Why China Wants to Put the Gargantuan Antonov An-225 Mriya Back Into Production

The genesis of the world’s largest jet may give clues as to why Beijing wants it.  

Larske/wikicommons

The world’s largest cargo airplanes, all Cold War relics, continue to be in great demand around the globe. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, outsized air cargo charter went from an oddity to a burgeoning cottage industry. The global war on terror, and especially Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, further accelerated its growth, along with an increasingly globalized marketplace that relies on just-in-time manufacturing concepts. So, unless you're the US Air Force, when a 747 freighter can’t carry it, a chartered An-124 Condor usually does—and sometimes, the world’s largest aircraft, the An-225 Mriya (“Dream”) steps in to do the heaviest of lifting.

AP

The giant An-225 on the ramp during charter operations.

Only one An-225 exists, and it's operated by Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines. It first flew in late 1988, but lay dormant between 1993 and 2000, after which it was refurbished for charter operations. The metrics are stunning: It carries as much fuel as fourteen 737-800s, and it has a whopping maximum gross weight of 1,411,000 lbs. A total of six Progress D-18 turbofans power the Mriya, totaling nearly 310,000 pounds of available thrust. It's longer than any other aircraft, and has a wingspan of 290 feet, a metric that is only eclipsed by the Hughes H-4 Hercules, otherwise known as the Spruce Goose.

The partially completed carcass of another An-225 has sat idle for decades at Antonov’s plant outside of Kiev, with rumors popping up every few years that it will be brought to life under one scheme or another. This has never happened, and Antonov has hit especially challenging times following Russia’s invasion of Crimea, the shadow war in eastern Ukraine, and the massive crevasse that has formed between the two countries as a result.

 

Antonov

The second partially completed airframe sits idle at Antonov's plant outside Kiev.

So much of Antonov’s business was intermixed with Russia, which continues to operate their own fleets of Antonov aircraft, including the An-124 Condor, that the company had to be reorganized federally earlier this year. Some projects continue to show promise, like the An-178, although foreign participation, and the injection of cash that goes along with it, is needed for Antonov to do anything of substance, and, for that matter, to financially stabilize the legendary aircraft maker.

This is exactly where China appears to have stepped in, offering cold hard cash for “unique” capabilities—and the ability to reproduce those capabilities themselves down the road. In this case, it's supposedly putting an updated An-225 into production with Antonov’s help. Janes states:

“The agreement signed between the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) and Antonov on 30 August gives China access to the aircraft's designs and technologies for the purposes of domestic production, according to China's STCN news organisation and the Ukrainian Business Channel (UBR).”

China has executed this exact same procurement concept before, whereby it offers quick cash for a couple of existing examples of a particular design before producing them themselves under license (or even without), all with assistance from the original manufacturer. Beijing’s initiative to acquire the largest air cushion landing craft in the world from Ukraine, the Zubr class, was executed just this way. In doing so, China rapidly acquired a highly relevant niche capability at a tiny fraction of the cost, and time required to do it themselves from scratch. Having a cash-hungry partner is the key to making this somewhat lopsided agreement succeed, and Ukraine’s struggling heavy industries are just that partner.

Chinese Zubr class LCAC in action.

If these reports prove true, China’s interest in the An-225 specifically is interesting to say the least. An updated An-124 is a far more flexible, and likely a far more affordable solution for the vast majority of outsized cargo-hauling needs. It is also an aircraft that China could potentially export. So why opt for the gargantuan Mriya? The aircraft’s genesis may give us the answer.

The An-225, which is an evolution of the An-124, was not built to haul locomotives, tanks, or massive drills around Moscow’s sphere of influence; it was built to support Russia’s space program during the waning years leading up to the fall of the Soviet Union. More specifically, it was designed to carry Buran, Russia’s version of the Space Shuttle, and its liquid-fueled “Energia” boosters, as well as other large spacecraft components, on its back.

Ralf Manteufel/Wikicommons

The world's only An-225 with Buran on its back during the last years of the Soviet space program.

In other words, the An-225’s internal cargo hauling ability was a secondary capability, with its ability to lift nearly as much externally as internally (450,000 lbs vs 550,000 lbs), and do it routinely, was what the giant jet was all about. The Mriya’s massive planar tail section is indicative of this design goal, as a single vertical tail would not provide the needed stability when hauling large loads externally, due to the disrupted airflow around the object being transported.

The An-225's massive tail section.

And it is this capability that China likely wants to acquire on the cheap. Not to ferry around a Chinese version of the Space Shuttle per se—although moving space components externally may be attractive considering Beijing’s burgeoning space program—but to launch spacecraft right off the An-225’s back from the upper limits of the aircraft’s ceiling.

This “parasite,” or “air launch to orbit” concept was very trendy during the depths of the Cold War, and is now making a big comeback. In the commercial world, Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two and White Knight Two combo use this concept, as does Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch and their absolutely gargantuan “Roc” launch aircraft (you can see the first photos of this crazy aircraft here). Before that, Orbital Sciences and their L-1011 put the idea to use.

 

Virgin Galactic

Spaceship Two and White Knight Two seen mated together.

As stated before, the concept goes way back, and using motherships to launch air-breathing jets, usually of the very high-speed and high-flying variety, has an even more colorful history. As such, the military applications of a massive jet, that can haul various other aircraft or rockets on its back to altitude before sending them on their way, are numerous.

The dawn of hypersonic weapons that can strike over great distances in a matter of minutes, and small reusable spaceplanes that can put payloads into orbit in an unpredictable fashion, are not just popular theories anymore; they are on the “bleeding edge” of American defense policy, and China is very interested in actively developing these capabilities as well.

Chinese Internet

Pictures of an H-6 bomber lugging what some think is a prototype for a small space plane.

China currently lacks a mothership aircraft larger than their H-6, which has been seen carrying intriguing, space-related payloads. The An-225 likely represents the closest thing to an “off the shelf” opportunity to acquire a credible launch platform for larger, evolved versions of these types of systems. Another plus is that a pocket fleet of updated An-225s could provide China with the heaviest internal cargo airlift capabilities on earth—when they are not being used for more “exotic” purposes.

This is not the first time the An-225 was eyed as a first-stage launch platform or parasite mothership. Concepts existed before and after the fall of the Soviet Union that revolved around attaching a small lifting-body shuttle to a bulbous fuel tank and launching it right off the Mriya’s spine (Russian MAKS, Ukrainian Svityaz and English HOTOL for instance).

Russian concept art showing the An-225 carrying the MAKS shuttle and fuel tank combo.

None of these concepts came to fruition, but China may now be planning on changing that record once and for all with the acquisition of the world’s mightiest jet hauler—one that was originally designed with just those types of missions in mind.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com