Since late 2015, Russia has sustained expeditionary operations in Syria by relying on ageing air- and maritime-lift platforms. Unless it can better previous failed efforts to replace both, Moscow risks losing the capacity to carry out a similar operation within the next decade.

Uran-6 military mine clearing equipment of the Russian Armed Forces

By Tom Waldwyn, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis

Moscow’s military lift is only a fraction of the capability fielded by the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. Airlift is a fifth of the previous strength, while sealift is a quarter of the early 1990s fleet size. Furthermore, the Russian armed forces rely on aircraft and ships designed and built during the Soviet era, most of which are now nearing the end of their useful lives.

Airlift

Russia’s heavy airlift capacity is based on three aircraft types: the Antonov An-22 Cock, the Ilyushin Il-76 Candid and the An-124 Condor. The An-22 first flew in 1965, the Il-76 in 1971 and the An-124 in 1982. Toward the end of the Soviet era, design projects were under way to provide a new generation of airlifters; however, as the USSR collapsed so did these programmes.

Antonov is based in Ukraine, and defence-industrial collaboration between Kiev and Moscow ended abruptly with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. At the end of 2013, the two nations had been discussing restarting An-124 production. Only a handful of the An-22s remain in a flyable condition, with efforts to eke out service lives to 2020 in progress.

Far more numerous is the Il-76 Candid, which remains the Russian Aerospace Force’s transport workhorse. The aircraft has been the focus of upgrade efforts, but so far with little to show for front-line units. Two Il-76MD airframes were upgraded to Il-76MD-90 standard from 2002 and the original Soloviev D-30 turbofan engines were replaced by the Aviadvigatel PS-90A. The cockpit avionics were also updated. However, this project also fell into abeyance.

In late 2006, Russia decided to switch Il-76 work from the Tashkent Aviation Production Organisation in Uzbekistan to the Aviastar facility in Ulyanovsk, western Russia, and began design work on a significantly improved variant called the Il-76MD-90A: this would be a new aircraft, rather than an upgrade of an existing airframe. The prototype was flown for the first time in September 2012. The following month Aviastar was awarded a RUB139.4 billion (US$4.5bn) contract to build 39 Il-76MD-90A aircraft with deliveries taking place from 2014 to 2020. As of mid-2017, only three of the 39 aircraft had been delivered.

In late 2012, the Russian defence ministry also awarded Ilyushin a RUB3.4bn (US$110.3m) contract to upgrade an air force Il-76MD to Il-76MD-M standard. This project drew on the avionics upgrades of the Il-76MD-90A programme, but was less ambitious than the original Il-76MD-90 project, leaving aside the replacement of the D-30 engine. The intent was to provide another 15 years of service life for the upgraded aircraft. This project is also now behind schedule.

In the longer term, Moscow has once again begun to look at recapitalising its heavy transport fleet with a new aircraft under the aegis of the PAK-TA (Future Military Transport Aircraft) project. Ilyushin appears to have dusted down late 1980s and early 1990s studies of its Il-106 heavy airlifter project, although whether and at what pace this effort progresses remains to be seen. The company is also working on the Il-112 light turboprop transport and the Il-214 twin-turbofan. The former is intended to replace the Antonov An-26 Curl twin turboprop, with the latter earmarked to succeed the An-12 Cub medium transport.

Russian airlift 1992-2017

Sealift

The prospects for Russia’s amphibious lift are worse than for its strategic airlift. Russia’s amphibious fleet currently comprises two classes of tank landing ships (LST): the four remaining Project 1171 Tapir-class vessels, which entered service from 1966 to 1975, and the 15 Project 775I/II/III Ropucha-class vessels, which were introduced from 1976 to 1991. Half of these vessels are assigned to the Black Sea Fleet. In 2004, the keel was laid on the first of a planned new series of Project 11711 Ivan Gren-class LSTs. Originally planned to enter service in 2008, the first of class is currently undergoing sea trials and the second, with delivery expected in 2018, has yet to be launched. In the late 1980s, a flat-deck amphibious assault vessel (landing helicopter dock, or LHD), with the project number 11780, was drawn up by the Nevskoe Design Bureau, but like the aforementioned Il-106 it was not taken any further.

An attempt to improve Russia’s amphibious expeditionary capability was made in 2011 with the US$1.2bn deal with France for two Mistral-class LHDs. However, the deal was cancelled in late 2014 after French postponement of the order in response to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Even before its increased sealift requirement from September 2015 onwards, Russia had taken some steps to address its decreasing capability, including the acquisition of supposedly mothballed civilian cargo vessels.

The first Ivan Gren will probably enter service this year but so many vessels will need to be replaced in the next 10–15 years that the seeming lack of a plan to either continue building that class or proceed with a new design will mean a significant loss of capability in this area.


This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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