Sergei Shoigu, the Minister of Defence for the Russian Federation, visited the “Aviastar” firm in October 2023. During his time there, he participated in discussions regarding, among other things, the potential for developing military transport aircraft. When compared to the numbers from the Soviet era, Sergey Kuzhugetovich Shoigu found that the amount of military air traffic in modern Russia had increased by a factor of two. As a result, the Minister of Defence emphasised the importance of increasing the acquisition of transport and cargo aircraft to meet the requirements of the Russian armed services. This largely entailed making a few modifications to the Il-76 and restarting the manufacture of the An-124. On the other hand, the latter presented several substantial challenges.
In Soviet long-range military transport aviation, the heavy transport aircraft An-124 “Ruslan,” which was designed by the Antonov Design Bureau based in Kyiv, is a source of pride. The manufacture of the An-124 was a national effort involving aviation plants from Russia and Ukraine and hundreds of different businesses from all Soviet republics. This was common practice in the history of the Soviet Union when it came to the creation of high-tech gadgets and machines—the year 1991 inflicted a heavy blow to the serial manufacturing of “Ruslans,” thereby severing long-established linkages between the republics in terms of production and technological cooperation.
Russia could collaborate on the An-124 project with some of the smaller companies for a while, but ultimately, it will require the cooperation of its Ukrainian counterparts. During Soviet times, the “Ruslan” process was effectively split between the aviation industries in Kyiv and Ulyanovsk. The underlying issue for Russia was that the An-124’s engines were made on Soviet soil. After the Soviet Union fell apart, the Zaporizhzhia-based MKB “Progress”, later renamed “Motor Sich”, developed and produced the D-18T engines that propelled the transport aircraft.
Manufacturing aircraft was where Russia and Ukraine worked together for a while. Russian and Ukrainian aircraft designers suffered a significant loss as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2008 and 2012, there was renewed conversation regarding the possibility of working together to manufacture D-18T engines. At some time, throughout the negotiations, significant headway was made. Nevertheless, further events in 2013 and 2014 halted any cooperation in the development of military technology. Since the 2022 conflict, it is almost hard to envisage the two countries working together in any capacity, particularly in the field of arms, at least for the time being.
One can argue that the aviation engine is an aeroplane’s most important and difficult-to-design component. No engine in Russia’s arsenal can compete with the D-18T, and it is quite doubtful that one will come in the foreseeable future. The Soviet engine has a thrust capacity of up to 23,400 kilogrammes, making it one of the most powerful in the world. The Russian engine that is used in the Il-76 is the one that comes the closest to the An-124 “Ruslan” in terms of the features it possesses; nevertheless, the PS-90AZ engine only provides 16,000 kilogrammes of thrust, which is not enough for the An-124 “Ruslan.” It is projected that Russia will, in the not-too-distant future, build the PD-35 engine, which will have a thrust of 35,000 kilogrammes.
On the other hand, it is unknown when exactly this engine will be made available. In 2021, a budget of 44.6 billion rubles was set aside for the expansion of this region. Despite this, the leadership of ODK-Aviadvigatel claimed in August 2022 that there were virtually no resources left over for the PD-35 because of sanctions and the pressing necessity to build engines for civilian aircraft. As a result, it is highly unlikely that Russia will have access to this engine until 2027 or 2028.
Russian Requirement for An-124 Aircraft
Proposals to resume Russian production of the Ukrainian An-124 Ruslan aircraft in Russia were presented to Shoigu in March 2021 during a meeting at the Aviastar-SP enterprise in Ulyanovsk.
According to Shoigu, six An-124 aircraft underwent maintenance in 2020. He conveyed optimism regarding the nation’s capacity to obtain the necessary number of operational aircraft.
The An-124 “Ruslan” is the largest serial cargo aircraft in the world. Its development took place at the Antonov Design Bureau. 36 An-124s were manufactured in total at the Ulyanovsk aviation complex.
Since 2003, Russia has ceased production of these aircraft; however, operational aircraft continue to undergo maintenance and repairs to ensure their continued airworthiness. The military has advocated resuming Ruslan production on multiple occasions. Denis Manturov, the then director of the Ministry of Industry and Trade, stated that this is not an urgent matter because the An-124’s operational lifespan will be extended until the end of the 2040s through the repair of the current fleet.