Source AP ©

Putin opens Russian air show

Russia demonstrates its growing military muscle and to try to boost the country's sagging civilian plane-making sector at the country’s largest post-Soviet air show.

"The task stands before us of supporting our leadership in the production of military aviation technology," President Vladimir Putin said at the International Aviation and Space Show at the once-secret Zhukovsky military airfield in Moscow's outskirts.

He said Russian manufacturers "must more actively enter the world market for passenger and transport aircraft with competitive production."

Russian passenger planes are of such outdated design that airlines flying to European and U.S. destinations must use Western-made planes to meet noise and emissions requirements.

The six-day exhibition will showcase the enhanced MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets and the new S-400 missile defense system, part of massive spending bolstered by Russia's oil and gas revenues.

"The Russian air forces have some of the nicest aircraft I have ever seen," Gen. William T. Hobbins, commander of U.S. air forces in Europe, said at the show. "With a Sukhoi and MiG today, we have seen lots of new technology."

However, some analysts are skeptical.

"There's been nothing new there for 10 years," military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told The Associated Press. He characterized the lauded MiG and Sukhoi fighter jets as "flying toys that have not been launched for mass production."

Almost 800 companies from about 100 countries are participating in the biannual show, the state arms trader Rosoboronexport said. The largest foreign delegations are from China, Latin America and Arab countries. The last show had delegates from 70 countries.

The show follows highly visible moves to reassert Russia's military strength, including last week's joint military exercises with China - the first ever on Russian soil - and Putin's announcement that long-range bombers had resumed patrols over the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans.

The resumption of bomber patrols comes amid a growing chill in U.S.-Russian relations, strained over Washington's criticism of Russia's democracy record, Moscow's objections to U.S. missile defense plans and differences over global crises.

Despite concern that Russia was adopting a newly aggressive posture, Washington also engaged in some scoffing.

"If Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that's their decision," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

After the Soviet collapse, the Russian government drastically cut spending on its aircraft industry. Factories producing military planes fared better than those building civilian aircraft, in part because they benefited from arms sales abroad. But Russia started to fall behind the West in the design of advanced fighters and other military aircraft.

Civilian aircraft manufacturers were much harder hit. Russia's passenger airlines own about 2,500 aircraft - of which just 100 are Western made models. But those 100 planes, accounting for just four percent of the Russian fleet, carry nearly one-third of all passengers.

Last Wednesday, Russian officials said they planned to build about 4,500 civilian aircraft by 2025 as part of an ambitious program to revive an industry that fell on hard times after the Soviet collapse.

The government will spend about US$250 billion (EUR187 billion) to boost the industry, said Alexei Fyodorov, president of state-controlled United Aircraft Corporation, an umbrella group for Russia's plane makers. On Tuesday, Russian news agencies reported that Indonesia had signed a memorandum at the show that is effectively a contract for six Su-30 fighter jets.

Aloyna Gorobova, 24, a nurse with an ambulance at the show, watched with pride as jets screamed overhead.

"I don't doubt that our planes are the best," she said. "We just have to show it to the rest of the world."