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IAF has a major freighter issue at hand. Currently, it operates 17 IL-76MDs and 11 C-17 Globemaster IIIs. According to an estimate, IAF needs a total of 36 strategic heavy freighters at least not counting the mid-air refuelers. I am not talking about the requirement for tactical freighters which is filled by 12 C-130J-30 SH (6 more on order) and 108 An-32 and in the future, 56 C-295 will be added to it. The saga of mid-air refuelers is a never-ending saga (more about it later).

Out of the 17 IL-76MD freighters bought during the Soviet era in the 1980s basically, only half the fleet is available anytime based on the serviceability, due to lack of spares. The IL-76 jets have more turnaround time than C-17 Globemaster IIIs, meaning the former requires more hours of servicing for every hour of flight than the latter. The case is somewhat similar to the 6 IL-78 mid-air refuelers purchased in 2003 and 2004 from Russia. Only the 3 Beriev A-50 variants of IL-76 (the best of all 3 variants) used for AEW&C and purchased in 2009 from Russia reportedly have a better serviceability rate.

During Soviet times spares were available from Ukraine and Russia, though after the disintegration of the Soviet Union supply continued but after Russia and Ukraine conflict started; the situation has been aggravated and spares are now getting increasingly difficult to procure. In 2015 there was a proposal to upgrade all IL-76 to IL-476 standard. The upgraded version came with a new glass cockpit, upgraded avionics, a new one-piece carbon-fiber wing, and more powerful Aviadvigatel PS-90A-76 engines. Currently, the IL-76s can carry a single T-72 tank or a single T-90 tank alongside other assortments.
Also called IL-76 MD 90A, its outside dimensions are the same as IL-76s; but thanks to upgrades, its’ carrying capacity has drastically improved from 48 tons to 60 tons. Though still less than 78 tons of C-17 Globemaster IIIs which can easily carry the 68-ton Arjun Mk1A tank as well as a T-72 tank or a T-90 tank.

The IL-76 MD 90A could easily carry the Arjun Mk2 which weighs 58 tons, as well as a T-72 tank or a T-90 tank. The plan also included upgrading the IL-78 mid-air refuelers to IL-78M standard also with a new glass cockpit, upgraded avionics, new one-piece carbon-fiber wing, and more powerful Aviadvigatel PS-90A-76 engines; thereby increasing their fuel-carrying (to refuel) capacity. But what happened to that proposal nobody really knows.

IAF really needs to add more numbers to heavy lift/strategic freighter numbers. C-17 Globemaster IIIs could have been an answer but its production has been closed since 2015, so it is not an option. Thanks to sanctions imposed on Russia due to the Ukraine conflict, Russia is now finding it difficult to source spare parts for its own use let alone for India’s use. What both India and Russia can do, is that try to set up a supply chain in India, where local manufacturers will make all the spare parts needed for IL-76 that can be made, save the critical ones (that have to be bought from Russia), and sell Russia the spare parts it needs.

This will allow Russia to make payments for the spare parts in Indian Rupees. Russia has billions of Indian Rupees; kept in Indian banks that are payments made by India for items purchased from Russia, but Russia is still unable to convert them into Dollars or Rubles, thanks to sanctions imposed by the West. An option is to convert the due payments into Chinese Yuan/RinMinBi, but India has steadfastly refused that option in the aftermath of the March 2020 unilateral forward movement by China and the subsequent Galwan incident.

This offer to make payment in the form of spare is an option that Russia may find very hard to resist; besides India and Russia signing an agreement to buy at least 8 more IL-76 MD 90As. The West may raise a hue and cry about it, but it is important for India to make them understand that India really does have a need for strategic heavy-lift freighters, an estimated 36 of them. Since C-17 Globemaster IIIs are out of production, and with no comparable jet aircraft available on the horizon as a viable option, India has no other choice but to go for more IL-76 MD 90As or IL-476s. While the new IL-76 MD 90As can easily serve in the IAF for the next 45-50 years, the older upgraded and uprated IL 76s can stay in service for at least another 25 years.

An option for selling 8 more new IL-76 MD 90As to India can be a lucrative option for Russia, and perhaps it may allow it to agree to bring down the price of 2 Beriev A-50s that IAF wants for its AEW&C, pricing of the 2 jets is the main issue due to which the deal is still pending. All this will take the number of strategic heavy freighters in service with IAF to 36 (25 IL-76s and 11 C-17 Globemaster IIIs). This will allow IAF to remain at ease with the number of strategic heavy freighters till the year 2050 at least. However, all these ideas to boost the number of strategic heavy freighters for the IAF will have to wait till the end of the Ukraine conflict. Perhaps then Russia will have its hands and head free to resume trade of military platforms with India; by which time the West will finally accept Russian claim over Crimea and 4 other regions and start removing sanctions.

It’s a different matter that the West has imposed sanctions on Russia, stopping it from trading with African, Asian, and South American countries; but shamelessly continues to buy natural gas, crude oil, nuclear fuel, titanium, and other rare earth minerals from Russia. I hope, that this type of deal will definitely happen in the year 2024.

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Article by JOYDEEP GHOSH ,  cannot be republished Partially or Full without consent from Writer or