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Russia must increase Antonov An-124 Ruslan heavy airlifter fleet


A conference call in the National Defense Command Center raised the issue of maintaining heavy Antonov An-124 Ruslan airlifters in proper order. Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said the problem is important, as the armed forces need to airlift super heavy and big cargoes, the Independent Military Review writes.

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Russia has to increase Antonov An 124 Ruslan heavy airlifter fleet

 Antonov An-124-100 Ruslan (RA-82028) of 224th Flight Unit, Moscow Victory Day Parade 2010 (Picture source: Wikipedia/Sergey Kustov)


Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu asked the leadership of the Ilyushin aviation complex and the Ural Civil Aviation Plant to report the fulfilment of a contract to restore the operability and extend the life cycle of two Antonov An-124 Ruslan and overhaul and upgrade of 12 D-18T engines. The issue was discussed in a closed regime and no details were reported. However, it is clear that the contract concerns a small part of the airlifter fleet of the Russian Aerospace Forces. They currently have 26 An-124. A dozen is operational and others are stored.

The reason is the developments in Ukraine where Ruslan designer, the Antonov bureau, and Aviant plant in Kiev are located. They used to produce the airlifters (17 in total and the last one in 2003). D-18T engines were designed and produced in Zaporozhye. In 2014, Ukraine banned military-technical cooperation with Russia. It affected the fleet of Antonov aircraft.

Another reason is the systemic crisis of the Russian aviation which was triggered by the Soviet collapse. An-124 was designed as a military airlifter for heavy cargo transportation by the Soviet armed forces. Fifty-five aircraft were produced, mostly by Aviastar plant in Ulyanovsk. All the An-124s in the Aerospace Forces were made between 1986 and 1991. Their average age thus exceeds 30 years.

Russia inherited a huge airlifter fleet which stood idle on the threshold of the centuries. Some airlifters were scrapped and others handed over to commercial airlines. The stored aircraft can no longer take off. They demand a costly overhaul whose price is comparable to the production of a new airlifter.

Airlifters are actively engaged at present. An-124, Il-76, An-72, An-26 and others are used by the Russian force in Syria. Ruslan carries the main load, as it can deliver big cargoes from Russia to Humaymim airbase nonstop.

There are two main guidelines. Firstly, it is necessary to maintain Ruslan operability and increase the number by the use of stored aircraft. Secondly, it is necessary to resume production of An-124 or another long-range heavy airlifter.

The operational fleet can be increased by stored aircraft and civilian aviation. An-124 is certified by civilian air rules for cargo transportation. Eleven airlifters are operated by Volga-Dnepr Company and another three aircraft stay at airfields. Foreign commercial orders helped the industry improve the aircraft construction and increase its technical and tactical characteristics.

TsAGI Institute is designing the concept of a new airlifter to replace Ruslan. The Slon project was ordered by the Industry and Trade Ministry in 2016. The aircraft has to carry 150 tons to a distance of 7,000 km at a cruising speed of 850 km/h. The design and production are costly and serial production will not be high, as Russian military and civilian airlines need a maximum of 100 airlifters. Batch production needs at least 300 units to pay back.

The project cannot be implemented without international cooperation, but the situation in the world does not promote it. Current developments curtail world trade and decrease the potential commercial market for prospective super heavy airlifter.

As for the military needs to airlift super heavy and big cargoes, they can be satisfied in the coming 20 years by increasing the Ruslan fleet of the Aerospace Forces at the expense of other operators. It is possible to buy out or confiscate Volga-Dnepr aircraft for the military. The step demands political will and is the last resort.

The commercial Ruslan fleet is younger than the military one. Volga-Dnepr acquired the airlifters from the producer in 1990-2004. The military have to calculate the residual value of An-124 to buy out the second-hand airlifters from commercial airlines, the Independent Military Review said.


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