Will Russia’s New Il-76MD-90 Jet Save its Heavy Lift Aircraft Industry? Talks Underway to Export 40-50 Airframes

The CEO of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport Alexander Mikheyev has reported that talks are currently underway for the sale of 40-50 upgraded Il-76MD-90A transport aircraft to clients in the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. “The interest is great. I would not name the countries. They include, in particular, countries from this region, which want to have such a fleet of military transport planes, CIS states and countries of Southeast Asia. So far, we have in our negotiating position from 40 to 50 Il-76MD planes with new engines, a new wing, new equipment, new performance and operational characteristics and, incidentally with a unique President-S defensive aide suite,” he stated at the Dubai Airshow. While the event saw the United States forced to pull major exhibits of air defence systems, as its forces have been increasingly thinly stretched by commitments across the Middle East, East Asia and Eastern Europe, Russian weapons systems have made prominent performances including demonstrations of extreme flight performance traits by a Su-35S fighter and a Ka-52 attack helicopter. 

The Il-76MD-90A was exhibited at the Dubai Airshow, marking its first demonstration abroad. Alexander Mikheyev previously stated regarding the aircraft’s advances over the very widely used baseline Soviet Il-76: “The Il-76MD-90A is a follow-up of the Il-76 transport aircraft and is actually a new plane. The aircraft has received a new engine, an improved wing, the glass cockpit and many other innovations that have helped considerably improve its characteristics.” 70 percent of the aircraft’s systems and assemblies have been renewed, which has formed the basis for Russian sources to claim the aircraft is a landmark in the evolution of the Il-76 design. A leading attraction of the new variant is its use of PS-90A-76 engines which have 10 percent lower fuel consumption facilitating a significantly higher endurance including a 5000km range. The aircraft’s air navigation and air-drop accuracy and radio communications have also been improved. With the air forces of 16 countries currently operating the Il-76 the number of potential clients remains significant. A major blow to potential sales is the loss of China as a possible client, with the country having been a leading client for the original Il-76 in the 1990s but from the 2010s coming to rely increasingly heavily on the more capable indigenous Y-20 heavy lift aircraft

Resumed production of the Il-76 follows significant difficulties faced by Russian industry in supplying heavy lift aircraft, with the Il-76 having been built from 1971-1991 at the Tashkent Aviation Production Association in Uzbekistan meaning Russia itself did not inherit primary production facilities. Although Uzbekistan retained close ties to Moscow, in contrast to successor states further west such as Georgia and Ukraine, the scale of the facilities made relocation to Ulyanovsk in Russia’s Volga area difficult and costly in the 2010s. Resuming production of an enhanced variant has faced significant cost overruns and delays, with the Il-76MD-90A making its first flight only in 2017. The massive inventories of older aircraft inherited from the Soviet era, however, meant this did not cause urgent issues, with over 850 airframes having been produced before the USSR disintegrated. 

The Russian Air Force’s larger Antonov An-124 heavy lift aircraft have proven even more difficult to replace or to expand numbers of, as facilities for production were inherited by Ukraine. Plans for a joint Russian-Ukrainian successor to address the issue collapsed in 2014 with the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in February that year. The increased range and carrying capacity of the new Il-76 variant nevertheless helps to partly compensate for the lack of heavier transport aircraft, with the Ilyushin aircraft having far greater export prospects due to its much lower production and operational costs than aircraft of from the An-124’s weight range would have. With the Russian Air Force’s requirements being just a fraction of those of the Soviet Air Force, however, success of the program will depend heavily on whether it can gain significant export orders.