Russia Wants To Replace Its Giant An-124 Airlifters With Updated Decades-Old Design

Ilyushin began working on the IL-106 decades ago, but an updated version is in the works that aims to replace the An-124 and possibly other aircraft.

Ilyushin

Russia's lumbering AN-124 Condor cargo aircraft provide a vital capability for the Russian military. After talk of building an updated AN-124 variant in Russia—AN-124 aircraft originate from Ukraine, a country with anything but good relations with Russia these days—it now seems that the Russian Ministry of Defense may be pursuing an update of a decades-old indigenous design to eventually replace the Condors and possibly other aircraft as well. According to a new interview with Nikolai Talikov, Chief Designer at Ilyushin Aviation Complex, this aircraft, dubbed the IL-106, is currently deep in development and will be updated with new avionics, engines, and other critical systems.  

Russia's AN-124 Condors highlighted their extreme value back in early Fall of 2015 when they creating an air-bridge of sorts between Russian territory and Syria, carry massive loads of cargo and outsized weaponry to Russia's Khmeimim Air Base located south of the Syrian port city of Latakia. That logistics train has continued ever since to some degree, with Condors making regular appearances at the airfield which is now 'leased' to Russia more or less indefinitely. In fact, Russia's Syria operation would have looked very different and maybe wouldn't have happened at all without the AN-124 in the Russian Air Force's inventory. 

With this in mind, Russia's push to come up with firm plan to replace these aircraft, some of which date back to or shortly after the Soviet era, isn't a surprise. Going with an indigenous design isn't that far-fetched either. Russia has a track record of rebooting defunct weapons programs that benefited from decades of expensive research and development under the Soviet Union and the decade that followed. That data already in hand cuts costs and development timelines while also allowing for some innovation by incorporating new technologies. This is precisely what is envisioned for the IL-106. Nikolai Talikov stated the following to RT (computer-translated):

"Military transport aviation of Russia is in the sky every day and performs tasks, including abroad. Therefore, the issue of extending aircraft resources and creating new vehicles is so acute. An-124 play a huge role in the country's defense. It is no secret that they performed a large volume of cargo transportation to Syria. In this regard, the question arose of extending the resource of these aircraft. Given the reluctance of Ukraine to cooperate, our design bureau is engaged in the extension of the resource and the maintenance of the technical health of the AN-124 fleet.

Indeed, the question of the re-establishment of the AN-124 was repeatedly raised. We looked at this situation more broadly and came to the conclusion that it was necessary to create a new military transport aircraft. Such a plane, in our opinion, should be the IL-106. We worked on it for a long time. But in the 1990s and 2000s we carried out sluggish work.

Today IL-106 is recorded in our program, and we are starting to create it. The cargo cabin of the IL-106 will be the same dimension as the Ruslan (Condor). On the plane will be installed new engines, new avionics and everything else. The creation of the IL-106 will be a step forward in updating the military transport aviation of Russia.  

IL-106 will meet all modern requirements for the aerobatic flight complex, and for the resource, and for the transported goods. Thus, discussions about the need to recreate the AN-124 ended. We are starting to develop the IL-106."

As for the particulars, Talikov said that the new engines that will power the Il-106 will be provided by United Engine Corporation and will be capable of 24-26 tons of thrust. The design will be able to regularly haul 80 tons of cargo, and could lift off with 110-120 tons in a pinch. Talikov also says the aircraft will be rolled out around 2025-2026 based on the Russian MoD's requirements. 

Public Domain

A model of the IL-106 that has been in on and off development since the late 1980s.

Really what he is describing is something between a C-17 and AN-124 in terms of raw airlifting power. This makes sense as the vast majority of missions do not require the extremes of the Condor's weight-lifting abilities, but do require a large internal volume. An aircraft that is a bit less capable would also cost less to manufacture and maintain, while also keeping within the limits of current Russian aerospace technology. This also makes sense investment-wise as saving money to create an aircraft that is more tailored to the Russian military's modern needs instead of an exact replacement for the An-124, an aircraft that first flew in the early 1980s. Beyond new engines and avionics, exactly how much in common an updated IL-106 design would have with the one that originated nearly thirty years ago remains unclear, but it is likely that modern manufacturing techniques and material science would be applied to the old design.

Public Domain

Up until recently, it was announced that Russia would produce its own new-build AN-124 airframes—basically updated clones of the Ukrainian design. But that plan was quickly subject to international controversy as Ukraine's Antonov Aircraft Corporation said that Russia had no right to copy the design and that they would have trouble doing so technically even if they tried. By early last Summer, it was reported that Russia had abandoned the plan and was looking at other alternatives, chiefly among them upgrading existing AN-124s in service and in storage with Russian-specific systems. 

According to a recent RT report, the breakdown of Russia's current AN-124 inventory is as such:

Today, the Air Force of Russia (16 vehicles), the commercial cargo airline Volga-Dnepr (12), the state airline 224th Flight Squad (8) and the SE Antonov (7 vehicles).

What's not clear is exactly how many of these are truly operational at any given time. It is assumed that the Russian Air Force has about a dozen AN-124s readily at its disposal, but Russian charter companies can also support the Russian military when needed.

Sergey Kustov/Wikicommons

An-124 with Su-27 Flankers off its wing.  

So we are talking about high-value, low-density assets here. As a result, the Russian military would not require a big production run of IL-106s to replace its AN-124 fleet. But the AN-124s flying for Russia's charter companies won't be able to fly forever either and supportability is becoming more of an issue due to the aircraft's age and the deep row between Moscow and Kiev. So eventually having an aircraft to replace the semi-civilian An-124s is also becoming increasingly important. 

The Russian Air Force could and would likely choose to replace some of its older IL-76s and the handful of AN-22s still in service with IL-106s as well. This would increase total production volume over time and lower unit costs. But where Moscow may really substantiate the program's cost is in potential export sales. 

Currently, there isn't a quad-jet cargo aircraft in production that is capable of carrying outsized loads outside of China. The C-17 recently ended its production and China's Y-20 transport has as much in common with the smaller IL-76 as the C-17 capability-wise and is still in its early teething phase. With this in mind, Russia is likely eyeing potential IL-106 export sales as a way to offset its development costs and possibly make money on the program overall down the line. 

The big issue that hangs over every major Russian weapons program is funding, more specifically the chronic lack of it. Can Russia afford an IL-106? Quite honestly, it seems somewhat clear that they really can't afford to let the capability that the AN-124 provides whither. By building an intermediate-sized heavy-lift jet cargo aircraft, Russia could better justify the costs and even make a business opportunity case for it that is somewhat compelling. It would seem that IL-106 checks all these boxes. 

Still, with the Kremlin's defense funds only becoming scarcer, even logical procurement initiatives needed to maintain critical capabilities could be passed over for other priorities. And even if the general design is already in hand, putting a new large aircraft type into production is never a cheap affair without major financial risk.

We will probably hear more about this initiative from official sources in the Russian government now that this interview has been published. Stay tuned for future updates. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com