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The Indian Air Force (IAF) is exploring the possibility of upgrading its fleet of 17 IL-76 strategic transporters through collaboration with Indian private sector companies and defence Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs). The proposed upgrade, which was initially discussed with Russia in 2018, aims to extend the operational life of the IL-76 aircraft by another 15 years.

At the heart of the upgrade lies the replacement of the outdated Soloviev D-30KP turbofan engines with the more fuel-efficient and less noisy PS-90a-76 turbofan engines. This change would not only enhance the aircraft’s performance but also allow it to operate on commercial routes.

The IAF is in discussions with Rostec, the Russian state corporation that controls the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), regarding the direct supply of the PS-90a-76 engines to an Indian company like Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). HAL would then be responsible for carrying out the required engine swaps and integrating the new engines with the aircraft.

In addition to the engine upgrade, the IAF is also considering incorporating a digital cockpit to replace the older analogue instruments. This modernization would enhance the crew’s situational awareness and simplify the aircraft’s operation.

The IL-76 plays a crucial role in the IAF’s strategic airlift capabilities, and its impending retirement would leave a significant void. With the production of the American-supplied C-17 strategic transporters by Boeing having ceased, the IAF is carefully evaluating its options to address this gap.

One possibility being considered is the potential modification of the Multi-Purpose Transport Aircraft (MTA), which is currently under development. The IAF is examining the feasibility of adapting the MTA’s cargo capacity to meet its requirements for around 80 aircraft.

However, if the IL-76 upgrade project fails to materialize, the IAF may be forced to retire its IL-76 fleet by 2035. In such a scenario, the MTA would need to compensate for the loss of the IL-76’s strategic airlift capabilities.
The IAF’s decision-making process is complex, as it involves balancing the need for modernizing its strategic airlift fleet with the availability of viable options and the associated costs. The involvement of Indian private sector companies and defence PSUs could prove to be a valuable asset in addressing this critical requirement.

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