There’s a very clear reason why the Russian Federation tried to establish domestic production of VK-2500 helicopter engines that were previously supplied by Ukraine’s Motor Sich, and why it even sought to buy the entire company in the past.
The same engines are also the reason why the Russian helicopter industry is facing substantial problems because the shortage of powertrains heavily limits the number of new aircraft introduced in active service.
“The main bottleneck of helicopter construction now is helicopter engines. In particular, if we are talking about the VK-2500, then when a single center for the production of VK-2500 was created in St. Petersburg, we expected a maximum volume of up to 200 engines. As a result, we swung up to 300, and the need for today is more than 500 engines per year,” commented the head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade of the Russian Federation Denis Manturov.
Manturov also mentioned that this problem concerns the production of helicopters Mi-8. But as Defense Express notes, the VK-2500 engine and all related modifications are used in nearly all main types of Russian helicopters, including medium-lift cargo, utility and anti-submarine modifications of Mi-8, Mi-26, Ka-27, Ka-31, Ka-32, as well as the next-generation attack helicopters Mi-28 and Ka-52.
According to the official data, the VK-2500 engine and its derivatives are installed on 95% of all helicopters designed and manufactured by Mil and Kamov industrial facilities.
Previously, VK-2500s were supplied by the Ukrainian company Motor Sich, or assembled locally, but also using components manufactured in Ukraine. Moscow tried to gain industrial independence in 2014 by establishing a manufacturing plant in the city of St. Petersburg. There, VK-2500 was produced using only “locally-made components”.
However, the facility was unable to substitute all imported parts, and a large share of them was illegally smuggled from “Motor Sich” under the permission of the former CEO Vyacheslav Boguslayev.
The current industrial capacity of the Russian Federation permits the manufacturing of about 300 VK-2500 engines a year. Is this enough?
Here, we must consider the fact that all Russian helicopters use two engines each. So, 300 units of VK-2500 translate to 150 units of newly-made helicopters, if we calculate strictly mathematically.
Then, we must account for the fact that some parts and some new powertrains are needed to replace engines in already existing helicopters, including both military and civilian models.
If we take the publicly available statistics from the Russian Federal Air Transport Agency (Rosaviatsiya), in 2018, the average age of helicopters produced in the domestic market was 23 years. In fact, only 13% (232 units) of all helicopters were younger than 25 years. And, only roughly 50% of all units were in a condition technically suitable for performing a flight.
According to the Russian Military Balance data, the armed forces of the Russian Federation had more than 1100 helicopters as of mid-2022, including absolutely all units – both flying and non-flying.
With these numbers, producing just 300 new VK-2500 engines per year, or 150 double-engine sets, is nowhere enough in order to meet the existing needs of the industry.
Of course, there is a chance that the manufacturing rate could increase in the future – but this chance is not large. It took 9 years for the Russian Federation just to get to the point where it could make VK-2500 engines for 150 new helicopters every year. Meanwhile, even doubling this number would not be enough to meet the existing demand.