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As the Indian Air Force (IAF) looks toward its future needs, it has identified a critical requirement for strategic airlift aircraft to replace its ageing fleet of IL-76MDs, which were procured in the mid-1980s from the Soviet Union. These aircraft have served the IAF well but are now reaching the end of their operational lives.

Sources familiar with the matter have informed that efforts to upgrade the existing IL-76MDs, particularly with modern PS-90A-76 turbofan bypass engines, have faced challenges and have not materialized as planned. Consequently, IAF is now undertaking studies to assess its strategic airlift aircraft requirements and identify suitable options to maintain its cargo-moving capabilities.

The IAF currently operates approximately 17 IL-76MD aircraft, most of which are nearing 40 years of service. According to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), the average serviceability of the Il-76 fleet is less than 40 per cent. While upgrades, including engine replacements and avionics enhancements, were proposed to improve serviceability, these initiatives have not been fully realized.

In contrast, the IAF also operates 11 C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, which have demonstrated an impressive average serviceability rate of nearly 100 per cent. These modern aircraft have significantly bolstered the IAF’s strategic airlift capabilities.

Looking ahead to 2035 and beyond, the IAF recognizes the need to procure approximately 20 strategic airlift aircraft to replace the ageing IL-76MDs. This forward-looking approach aims to ensure that the IAF maintains a robust cargo-moving capacity to meet its operational requirements.

The selection of these future strategic airlift aircraft will be based on their capabilities, including payload capacity, range, and modern features. These aircraft will play a crucial role in supporting India’s air transport needs for both military and humanitarian missions.

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