Russian Air Force aerial tanker fleet to be reinforced

The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) will have its aerial tanker fleet reinforced in the coming years, according to the Russian aerospace industry.

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Russian Air Force aerial tanker fleet to be reinforced 1 Ilyushin Il-76MD-90A aerial tanker (Picture source: Ilyushin)

On December 18, 2020 the Ulyanovsk-based Aviastar-SP aviation plant (a subsidiary of the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) controlled by state corporation Rostec) said it would begin manufacturing 10 newest Ilyushin Il-78M-90A aerial under a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD). The enterprise inked the deal in late 2020 during an official visit of Deputy Defense Minister Alexey Krivoruchko to the enterprise.

The new aerial tanker is based on Ilyushin Il-76MD-90A heavy airlifter and is powered by four United Engine Corporation PS-90-76A turbofan engines. The platform features a fully updated avionics suite and a glass cockpit that reduces tiredness of pilots and improves flight safety. Il-78M-90A refuels two frontline aircraft or one long-range or special air systems. When on the ground, the aerial tanker can refuel up to four aircraft. “Il-78M-90A is a convertible system and can also be operated as an airlifter,” said the press department of Aviastar-SP on December 18.

According to the official portfolio of Il-78M-90A, the aerial tanker has a maximum take-off weight of 190 tons and can transfer up to 69.2 tons of fuel. It can fly at up to 850 km/h (440-600 km/h during air refueling) and a maximum flight altitude of 12,100 meters. The air platform is controlled by a six-strong crew. Il-78M-90A features a long service life — the aircraft can conduct 6,000 flights and spend 8,000 flight hours in the air, with an expected life duration of 35 years. 

The Russian MoD already operates Ilyushin Il-78M (NATO reporting name: Midas) aerial tanker. According to the official portfolio of the air platform, Il-78M has a maximum take-off weight of 190 tons. The aerial tanker has a six-strong crew and is intended for refueling Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-31 (Foxhound) interceptors, Sukhoi Su-24 (Fencer) and Su-34 (Fullback) frontline bombers, and Sukhoi Su-30 (Flanker-H) and Su-35 (Flanker-E+) multirole combat aircraft.

Russian Air Force aerial tanker fleet to be reinforced 2 Ilyushin Il-78M Midas aerial tanker can refuel to aircraft in flight (Picture source: Rostec)

The Ilyushin Company (a subsidiary of UAC) also upgrades Il-78M tankers to the Il-78-2 standard. The upgraded air platform made its maiden flight on September 26, 2019. Il-78-2 has received some components, which have been unified with those of Il-76MD-90A and Il-78M-90A. The upgraded aerial tanker has also been fitted with a new flight-and-navigation system, a defense suite, and a communications system. The Il-78-2 program is intended to bring the existing Il-78 and Il-78M to a modern standard.

It should be mentioned that the Russian aerospace industry has also updated its portfolio of export-oriented aerial tankers. The portfolio of such systems now includes the cutting-edge Ilyushin Il-78MK-90A convertible tanker-transport. Compared to the previous iterations of the Midas, it features a maximum take-off weight of 210 tons and transports 58-78 tons of fuel. If converted, Il-78MK-90A carries a 60 tons or up to 225 servicemen. Its air refueling station has a refueling output of 2,500 l/min. The air platform refuels up to four aircraft on the ground and one or two aircraft in the air.

The integration of PS-90-76A has resulted an increase of the system’s performance in mountainous areas; the tanker’s capabilities to operate on harsh environments are beefed up by its ability to take off from unpaved airfields and land at them. It should be mentioned that the tanker has been fitted with a modern flight-management system enhancing the flight performance of the air platform.

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