Although China is struggling to create a commercial aviation industry (to compete with Boeing and AirBus), progress has been slow. Corruption, and lack of experience (and qualified technicians and workers) have slowed progress. Along comes Russia, offering co-production deals that will provide royalties (for technology) and sales (of Russian products) for Russia, and the acquisition of useful experience, and technology by China. Although Russia was never able to compete with Boeing and AirBus, it did create some world-class aircraft building capabilities and technologies. Since the end of the Cold War, the Russian government has spent billions of dollars to keep that work, and the research that backs it up, going. China has taken the bait, and is building helicopters with Russia, and sharing development, research, and production, for new models. Now Russia is offering a similar deal for military transports. Russia is way ahead of China in this area, but the Russians need sales. And the Chinese need the experience and technology.
For example, Russia is offering to sell the new Il-476 jet transport to China, with co-production and research deals down the road. Meanwhile, the only orders for the Il-476 are 38 for the Russian Air Force. The new Il-476 is basically an Il-76 with more modern engines, state-of-the art electronics and numerous other improvements. This version can carry up to 60 tons and is about 15 percent more fuel efficient. It will be about two years before the first Il-476 enters service.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the viability of existing Il-76s. All Russian Il-76 were grounded last year because the engine fell off one of them while it was preparing to takeoff. It was only three years ago that Russia rolled out an upgraded model of the Il-76. New engines and electronics give the Il-76MD-90 eight percent better fuel efficiency, and the ability to lift up to 60 tons of cargo. Further improvements, in development, will increase fuel efficiency another 14 percent. Russia is trying to make the Il-76/Il-476 a contender in the military air transport market
The Il-76 is somewhat similar in capability to the U.S. C-17, but uses older technology, more similar to the recently retired 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 has 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-76s in use than all of America's four engine jet transports (C-5, C-141, C-17) put together. Over 900 Il-76s were manufactured over the last thirty years, with nearly a hundred exported, so far, mainly to Cuba, Iraq, China, India, Libya and Syria. With few foreign or domestic sales in the last decade, the Il-76 manufacturer (Chkalov) was surviving 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 $50 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, half way 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 a fuel-efficient Il-76, that can be refueled in the air, has a price that's tough to beat.