Air Transportation: China Quietly Slips Past Russia

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June 30, 2018: During the Cold War, Russia had the second largest military air transport fleet. It still does, but economic and, diplomatic and manufacturing management problems are preventing the aircraft from being kept up to date, in service and replaced when age or other problems grounds them.

That many military transports were, and are, a necessity because of the sheer size of the Soviet Union. Even when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, Russia lost more population (about half) than territory. The post-Soviet Russia still stretched from East Europe to the Pacific Ocean. But while the population fell by half the military lost 80 percent of its active duty manpower. The air transport fleet was now more important than ever, because there were fewer troops responsible for defending a huge territory, which still had military bases and airfields in every corner of the new Russia. Many of those air bases were abandoned or “put into storage” and after the fiscal chaos of the 1990s (when the military was too broke to buy much new equipment, or even maintain what it had) Russia realized that some of those remote air bases were useful as long as you had air transports that could regularly get to them.

The current problem is that the Cold War era air transport fleet is fading away from old age and lack of money for spare parts and refurbishment of heavily used aircraft. This is considered a national security crisis because the key element of post-Cold War Russian defense was their nuclear weapons (mainly land-based ICBMs) and the ability to quickly move troops to a trouble spot. The most effective troops in the post-1990s Russian military were the 100,000 or so airborne, airmobile and special operations troops. While these troops usually traveled light the Russian airborne forces had a tradition of using lightweight BMD APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers). The main heavy transport, the Il-76, was designed to carry these armored vehicles (three of the airborne APCs) and even drop them by parachute. So when it came to maintaining the air transport fleet priority was given to the four-engine IL-76 jet transport.

In 2012 the Russian Air Force disclosed ambitious plans to invigorate their aging force of air transports. This was to be accomplished by ordering 170 new aircraft by 2020. These included 20 An-124s, 39 Il-76MDs, 11 An-140s, 30 L-410s, 50 Il-214s and 20 An-148s. In 2012 the air force depended mostly on Cold War era transports (An-124s, An-22s, Il-76s and An-12, An-72, An-24 and An-26s). A lot of the older transports cannot be used a lot because of age, or because of the high cost of maintenance. Some of the older aircraft (An-124s and Il-76s) were to be refurbished, but most of the remainder were to be scrapped as they become too old to be used (too expensive to maintain or simply too unreliable).

The An-124 is the world's largest production aircraft and can carry a payload of 120 tons. Russia had been trying to get it back into production for over a decade. But in 2014 Russia went to war with Ukraine and that ended access to the Antonov Aviation facilities in Ukraine. Antonov became a Ukrainian firm when the Soviet Union broke up and the war with Ukraine (that did not work out so well and is still going on but stalemated).

This meant Russia was going to depend more on a new version of the Il-76. The Il-76MD-90 can carry up to 60 tons and is an update of the older Il-76 (which was similar to the recently retired U.S. C-141, which was replaced by the C-17.) The An-140 is a twin turboprop transport from Ukraine that can carry up to five tons of cargo or 52 passengers. Because of the war, Russia lost access to An-140 as well.

The L-410 is similar to the An-140 but smaller (it carries about 1.5 tons or 19 passengers). The Il-214 is a twin-jet transport, still in development, that can carry 20 tons. The An-148 is a twin-jet passenger aircraft that can carry up to 80 people or nine tons. This one is often used as a “VIP transport” for hauling generals and senior government officials around.

The new aircraft are more reliable and cheaper to operate. If the new aircraft are not purchased (at a cost of nearly $10 billion) the Russian Air Force will have very little transport capability at all in a decade or so.

Meanwhile in 2012, after several years of starting and stopping negotiations, the Russian Air Force decided to go ahead and buy 39 of the new Il-76MD-90 transports. While similar in appearance to the Il-76, the 76MD-90 is basically a new aircraft, with numerous new structural and electronic components as well as new engines. The Il-76MD-90 had its first test flights in 2012 and was to enter service in 2014 but that was delayed until late 2015. The Il-76MD-90 can carry up to 60 tons and is about 15 percent more fuel efficient. The Il-76MD-90 is seen as an excellent candidate for export sales.

Russia rolled the first upgraded Il-76 in 2007. New engines and electronics give the Il-76MD-90 eight percent better fuel efficiency and the ability to lift more cargo. Further improvements will increase fuel efficiency another 14 percent. Russia is trying to make the Il-76/Il-76ND-90 a contender in the military air transport market and the new Il-76MD-90 is being showcased to make that happen.

The Il-76 is somewhat similar in capability to the U.S. C-17 but uses older technology, more similar to the retired (in 2006) U.S. C-141. The Russians have also been buying a stretched version of the Il-76 (the Il-76MF). This version first flew in 1995 and has become popular with users of earlier Il-76 models. The Il-76MF had better engines and can carry 50 tons of cargo over 4,000 kilometers. Another popular Il-76 is the tanker version (called the Il-78).

There are far more Il-76's in use than all of America's four-engine jet transports (C-5, C-141, C-17) put together. Nearly a thousand Il-76s were manufactured since the 1970s, with over a hundred exported, so far, mainly to Cuba, Iraq, China, India, Libya, and Syria. With few foreign or domestic sales since the 1990s, the Il-76 manufacturer (Chkalov) survived by manufacturing wings and other components for the An-124, An-70, and An-225 transports. In addition, it made replacement parts for the Il-76 and Il-114 aircraft.

The new models of the Il-76 indicate a substantial R&D investment and an effort to make the Il-76 a serious competitor (mainly on price, at about $60 million each) with the C-17 (which costs about four times as much and is able to carry up to 100 tons). What the C-17 is best at is carrying about half that weight, halfway around the world, non-stop. The Il-76 has a hard time matching that. The C-17 is also easier to maintain and more reliable. But the fuel-efficient Il-76MD-90 that can be refueled in the air has a price that's tough to beat.

A major customer of the new Il-76s is Russia and these are arriving just in time. All 110 Russian Il-76s have been grounded several times in the past few years because of problems. In one case the engine fell off an Il-76 while it was preparing to takeoff. Now there is a suitable replacement. But at the same time, there is more competition from Antonov because China is not at war with Ukraine and was making deals before and after 2014 to buy Russian aircraft designs (or concepts) as well as components that were made in Ukraine by Antonov and related suppliers. This recently led to China introducing the 220 ton Y-20 transport, which is based on years of experience with the similar Russian Il-76. China ordered Y-20 development to begin back in 2006, after canceling a $1.5 billion order for 38 Russian Il-76 transport planes and Il-78s (tanker versions of the Il-76) from Russia. The stated reason was that Russia tried to up the price 27 percent. China had been looking elsewhere, including urging its domestic aircraft manufacturers to come up with something. That process eventually led to the new Y-20, which one Chinese aircraft manufacturer (Xian) was already working on, just in case. China has long wanted an air transport similar to the C-17. An improved Il-76 seemed like a good option but Russia had to give up on an Il-76 replacement because of economic and political problems. Moreover, China was able to hire the Antonov Aircraft Corporation in Ukraine for help in design and manufacturing. The Y-20 looks very similar to the An-70 that Antonov has been developing. Construction of the Y-20 uses the latest production methods (employing computer-generated component design and 3-D printing). The current Y-20s use four Russian jet engines but these will eventually be replaced by Chinese WS-20s.

The new Y-20 comes pretty close to what China was hoping to get from Russia. The Y-20 is more similar to the C-17 than the Il-76. That is on purpose because while the Y-20 will replace the current fleet of 195 ton Il-76s, China is also looking at the export market, which is more receptive to American than Russian style transports. The Il-76 a Russian heavy transport that entered service in 1975 and could then carry up to 50 tons. The Y-20 can carry 66 tons and fly 4,500 kilometers without refueling (7,800 kilometers with 40 tons or over 10,000 kilometers with 110 paratroopers). Around 300 regular passengers can be carried as well as armored vehicles, including one 55 ton Type 99 tank (the heaviest one China has). China would sell Y-20s to Russia but it is unclear if Russia could afford, both in terms of cash and national pride. Meanwhile, the Y-20 will grab most of the export market Russia was hoping to sell the new Il-76MD to. Without those export sales, the new Il-76 becomes more expensive for Russian customers (mainly the military). Given that the Russian military budget is still shrinking and the old air-transports are getting more expensive to operate (if they can fly at all) Russia is on its way to losing its second place air fleet spot to China.

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