Russia Drops Plans for a Strategic Air Tanker

 - April 17, 2017, 10:50 AM
A Russian Air Force Il-78M air tanker refuels a Tu-160 strategic bomber. These tankers are being refurbished and upgraded, and joined in service by new-production versions with PS-90A turbofans. (Photo: Vladimir Karnozov)

The Russian defense ministry has dropped earlier plans to buy several Ilyushin Il-96-400TZ air tankers after the industry failed to offer a cost-effective conversion of some aircraft that were previously built as Il-96-400T commercial freighters. Meantime, UAC’s Aviastar plant in Ulyanovsk has completed the first Ilyushin Il-78M-90A air tanker that is expected to commence flight trials shortly, several months behind schedule.

Russia’s Air and Space Force considered the larger Il-96-400TZ as an addition to its primary fleet of Il-78 tankers that are available in several versions. The reason was to provide more effective support for Tupolev Tu-160 and Tu-95MS long-range strategic bombers. The payload-range figures for the Il-78 air tanker are notably inferior to those for the Il-96. Gross weight is 210 metric tons compared with 270 tons, and the payload is 52 tons versus 58 tons. Coupled with sleeker aerodynamics, this would have given the larger type the capability of refueling the bombers some 9,000 to 10,000 km (5,592 to 6,214 miles) from base.

The Il-96-400TZ conversions into “strategic air tankers” would have transferred more than 65 tons of fuel at a distance of 3,500 km. For the Il-78M is those numbers would be 40 tons at 3,000 km. The initial contract with the industry to convert an Il-96-400T freighter into an air tanker was signed in 2013, paving the way for a second contract in 2015 for airframe S/N 96105. This aircraft had been started as a fifth commercial freighter for Polet Airlines, which operated the type in 2009-2013, before its collapse.

A pair of the former Polet aircraft were converted into special VIP/control jets in 2014-2016. The other two aircraft previously earmarked for the air tanker conversion are now being considered for work in frame of the ongoing Il-96-400M 415-seat passenger jet development effort. Between six and ten of these are expected to be delivered to the Russian defense ministry and other governmental agencies. At the same time, the ministry continues funding work on development of next-generation control aircraft to replace the aging Il-80 (Il-86PU) fleet.

Following the prototype, two more Ilyushin Il-78M-90A air tankers are on the production line. The Russian MoD has ordered 40 such aircraft. They are based on the Il-76MD-90A airlifter, differing in having wing-mounted pylons for UPAZ refueling pods. In addition, the pressurized bulkhead in the rear fuselage has been strengthened. Unlike the older Il-78M/MK air tankers, the new version retains the rear loading ramp, so that it can also be used as an airlifter. The aircraft can carry between 167 and 245 soldiers, depending on their armament and personal equipment.

In addition to procurement of brand-new Il-78M-90As, the Russian defense ministry has ordered the modification of in-service Il-78M air tankers to extend their service life and provide a higher fuel transfer rate. The first of these was handed over to Ilyushin for this work earlier in the year.