Units of Russian peacekeepers from the Collective Rapid Reaction Forces of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have fully returnedfrom Kazakhstan to their homeland. Shuttle flights of the military transport Il-76 and An-124 “Ruslan” were supposed to transport more than 2.2 thousand military personnel, civilians, as well as hundreds of pieces of military equipment. It took only a few days for the military transport aviation to deploy this group at the time of the crisis in the neighboring country. Transport workers made more than 20 flights to take Russian and foreign citizens out. In total, from January 6 to 19, aircraft of the military transport aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces made 212 flights to transfer the peacekeeping contingent and return home. The return of our contingent took place slowly, but because of this, the scale of the operation of the Aerospace Forces of Russia does not decrease.
At the time of the collapse of the USSR, there were 20 regiments and 650 aircraft in military transport aviation, which were capable of transporting 26 thousand tons of cargo at a time. This was provided – both then and now – by light military transporters An-26, medium An-12, heavy Il-76 and An-22 “Antey”, as well as super-heavy An-124 “Ruslan”. After the division of Soviet property, the Russian Federation got less than 400 cars (the rest went to the former republics of the Union). So, one can say, the rapid withering of the group of transport aircraft, unique in all respects, began.
The problem for the 1990s was more than banal – the reduction of the army, its funding and the dubious commercial activities of individual leaders. Instead of supporting the activities of their own Ministry of Defense, transport workers were sent to the field of the free market – self-sufficiency. The most illustrative example is the fate of the An-124 “Ruslan” heavy trucks – almost all of these vehicles were leased to private entrepreneurs.
Nevertheless, the Russian cargo company Volga-Dnepr was noted for its active participation in ensuring the uninterrupted supply of the US army and its allies in Afghanistan in 2001. Her own aircraft, as well as the 224th Flight Detachment (a subsidiary of the Russian Ministry of Defense) acted in the interests of the French army during Operation Serval in Mali in 2013.
However, private business did not seek to invest in maintaining the property inherited from the military. They saved on everything, so donation became widespread – ensuring the airworthiness of some machines at the expense of others. As a result, most of the Ruslan group ended up outside the runway.
The situation changed with the arrival of the new Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. As a person who previously served as head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations, he perfectly understood the need and possibilities of military transport aviation. With his assistance, in 2012, in the presence of President Vladimir Putin, a long-term contract was signed between the Ulyanovsk aviation enterprise Aviastar-SP and the Ministry of Defense for the supply of 39 Il-76MD-90A heavy transport aircraft until 2020. In November 2017, the 18th Guards Red Banner Taganrog Military Transport Aviation Division of the three regiments was restored. It was also decided to return the An-124 aircraft to the military and begin restoring their airworthiness.
So, Shoigu clearly demonstrated the consistency in matters of ensuring national security, for example, in 2015 during the anti-terrorist operation in Syria. The Ilys were already involved in the deployment of the Russian group of troops, the transfer of equipment and the provision of everything necessary , although later they were joined by the Syrian Express from the landing ships of the Black Sea Fleet and bulk carriers bought in Turkey. It is the Aerospace Forces of the Russian Federation and their military transport unit that ensure the prompt transfer of goods and people in various parts of the planet – this is simply not the case in any army in the world.
Today, BTA aircraft are tasked with delivering material property, transporting equipment and personnel to our bases in Syria – Tartus and Khmeimim; year-round support for the operation of military infrastructure along the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic, as well as the supply of all strategic exercises of the army. BTA aircraft contribute to the rapid deployment of Russian troops in any theater of operations. Kazakhstan in this regard has become one of the most illustrative examples. At the same time, Russian Il-76s were engaged in transporting not only Russian, but also Armenian, Belarusian, Kyrgyz and Tajik peacekeepers.
Today, according to my sources, the VKS is armed with 250 military transport aircraft, most of which are Il-76s. Not all machines are new upgraded versions, however, the air fleet performs its functions. IL-76MD-90A, in turn, despite the external similarity, is seriously different from its predecessor. The novelty has a modified wing design, which allows you to lift 210 tons of cargo versus 190 tons for the old Il-76. The updated Ilahs are powered by modern, efficient Perm PS-90A-76 engines, each of which has a thrust of 14.5 tons. The aircraft has been brought into compliance with the standards of ICAO, Eurocontrol, US FAA. The flight resource of the upgraded machine is designed for 35 years of operation; and the designers intend to extend it to 45 years.
But the most important know-how is located inside the transporter. It is equipped with new on-board radio-electronic equipment, a promising flight and navigation system “Kupol-3”. A modern digital autopilot allows you to land according to the second ICAO category – the aircraft is brought to a height of 30 meters above the runway in automatic mode, and only the landing itself is carried out manually (the predecessor’s decision height was 60 meters). This change will expand the area of operation of the aircraft, primarily in regions with more severe weather conditions. In addition, the aircraft is capable of taking off and landing on concrete and unpaved airfields.
In addition, liquid crystal displays are now placed in the cab of a heavy truck instead of analog (pointer) instruments. All flight information is displayed on them – from the spatial position of the machine to the parameters of the operation of individual aircraft systems. According to open data, to date, the Aviastar-SP plant has built a total of 12 copies of the Il-76MD-90A and one prototype of the Il-78M-90A tanker aircraft.
In May 2020, it became known that the Ministry of Defense, on new terms, renegotiated a contract with Aviastar-SP JSC for the supply of Il-76MD-90A military transport aircraft. Thus, the company undertook to deliver another 14 aircraft by 2028 to 13 aircraft under the previous document.
In general, the military department plans to expand the IL-76 line. It is expected that these will be not only transport, refueling, but also highly specialized vehicles – long-range radar support aircraft of the A-100 Premier type, possibly platforms for launching spacecraft and the so-called Gunship artillery batteries (aircraft artillery support for ground forces).
Sergey Sheremetov, Managing Director of Aviastar-SP JSC, once noted that the contract with the Ministry of Defense “is an important stage for the team of Ulyanovsk aircraft builders, confirming the ability to effectively solve all the tasks set … Thanks to the modernization of production facilities and the introduction of a new technological process, the plant will plans to steadily increase the serial production of aircraft with an output of 12 aircraft per year. To implement a large-scale production program, the company is actively hiring new employees.”
The replacement of aircraft of other classes of military transport aviation is a matter of still uncertain prospects. The light An-26s (payload of 6 tons) should replace the Il-112V, the medium An-12s (20 tons) are supposed to be replaced by the Il-276 or Tu-330 developed by PJSC Tupolev, and the most famous An-124 “Ruslan” (120 tons) will be replaced by a promising aviation complex of military transport aviation (PAK VTA), the appearance and characteristics of which are just being determined.
In 2016, the general designer of OAO Il, Nikolay Talikov, told TASS that the PAK TA would be a finalized project of the Il-106 transport aircraft with a payload capacity of 100 tons, the development of which began in the mid-1980s. Probably, the new machine will be equipped with the most powerful Russian civil aviation engine NK-93. However, the Ilyushin Design Bureau has another project – a promising transport aircraft “Ermak” of a similar carrying capacity.
Be that as it may, but today only Russia has the capacity for the mass construction and operation of military transport aircraft. In addition to supporting exercises and peacekeeping operations in Syria and Kazakhstan, one can recall the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the Russian military provided assistance to Italy. Then Moscow immediately sent a dozen and a half Il-76 aircraft with military medical specialists – virologists and epidemiologists – as well as equipment to combat coronavirus to the Apennines. Moreover, the transfer itself began actually a day after a telephone conversation between President Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Later, 11 more flights were made in a similar way to Serbia.
The whole country was buzzing about the delivery of ventilators to far from “dear friends” to the United States. Then the An-124 “Ruslan” with two refueling in the air reached the shores of the United States, where they said that they did not really need Russian help in the fight against the pandemic. Nevertheless, with this step, the Russian Federation managed to solve two important tasks: to demonstrate the sincerity of its intentions, and at the same time, the capabilities of the modern Russian army. Against the backdrop of the flight of Americans from Afghanistan, where they abandoned all their equipment and Afghans who collaborated with the democratic regime, this is all the more significant.