Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Can BRIC nations reshape aviation?

By Tim Robinson, Special to CNN
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Thu June 13, 2013
China has shown great ambition in the last few years consistently rolling out new aircraft including the COMAC C919 (model pictured).
China has shown great ambition in the last few years consistently rolling out new aircraft including the COMAC C919 (model pictured).
  • Tim Robinson is an aviation expert and the editor-in-chief of AEROSPACE magazine
  • BRIC countries are attempting to enter the elite club of aerospace manufacturers
  • National aerospace industry creates skills, jobs, international prestige, says Robinson

Editor's note: Tim Robinson is the editor-in-chief of AEROSPACE, the flagship magazine of the Royal Aeronautical Society (RAeS) in London. He has covered civil aerospace, military aviation and space for over 10 years.

(CNN) -- The global center of gravity for aeronautics has undergone dramatic shifts over the past 110 years. Prior to World War II Europe dominated aviation with transatlantic Zeppelins, high-speed seaplanes and jet engine research. Post-war, the U.S. tookover in commercial jet transport as they engaged in an arms race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has staged a revival in commercial air transport, with Airbus and Boeing battling for airliners.

But as economic power shifts to the Asia-Pacific, will we see the emergence of a new Seattle or Toulouse in Sao Paulo, Bangalore or Tianjin?

Read: What's on at the 2013 Paris Airshow

The desire to build up an indigenous aerospace industry is easily understood. It provides highly-skilled, well-paid jobs and requires a large industrial supply chain. Prestige and international respect are an added bonus. More importantly, in the military sphere an aerospace industry assures that a nation can develop, build, operate and maintain the most advanced military equipment itself. Aerospace is also a lucrative business providing advanced technology products that command a premium. With giant orders from fast-growing Asian budget airlines Air Asia and Lion Air demonstrate, the potential is huge.

Made in Brazil

One BRIC nation forging a path is Brazil. After national champion Embraer began in regional aircraft and military COIN aircraft, it has now successfully broken into the business jet market -- even to the extent of opening a factory in Florida. It will follow Airbus and Boeing in launching a re-engined version of its E-Jet airliner family. But it has big ambitions, too, in military aerospace -- its KC-390 transport aims to replace the Lockheed Martin C-130 as the jet-powered standard military transport. Meanwhile, its Super Tucano light attack aircraft was selected by the U.S. for supply to the Afghan Air Force -- a key achievement.

India's drones

Elsewhere, India too has big plans -- although these revolve around military aerospace projects. It has a joint project with Russia to build stealth fighters and is also planning to develop its own stealth unmanned drone. However, despite its success in producing engineers and a vibrant IT sector -- it has struggled with indigenous aircraft programs. India's previous national fighter project, the LCA Tejas, suffered from a lack of a suitable engine. An even simpler light 14-seat commuter prototype, the NAL Saras, crashed in 2009. Nevertheless, joint turboprop transport projects with Russia suggest that India is not likely to give up just yet.

Infographic: The state of global aviation

Military aircraft - A Soviet legacy?

Russia, too, provides a paradox. An aerospace technology leader in the Cold War, it has skilled workers and access to advanced research centers -- especially in aerodynamics. Its proven Soyuz rocket remains the only way the astronauts of any nation can get to the International Space Station. But while it still remains a military aircraft powerhouse and exporter, its commercial success has been patchy. Russia's latest Sukhoi Superjet, despite help from Italian partners, seems unlikely to break out fully into the wider market beyond ex-CIS nations. A follow on single-aisle airliner, the MC-21 is destined to go up against the dominant Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX.

"There are signs that aerospace, like other industries, is undergoing a seismic shift eastwards. This is where the biggest passenger market will be.
Tim Robinson, editor-in-chief, AEROSPACE magazine

Civil aviation in China

Finally, there is China -- a country with massive ambitions to propel itself into the top league of aerospace nations. In the past couple of years, analysts have seen an endless parade of once secret Chinese military aircraft revealed: two stealth fighter prototypes, attack helicopters, a four-engine military transport, various UAVs and the latest -- a stealthy attack drone.

The country also has ambitions in civil aerospace -- however development of its previous airliner, the ARJ21, which first flew in 2008, is proceeding at a glacial pace. It is only likely to be used by Chinese or close allies of Beijing.

Read: Were the wright brothers really first?

Its latest prestige civil airliner project is the single-aisle COMAC C919 --which contains a high proportion of Western systems and equipment. First flight is expected in 2014 and China is hoping that this aircraft could gain it a foothold in the wider international market. Indeed in the past two years both Ryanair and IAG signed agreements to help develop this airliner. Could a western airline order be the big civil breakthrough for China?

Aviation shifts East

And there are other challenges, too, for countries attempting to enter the highly competitive aerospace sector. High quality support and service of aircraft (both military and civil) means that manufacturers now need a global network of agents, service centers and aftermarket facilities to cater to demanding customers. In some respects it may actually be easier to put a human into space, than create a worldwide commercial airliner business from scratch.

In short, there are signs that aerospace, like other industries, is undergoing a seismic shift eastwards. This is where the biggest passenger market will be. There will be many obstacles for those wanting to join this elite club but not all will make it.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tim Robinson.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Mon June 24, 2013
Is it a plane? Is it a drone? Next time you look up and see vapor trails spreading across the sky, bear in mind that the aircraft you're looking at might just be both.
updated 1:36 PM EDT, Fri June 21, 2013
Raytheon's JLENS aerostat is designed to carry out surveillance missions, hovering high in the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 30 days at a time.
Previously the airship was hailed as the future of flight: as glamorous, luxurious and fashionable. Is it the new dawn of the dirigible?
CNN's Richard Quest and Bryony Jones have been at the 50th International Airshow this week. Here's what they've seen and heard.
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
I am always being asked "'what makes the best airline?" Richard Quest reveals what airlines can do to become a frequent flyer favorite.
WWII fighter aircraft steal the show at the 2003 International Airshow in Paris.
From stunning aerial displays to solar flight, CNN flies through time with some of the show's best moments.
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
An A330-200 Airbus plane of Emirates airline at the Harare International Airport on February 1, 2012.
Emirates has been voted the world's best airline by passengers at the annual Skytrax World Airline Awards.
updated 8:52 AM EDT, Tue June 18, 2013
File picture showing passengers about to board an Air France plane at Le Bourget, airport, North of Paris in 1946.
From Charles Lindbergh's record-breaking landing to solar flight, CNN takes a look back at the Paris Airshow's most memorable moments
updated 5:36 AM EDT, Wed June 12, 2013
The Patrouille de France acrobatic team performs a flying display at the Paris International Air Show on June 24, 2011 at Le Bourget, near Paris.
Hollywood's stars may have left Cannes, but the real "jet set" will descend upon Paris for the 50th International Air and Space show.
updated 9:20 AM EDT, Thu June 13, 2013
Aviation expert Tim Robinson looks at how the BRIC countries are entering the elite club of aerospace manufacturing.
updated 9:25 AM EDT, Thu June 13, 2013
air france plane flying
Are drones being used for pizza deliveries? When did the first commercial jet plane make its maiden voyage? Find out if you are a plane geek.
Police and military forces are increasingly reliant on unmanned aerial vehicles to carry out risky tasks. So just how easy is it to pilot one?
Supersonic aircraft are just like buses: You wait years for one, and then two come along at once: rival "son of supersonic" concepts have been revealed.
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri June 7, 2013
Some things you just know for a fact. First man on the moon: Neil Armstrong. First to achieve powered flight: Orville and Wilbur Wright. Or were they?
Aircraft maker Boeing and parts manufacturer Honeywell both flew planes to the 2011 Paris Airshow using a mixt of biofuels and jet fuel.
Pilot of a Sukhoi superjet 100 practices his flight presentation routine on June 11, 2009
See the full coverage, including all the aerial acrobatics and business buzz, of the 2013 international airshow at Le Bourget airfield in Paris.