Russia Restores Soviet Heavy Transport Jets From ‘Boneyard’ Storage as Fleet Expands

Russia has restored at least one An-124 heavy airlifter to service after decades in storage to meet rapidly expanding requirements, as the country reverses its post-Cold War demilitarisation in the face of wartime conditions. The airlifter fleet is one of multiple areas of the country’s air and ground forces which are being expanded significantly as the country faces both a protected war in Ukraine and fast escalating tensions with an expanding NATO alliance and with Western-aligned Japan. Attention was drawn to this expansion when an An-124 transport was brought out of storage at Ulyanovsk-East Airport for extensive refurbishment and modernisation. The An-124 is a highly prized asset for Russia and represents by far the heaviest aircraft in the country’s fleet. It is relied on to serve as a larger complement to the lighter but more widely used Il-76. While the Il-76 is produced domestically in Russia, after factories were moved there from Uzbekistan where they had been built in the Soviet era, the An-124 was produced in Ukraine during the Soviet era which has been a key impediment to further acquisitions. Aside from the An-124, it remains uncertain which other aircraft may be restored and in what quantities.

Alongside support for logistics within Russia, two An-124s were reportedly recently deployed for flights to North Korea, fuelling speculation of high value arms transfers either from the East Asian state to the Russian Armed Forces or vice versa. The aircraft are optimal for delivery of fighter planes and other valuable assets. The An-124 is notably operated not only by the Russian Air Force, but also for civil purposes air carrier Volga-Dnepr Airlines, with one of these aircraft lost on June 10, 2023 when it was appropriated by the Canadian government with questionable legality. The airliner had been chartered by the Canadian government and landed in Toronto on February 27, 2022, carrying rapid tests for Covid-19 from China. It is expected to be delivered to Ukraine as Canadian aid. Russia is currently developing a successor to the An-124 domestically, although this is not expected to be ready for service until the mid-2030s. Russia and Ukraine were previously jointly developing a successor intended to enter service around 2020, before the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014 and the country’s pivot towards close alignment with NATO ended the program. Russia currently lacks a means of acquiring airlifters of comparable size other than through restoration of Soviet built airframes in storage. The United States has faced similar issues after retiring its own heavy airlifters the C-5 Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster from service in 1989 and 2015 respectively.