Asia Defense

Modernizing the Indian Air Force’s Transport Fleet

Recent Features

Asia Defense | Security | South Asia

Modernizing the Indian Air Force’s Transport Fleet

India is exploring acquisition options for medium transport aircraft to replace the aging fleet of An-32 and IL-76 aircraft. 

Modernizing the Indian Air Force’s Transport Fleet
Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Karunakar Rayker

Logistics has been the backbone of warfare for ages, playing a critical role in all domains. Besides weapons and ammunition, logistics encompasses supplying food and medicine and facilitating medical evacuation. In modern warfare, aerial transportation has proved to be an effective way to transport goods and services, compared to overland transportation. Therefore, most armed forces possess a numbers of transport aircraft in their arsenal. 

The Indian Air Force (IAF) operates two types of fixed-wing transport aircraft: strategic airlifters and tactical airlifters. Strategic airlifters are used to transport cargo among different war theaters, while tactical airlifters are used to transport cargo within a single theater of war.

The IAF operates 17 IL-76 and 11 C-17 III Globemaster aircraft for strategic airlift purposes. The IL-76 was procured from the Soviet Union in the 1980s and, the Globemaster was acquired from the United States in 2011. For tactical airlift purposes, the IAF uses the vintage Avro and An-32 aircraft, both of which have been in service for over 50 years. Apart from these vintage aircraft, the IAF also operates the state-of-the-art C-130 for tactical airlifting, acquired from the United States in 2009.

The British-origin Avro that was procured in the late 1960s is currently being replaced by Airbus C-295 aircraft, with India having signed a deal to acquire 56 of them in 2021. Under the contract 16 aircraft will be procured in fly-away condition; the remaining 40 will be manufactured locally by TATA Advance System Limited (TASL).

In December 2022, the IAF issued a Request for Information (RFI) to purchase medium transport aircraft (MTA) to replace its aging fleet of Soviet-era An-32 and IL-76 planes. The RFI specifically mentioned the weight category of 18-30 tonnes. As per an estimate, around 40-80 aircraft are planned to be inducted into the IAF.

The An-32 and IL-76 aircraft were originally designed and produced by the Soviet aviation manufacturers Antonov Aircraft and Ilyushin, respectively. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Antonov Aircraft came under the control of Ukraine. The IAF currently operates approximately 105 An-32 aircraft, of which half have been upgraded. 

In 2009, the IAF signed a contract with Ukraine for the modernization of the entire fleet of aircraft. The upgrades included technical life extension to the airframe, repowering of the engines, structural modifications, glass cockpit, and integration of the critical avionics upgrades. However, due to the supply chain disruption caused by the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, some upgrades, such as critical navigation and landing aids, have been undertaken domestically by the IAF.

The An-32 is powered by two turboprop engines that enable it to cover a distance of 2,500 to 3,000 km while carrying a payload of up to 6,000 to 7,000 kg. The aircraft has been the workhorse of IAF’s transport fleet. Despite upgrades, the Indian Air Force is looking to replace its aircraft as it has reached the end of its technical lifespan and its performance has severely decreased. 

In the mid-1980s the IAF procured 17 IL-76 aircraft from the Soviet Union. Currently, 14 aircraft are operational in IAF, most of which have reached their last stage of technical life. Further, the IAF has been facing severe spare part and maintenance issues with these aircraft since the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, the MTA procurement is currently being exploited as an option to replace both aircraft. The IAF seeks to modernize its transport fleet through this proposed acquisition.

According to the RFI, the IAF is looking for aircraft under the 18-30 tonnes category. Due to a lack of indigenous options, the IAF has to opt for imports. In the international market, four aircraft are available that meet the RFI’s weight criteria: Lockheed Martin’s C-130 J-30 Super Hercules, Embraer’s KC-390 Millennium, Airbus’ A400M Atlas, and Kawasaki’s C-2. However, the RFI was responded to by three vendors: Lockheed Martin, Embraer, and Airbus (although the A400M Atlas payload carrying capacity is 37 tonnes, higher than the prescribed criteria in the RFI). t

In the case of Lockheed’s C-130, 12 have been operational with the IAF since 2009. The aircraft has exceptional short take-off and landing capabilities even in higher altitudes and unprepared runways. It is envisaged that Lockheed might propose the latest variant, the C-130 J-30, to the IAF. A few components of the aircraft are already being produced in India by the TATA Lockheed Martin Aero structure PVT LTD. Thus, this facility could be used to produce complete aircraft domestically under the “Make in India” initiative. 

The other two contenders, Embraer’s C-390 Millennium and Airbus’ A400 Atlas have relatively higher payload carrying capacity than the C-130 J-30. Besides, the C-290 Millennium is powered by two turbofan engines, enabling it to fly at Mach 0.7, which is faster than the other two aircraft that are powered by turboprop engines.

Made with Flourish

In 2012 attempts were made to design and produce the desired MTA in collaboration with Russia. However, for various reasons, the plan was canceled in 2016. The aircraft was aimed to replace the An-32 operated by the IAF. Nonetheless, the project’s cancellation derailed Indian efforts to be self-reliant in the field of transport aircraft. 

Consequently, India has to opt for the import of MTA aircraft from the international market, although the RFI has mentioned that this aircraft must be produced in India. Therefore, the acquisition is proposed under the “Make in India” category. India expects to reduce its dependency on original equipment manufacturers in the long term, especially in terms of maintenance repair and overhaul and future upgrades. 

Therefore, most of the participants have been collaborating with Indian vendors to manufacture respective aircraft in India. For instance, TATA is already in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and Airbus for the manufacturing of the components of the C-130, and complete assembly of the C-295 aircraft. This collaboration could be expanded further for the MTA. Likewise, in February 2024, Embraer signed a memorandum of understanding with Indian defense manufacturer Mahindra Defense for manufacturing C-390 Millennium aircraft locally in India.

In the case of the IL-76, which falls under the heavy category of transport aircraft, the MTA doesn’t appear a suitable option for its replacement. Subsequently, the IAF has approached Russia for mid-life upgrades of the 11 IL-76 aircraft. The life extension is intended for the integration of a new PS-90 engine that is more powerful and efficient than the current DK-30KP. Further, the upgrades will allow the IAF to operate these aircraft till 2050, which is 15 years beyond their previous expected phase out of 2035. 

One of the reasons for this move could be the inability of the aircraft proposed under the MTA bid to match the payload-carrying capability of the IL-76s. Currently, there is no other aircraft that is under production in the same weight category.

The IAF may consider the MTA as a potential replacement for the An-32 aircraft. As for the IL-76s, they could be replaced with other options. For example, India could acquire the latest version of the IL-76s from Russia, or it could approach the United States to reopen the production line for the C-17 III Globemaster, which is already in active service with the IAF. Another option would be for India to collaborate with other countries to jointly develop such an aircraft.