided to use the Yak 130D prototype to develop their own separate versions of the aircraft. In December 1999 the two companies ended their partnership deal, but they agreed to continue limited cooperation and not to compete head-to-head in the same markets. Alenia Aermacchi then went on to develop the M-346 trainer based on the Russian design.
In September 1999 the Yakovlev bureau landed its first order for four pre-production Yak 130 units, along with some state funding for the project. But due to problems with the actual disbursement of these funds from the treasury it took the bureau until February 2001 to sign a contract for building the four aircraft with the Sokol aviation plant in Nizhniy Novgorod.
Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force decided not to wait for the prototypes to be delivered, and on April 10, 2002 officially announced its choice of the Yak 130 as the new trainer model. It preferred the Yak 130 over the rival MiG AT aircraft owing to the former’s greater capabilities, as well as the availability of the more polished AI-222-25 turbofan engine, made jointly by Motor Sich (Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine) and the Salyut company based in Moscow. The first Russian engine for the MiG-AT, the RD-1700, developed by the Klimov bureau, became available only in 2008. For a short period RAC “MiG” continued the development and testing of the MiG-AT trainer, but in 2009 the project was abandoned.
Yak 130 enters mass production
The first Yak 130 prototype was built at the Sokol plant (board number 01, which was later changed to 130) and rolled out on May 30, 2004. It took off for its maiden flight (with the AI 222 25 engines) on April 30, 2004. In January 2004 the Sokol plant also delivered a Yak 130 airframe to the Yakovlev bureau for static tests. The second prototype (board number 02, later changed to 131) took to the air on April 5, 2005, and the third (03, then 132) on March 27, 2006. But on June 26, 2006 the third prototype was lost in a crash at the Zhukovskiy airfield. The crew successfully ejected. The accident was blamed on poorly tested software of the fly-by-wire system. The ensuing efforts to improve that software delayed the program by almost two years. The fourth prototype (board number 04, then 133) took to the air in mid-2008.
Under the contract signed with the MoD in 2002 the Yakovlev bureau was to complete the state tests program for the Yak 130 in 2006. But owing to numerous delays – some of them caused by the loss of the third prototype and by the later-than-scheduled launch of the AI-222-25 engine – that deadline was missed. The preliminary conclusion based on interim results of the state tests program was signed only in November 2007, which is when mass production of the aircraft was finally approved. The first stage of the state tests of the Yak 130 with the basic weapons complement was completed in April 2009. On December 25, 2009 the aircraft completed the entire joint state tests program. In autumn 2011 the MoD began testing it with various guided weapons.
In late 2002 the MoD signed a contract for the first 12 mass-produced Yak 130 trainers, to be delivered to the Russian Air Force. But their mass production could begin only after the official approval of the state testing commission was issued in November 2007. The first mass-produced unit (board number 90) was made for the Air Force at the Sokol plant; it took to the air on May 12, 2009. Another three (board numbers 91-93) were completed by the year’s end. They were delivered in February-April 2010 to the Air Force’s 4th State Center of Pilot Training and Weapons Testing in Lipetsk. But on May 29, 2010 the Yak 130 with side number 93 crashed near Lipetsk. According to some reports, the accident was caused by persisting problems with the fly-by-wire system and poor training of the ground personnel. The crew again successfully ejected and survived. All the remaining mass-produced Yak 130s were grounded for a year pending the resolution of the technical problems. Further Yak 130 deliveries were suspended as well. Sokol made eight units in 2010 (board numbers 21 28), but they were delivered to the Air Force only in early 2011. In April-June 2011 they were assigned to the Air Force’s Pilot Training Center in Borisoglebsk, near Voronezh. In June 2011 two aircraft previously assigned to the Lipetsk training facility (board numbers 90 and 91) were also transferred to Borisoglebsk. Recruits began training flights on the Yak 130 at the Borisoglebsk facility in late 2011.
The initial plan was for all the Yak 130s ordered by the Russian Air Force to be made by Sokol, and for the units destined for exports by the Irkut corporation in Irkutsk. But in 2008 lobbying by Irkut resulted in the entire Yak 130 production being transferred to Irkutsk. Production at the Sokol facilities in Nizhniy Novgorod ended after only 16 units had been made.
Irkut ramps up Yak 130 output
Under the 2007-2015 State Armament Program, 65 Yak 130s were to be bought for the Air Force in addition to the first 12 mass-produced units. That plan remains unchanged in the new 2011-2020 program. On December 8, 2011 the MoD signed a contract with the United Aircraft Corporation (OAK) and Irkut for 55 Yak 130 trainers, worth some 30bn roubles (1bn US dollars), to be delivered by the end of 2015. The ministry has also signed an option for another 10 aircraft, for delivery in 2015 or 2016. Deliveries under the new contract are to commence in late 2012. Irkut estimates that the Russian Air Force will require a total of about 200 units; according to unofficial information, roughly the same figure is contained in the SAP-2020 program. Production of the Yak 130 for the Russian Air Force can therefore be expected to continue at least until 2020-2025.
From the very beginning the Yak 130 has attracted a lot of attention on the world market as one of the most advanced and promising trainers. In 2006 Russia signed a 300m-dollar contract with Algeria for 16 aircraft. In August 2007 a 120m-dollar contract for six aircraft was signed with Libya. According to some reports, a contract for eight Yak 130s was signed in 2010 with Vietnam.
The Irkut aircraft plant in Irkutsk, which is one of Russia’s most advanced aircraft manufacturers, has been ramping up Yak 130 production at a rapid pace. The first Yak 130 made in Irkutsk took to the air on August 21, 2009. It was supposed to be the first of the batch to be delivered to Algeria, but the aircraft (board number 134) is now being used to test guided weapons. Shortly afterwards production began on the Algerian and Libyan orders, with some of the new aircraft being reserved for the future Russian Air Force contracts.
In 2010 Irkut made 12 Yak 130s destined for Algeria. In late November 2011 it was reported that 47 aircraft had reached the final assembly floor at Irkut since production began in 2009. Senior Irkut officials said that 30 Yak 130 aircraft had been built in Irkutsk as of September 2011. According to the corporation’s annual report, 8bn roubles (270m dollars) worth of products were made under the Yak 130 program in 2011.
All 16 Yak 130 trainers made under the Algerian contract were delivered to that country from Irkutsk in November-December 2011. It is also known that all six aircraft ordered by Libya were completed in 2011 – but because of the fall off the Gaddafi government they were never delivered, and their future remains uncertain. There have been reports that the six trainers could be handed over to the Russian Air Force.
Irkut therefore seems easily capable of making up to 30 Yak 130 units every year, without any detriment to its other programs, such as the Su-30MK fighters or the MS 21 passenger airliner project. That level of output is sufficient to satisfy the demand of the Russian Air Force as well as to keep the deliveries on schedule on any new export contracts.
It has been reported that Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms exports near-monopoly, and Irkut’s parent company, OAK, are negotiating possible Yak 130 contracts with several new foreign customers, including Poland, Venezuela, Uruguay, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Malaysia. In late 2011 it was reported that a 550m-dollar contract for 36 Yak 130s had been signed with Syria – but according to the latest available information, the contract has not yet entered into force because the Russian government has yet to give the final go-ahead. Finally, it has been reported that Belarus also plans to buy several Yak 130s.
Future upgrades and foreign iterations
More than 50 Yak 130 prototypes and mass-produced units had been made by 2012. Not a single other aircraft or helicopter designed after the break-up of the Soviet Union has been produced in such quantities anywhere in the former Soviet Union. Only the Mi-28N attack helicopter comes close to the Yak 130, but the core Mi-28 design dates back to the Soviet period for the most part, and the first Mi-28 prototype took to the air back in 1982. At least another 200 Yak 130s will probably be made for the Russian Air Force over the next 15 20 years, plus another 200 units on export contracts.
Meanwhile, the Yakovlev design bureau, which is now a division of Irkut, continues to work on the Yak 130 project; it has developed proposals to use the platform for several new versions of combat trainers, an attack aircraft and a light fighter. These projects are now being pursued mostly for the export market because in 2012 the Russian MoD abandoned its own plans for a new attack aircraft built on the Yak 130 platform, arguing that the aircraft would be underpowered, opting instead for the Su-25UBM. But the Sukhoi project may yet run into trouble because it would require production of the obsolete R-95/195 turbojet engine to be resumed. It would therefore be premature completely to write off the possibility of an attack aircraft being developed on the Yak 130 platform for the Russian Air Force. It has also been reported that the Yakovlev bureau is looking to use the Yak 130 airframe for an attack UAV.
Meanwhile, the Italian “branch” of the Yak 130 project, the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master aircraft, has also been very successful. The M-346 uses a slightly different aerodynamic setup, Western-made components and systems, and Honeywell/ITEC F124 turbofan engines. The first M-346 prototype took to the air in 2004 (but was lost in 2011). Alenia Aermacchi later built another two prototypes (which first flew in 2005 and 2008). In 2009 the Italian MoD ordered six such aircraft, designated as the T-346A, with an option for another nine. The first two aircraft had been delivered by the spring of 2012. In 2010 Singapore placed an order for 12 M 346s; deliveries are scheduled to commence in late 2012. In 2012 the M-346 won an Israeli Air Force contract; the country plans to order 30 aircraft. A preliminary agreement for the delivery of 48 M-346s has also been reached with the UAE.
Thanks to the rapid rise in production on domestic and export contracts the number of Yak 130s made so far has already surpassed the output of the M-346, although previously experts tended to predict the opposite situation. Nevertheless, the M-346 is one of the most commercially promising Western trainers. In essence, the only competition it is facing in its class is the upgraded versions of the BAE Systems Hawk, which went into production some 40 years ago, and South Korea’s KAI T-50, which has met with a very lukewarm reception among the prospective customers. Many countries which are now choosing a new trainer model view the M-346 as one of the prime candidates. A partnership of Alenia Aermacchi and Boeing is now bidding with an M-346 version designated as the T-100 for a US Air Force tender for an advanced trainer aircraft.
Another “blood relative” of the Yak 130 is the Chinese L-15 trainer developed by Hongdu Aviation Industries Group. The Yakovlev design bureau helped the Chinese with the design; as a result the L-15 is essentially a version of the Yak 130. The aircraft also uses the Ukrainian-made AI 222 25 engines. The first L-15 prototype took to the air in March 2006; a total of five have been made so far. The manufacturer is now bidding with the L-15 for a Chinese Air Force contract and energetically promoting the aircraft to foreign customers as a trainer or light fighter. Several developing countries, especially in Africa, have shown interest. In 2012 it was reported that first export contracts for 12 L-15s had already been signed (the customer is probably Nigeria).
The product designed in the 1990s by a talented Yakovlev team is rapidly gaining recognition throughout the world; it is quite likely to become the world’s most popular trainer jet for the next 30-40 years. For the Russian Air Force and Russian aerospace industry the Yak 130 has been the first newly-designed jet aircraft to be made in fairly large numbers after a pause of almost 20 years.
To conclude, the following observations can be made about the whole Yak 130 program:
The aircraft is probably the first precedent of Soviet/Russian aircraft designers creating a truly original and conceptually new aircraft, as opposed to copying, emulating or belatedly reacting to American or Western advances in the field. The essence of the Yakovlev innovation is an aerodynamically and technologically advanced aircraft which can emulate the performance of highly maneuverable fourth and fifth-generation fighters. The Yak 130 has ended the tradition of aerodynamically simple, almost primitive trainers of the previous generation.
The Yak 130 has been designed right from the start not just as a trainer but potentially as a proper combat aircraft. It is worth noting that the Yakovlev bureau adopted this concept at a time when the Russian military-political establishment was still preoccupied with planning for big wars, and when the era of small conflicts was only beginning. In the early 1990s the Russian military also lacked proper understanding of the importance of controlling the costs, especially the running costs of combat aircraft.
Finally, the program is unusual for Russia in that for the most part it was funded commercially rather than directly by the government; the Irkut corporation invested a large portion of its export earnings into the Yak 130.