Russian Airborne Computers

By Jim Bussert | September 1, 2001
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Avionics Technology has progressed in the former Soviet Unio and now Russia, but at a slower pace than in the West. And today that progress faces economic roadblocks.

At major airshows, we sometimes stand in awe of the performance capabilities of Russian aircraft. But we know little of their on-board processing performance. Yet in today’s competitive military and civilian transport avionics markets, the computers are as critical as the platforms that bear them.

The Soviet (now Russian) computer industry has lagged many years behind the West. Still, from the 1950s to the 1980s, designers boosted processing speed and memory size, while reducing size and weight. By the 1970s Russian computers became practical for aircraft, where space is scarce and processing demand heavy.

Today, the prime Russian center for avionics computer design and integration is the Ramenskoye Instrument Design Bureau in Moscow. Most avionics computers are produced by the Scientific Research Institute (Russian acronym, NII) and are called the "Argon" family of processors.

In the 1950s, MiG-15s with computerized gunsights were dogfighting U.S.-built F-86s with optical gunsights over the Yalu River separating North Korea and the People’s Republic of China. But airborne processing in the Soviet Union largely began with navigational computers.

The first generation of the analog navigation computers was installed in long-range Soviet air defense interceptors in 1957. Designated the NI-50PM, it interfaced with a large Doppler radar sensor.

In 1970, with computer size and weight becoming more practical, the MiG-23B Flogger jet fighter was fitted with a KN-23 navigation system. It included an analog computer that programmed three route turn points (legs on a route) and four home airfield coordinates. Four years later the MiG-23BM PrNK-23 avionics package was upgraded, with a digital KN-23 computer, providing two more route turn points.

Long-range bombers like the Tupolev Tu-20 and commercial transports like the Ilyushin Il-76 were able to hold the large central TsNV navigation computer complex (multiple boxes with different sub-functions), although the TsNV was too large for smaller aircraft. The complex’s main unit was the BTs-63A astro-orienter, which included an auto sextant, course indicator and computer. Inputs by the navigator to the digital navigation computer (TsNV) were through a PUISH keyboard, part of the control-indicator unit.

Flight and Weapons Control

The first Soviet warplane with computer flight control was the two-crew Sukhoi Su-24 Fencer in 1971. This aircraft, described as "the first modern Soviet fighter to be developed specifically as a fighter-bomber for the ground attack mission," tried to match the F-111 all-weather attack role. The pivoting wing Su-24 had a digital TsVU 10-058 computer, which utilized the Orbita-10 computer module. The enhanced Su-24M (modified) introduced in 1978 had an improved 10-058K TsVM for flight control and a newer MVK computer unit.

Processing power required numerous units in the ‘70s. Also introduced in 1971 was the Tu-22M1 Backfire bomber (redesigned Tu-26 Blinder) with an integrated navigation/weapon control computer complex reportedly totaling as many as 80 line replaceable units (LRUs). On another part of the airplane, the electronic warfare (EW) energy management system used a C-VU-10 complex consisting of an additional 22 computers.

Soviet computer design gradually evolved to the digital world. The MiG-25 Foxbat interceptor aircraft, with its heavy vacuum tube SAU-155 (SAU, for system of automatic control) flight control computer, was redesigned as the MiG-25RB reconnaissance bomber in 1970. This aircraft, which included side-viewing airborne radar, featured Russia’s first digital inertial navigation system (INS), linking the Doppler radar and an SAU computer with digital Argon-15 on-board computers.

The MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker, third-generation fighters, were fitted with the more advanced Argon Ts-101 family of computers. The Su-27’s TsVM-80 main fire-control computer was the first system in a Russian aircraft to combine infrared sight, laser, optical and multimode radar inputs to feed a head-up display (HUD). The Su-27 also includes Russia’s first operational helmet-mounted target designator, called the NSTs-27. It feeds the 36SH optical radar, which is produced by Geofizika NPO and incorporates one Ts-101 computer.

Both the Su-27 and MiG-29 were benchmark aircraft in terms of computer power. The two fighters also were initial platforms for the "Tester" on-board flight recorder, which records 256 parameters. Post flight analysis of Tester cassettes are conducted using the base Luch-74 laboratory monitoring system, built around the ES-1841 computer, an IBM PC copy that has been produced by Miniradioprom since 1987. A recent 1998 prototype of an upgraded MiG-29 SMT incorporates a more powerful MVK computer .

As in the West, computer upgrades have been common in Russia. The venerable Tu-142 Bear turboprop, which remains active after more than 35 years in operation, had its TsVM-260 computer replaced with a more modern "Orbita" computer during the Tu-142M upgrade in 1985. The aircraft’s "Berkut" search radar had its old TsVM-264 computer replaced with a newer 263 unit, accompanied by extensive software changes.

Becoming ever more computerized, the 1985 vintage Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bomber was designed to accommodate more than 100 computers on board. The sophisticated navigation system–using triple automatic direction finder/INS (ADF/INS) and GLONASS (the Russian equivalent of the U.S. Global Positioning System)–employs eight TsNV computers at the navigator position. This complex aircraft’s fly-by-wire system uses analog components.

On the commercial side, the Tupolev Tu-154 tri-jet had, in 1968, a three-channel autopilot that utilized a PKA-25.2 (PKA, for pilot complex automatic) hybrid flight control computer, weighing 25 pounds (11.4 kg). Three years later, the Ilyushin Il-76 airliner was introduced with a Cat II flight control computer feeding a HUD display.

The Ilyushin Il-86 propelled the former Soviet Union further into the computer age, achieving Cat IIIA approval with its VOR/instrument landing system (VOR/ILS) SAU-1-2-86 TsVM computer complex. The aircraft’s flight control and navigation systems provide pilots with automatic climb to a select height, automatic descent, and rate-of-climb control. Russian airliner pilots could overlay microfilm maps on a display screen, accompanying the nav data. The Il-86’s on-board processor drives a cursor, indicating the aircraft’s position on the display.

Problems in the initial Il-86’s structural design led to the aircraft’s redesign before its first flight. Nevertheless, the Ilyushin Design Bureau learned much from the Il-86 program and in 1988 developed the Il-96, with the 80-400-type computer integrating triple INS, Omega and GLONASS displays in the navigation HUD for Cat IIIA performance.

Antanov aircraft, too, gained processing power, beginning in the 1970s. In 1971, Antanov replaced the traditional Initsiatiya 4-100 navigation radar and navigator system in the An-22 Antheus long-range, heavy transport aircraft with a Kupol-22 integrated digital flight/navigation complex. The upgrade was designated the AN-22M.

On-board computers found their way into most Russian aircraft. But new processing technology has not come as easy for the country’s aerospace industry as in the West.

1990 to Date

Up to 1990, the Soviet government subsidized aviation industry production and procurement. After the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, many aviation designers and producers faced the loss of lavish government subsidies and began competing for sales.

Computer companies reorganized into joint-venture stock companies, including Pribor (avionics and electrical), in St. Petersburg, and Antey (computers and navigation), in Moscow. And 20 Moscow avionics and space plants combined into a conglomerate called Kompomash.

But annual aircraft production in Russia plummeted from 1,300 units a year to dozens in the new, non-subsidized environment. This was devastating for avionics research, production and sales. One exception, however, is Phazotron, which provides radar and control systems for 80% of Russian aircraft and 30% of the world market.

Russia plans to trim down to 10 major aviation firms, including three avionics businesses. These firms must virtually rebuild Russia’s avionics industry, which had obtained many components and peripherals from Warsaw Pact nations, or newly independent republics like the Ukraine–all outside of Russia. Russian aviation computer firms, therefore, rely heavily on joint ventures with Western companies. For example, the Institute of Precision Mechanics Computer Technology (IPMC), a major computer design center, has teamed with Sun Microsystems Inc. to design advanced SPARC workstations in Moscow.

Technological advances also come courtesy of the countries to which Russia has exported aircraft. For example, today’s Sukhoi Su-30MK, made by AVPK (a state-controlled joint venture of Sukhoi and four aircraft factories in east Russia), and MiG-31 MAPO (Moscow Aircraft Production Association) rely heavily on contracts from countries like China or India to support development of next-generation avionics. The MiG-29K for India, for instance, will be the first Russian fighter with fully digital fly-by-wire control. The result is bittersweet. Russia produces a wide range of aircraft. But it has little money, so it sells aircraft with more modern avionics than its own air force possesses.

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