Special Operations: No One Expected The MC-76


October 20, 2017: Russia has developed a special operations version of its new Il-76MD-90A transport. One of these special operations versions (perhaps the only one; the prototype) was spotted over the Black Sea in September 2017. This version apparently has its electronics upgraded to enable flying in all sorts of weather and at very low altitude. The navigation equipment has been upgraded as have communications. In addition a new defense system against heat-seeking missiles (especially the portable ones carried by ground troops). In effect the special operations Il-76MD-90A is apparently meant to compete with the American MC-130s and C-17s that have been doing that sort of thing for decades. Moreover Russia was not happy when India, long a customer for Russian transports, recently ordered C-130J-SOF aircraft. These are export versions of the MC-130J which includes the exportable (unclassified) enhancements that turn a C-130J into a MC-130J. This includes a sturdier fuselage, landing gear and wing to handle more stress and emergency situations in general (like lots more landings on unpaved landing strips). The major visible addition is additional radar and navigation gear to turn the aircraft into one capable of operating at night and in all sorts of nasty weather. There are also provisions for additional crew (like another loadmaster to handle paratroopers and special cargo and one or more additional electronics specialists in the cockpit.) Other extras include hard points on the wings (for sensors or missiles) and additional electrical generation capability and upgraded wiring to handle more electronics as well as quickly adding the ability to serve as an aerial tanker. The C-130J-SOF has a major advantage over its Russian competitor in that there are many accessories available for C-130s and MC-130s that are attractive to export customers.

Undeterred Russia has been trying to catch up. 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-90A transports. While similar in appearance to the Il-76, the Il-76MD-90A is basically a new aircraft, with numerous new structural and electronic components as well as new engines. The Il-76MD-90A had its first test flights earlier in 2012 and entered service in 2015 when the Russian Air Force began receiving the ones it ordered in 2012. The Il-76MD-90A can carry up to 60 tons and is about 15 percent more fuel efficient. Its introduction of the Il-76MD-90A has been delayed several times. But by 2012 the government has invested a lot of money to get development completed and production underway. The Il-76MD-90A is seen as an excellent candidate for export sales but by 2017 only five had been exported. That is one reason for the special operations version.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the viability of existing Il-76s. All 110 Russian Il-76 have been grounded several times since 2010 because of age-related problems. In one case the engine fell off an Il-76 while it was preparing to takeoff. Because of that there was much relief in 2012 when Russia rolled out an upgraded Il-76. New engines and electronics gave the Il-76MD-90A better fuel efficiency and the ability to lift more cargo. Russia was trying to make the Il-76MD-90A a contender in the military air transport market. As if 2017 fewer than 70 Il-76MD-90As had been delivered or ordered. By Russian standards that is considered acceptable.

The Il-76 is somewhat similar in capability to the U.S. C-17 but uses older technology, more similar to the recently 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 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-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 it entered service in 1974, 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) 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 $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, 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 the fuel-efficient Il-76MD-90 that can be refueled in the air has a price that's tough to beat.


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