Russia Reactivates An-124 Transport Plane from 25-Year Storage for Ukraine Military Operations

According to Russian media on March 29, 2024, an Antonov An-124 Ruslan heavy transport aircraft was reported to have been transported to the Aviastar aircraft repair facility at Ulyanovsk-Vostochny airport for restoration and modernization efforts aimed at returning it to airworthy condition. This initiative seems to align with the Russian Army's operational needs following several losses in its transport aircraft fleet.
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The operational demands probably influenced the decision to restore this Antonov An-124 in Ukraine, where Russia has faced difficulties in protecting logistics vehicles. (Picture source: Russian social media)

The process of bringing the An-124 stored in the Seshcha air base back to operational status involves significant logistical and technical efforts, given the aircraft's size and the duration it has been out of service. This includes the necessity of flying the aircraft to the repair facility, as ground transportation for such a large aircraft is not feasible. The restoration project focuses not only on the technical aspects of making the aircraft airworthy but also on considerations related to its future operational role and potential applications in both military and commercial contexts.

The decision to overhaul an Antonov An-124 after nearly 25 years of storage aligns with the Russian Army's operational needs amidst current logistical and military equipment challenges. The An-124's cargo capacity and strategic airlift capabilities are pertinent to addressing logistical issues, such as the rapid and efficient transportation of fuel, munitions, spare parts, and other materials to deployed units. These challenges have been accentuated by the operational demands in Ukraine, where Russian military logistics have faced difficulties in maintaining supply lines and protecting logistics vehicles.

As demonstrated by the drone attack on a Russian military airfield in August 2023, leading to the probable destruction of four Ilyushin Il-76MD Candid transport aircraft, Ukraine has shown real operational capabilities to target the Russian fleet of transport aircraft. The incident in Pskov, near Latvia and Estonia, and 660 kilometers from Ukraine, resulted in losses of transport aircraft, ammunition, and fuel supplies, as evidenced by social media and eyewitnesses reporting flames engulfing several Il-76 aircraft.

The reduction in military equipment reserves, indicated by the deployment of Soviet-era military vehicles from storage for active use, highlights the Russian need for enhanced logistical support and transport capabilities. The reported depletion of tanks and armored vehicles from Russia's largest military equipment storage facility prior to the invasion of Ukraine suggests significant use of stored reserves. The An-124's potential to transport large volumes of equipment could thus be critical in replenishing these reserves and supporting ongoing military operations.

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This specific Antonov An-124 Ruslan heavy transport aircraft has been left at the Seshcha air base for 24 years, exposed to the elements in open storage. (Picture source: Russian social media)

Following operational requirements and asset losses, including at the Pskov airfield, Russia plans to enhance its aerial transport capabilities, as demonstrated by the arrival of a new batch of Il-76MD-90A aircraft by the end of 2023. These aircraft, part of a modernization effort inspected by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu at Ulyanovsk's Aviastar, reflect ongoing efforts to improve production rates and the overall state of Russian military transport aviation. With the operational workload of these aircraft having significantly increased, discussions during the visit focused on accelerating production and modernization to meet the heightened requirements, which include both the Il-76MD-90A and the An-124.

Furthermore, the current war between Russia and Ukraine has impacted the production and maintenance of the An-124, leading to a halt in new production plans and complicating the airworthiness certification process for the fleet. Restoring An-124 aircraft from storage offers a solution to these challenges, enabling the Russian Army to bypass the difficulties associated with current constraints.

The An-124, designed in the 1980s by the Antonov Design Bureau in the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union, is noted for its significant cargo capacity, making it the world's second-heaviest gross weight production cargo airplane and the largest military transport aircraft currently in service. The development of the An-124 was initiated in 1971 to address a gap in heavy airlift capability within the Soviet Air Forces, with its first flight occurring on December 24, 1982. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the An-124 was certified for civil use by Antonov on December 30, 1992, allowing for its broader application in commercial operations.

The An-124-100M, an upgraded variant of the An-124, is built for extensive cargo transport, accommodating a crew of eight and capable of carrying 88 passengers or a cargo load of up to 150,000 kg. Its structure features a wingspan of 73.3 meters and a length of 69.1 meters, powered by four turbofan engines. This aircraft achieves a maximum takeoff weight of 402,000 kg and offers range flexibility from 3,700 km with a full payload to 14,000 km on ferry missions, illustrating its strategic utility for long-distance, heavy cargo flights.

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The An-124, designed in the 1980s by the Antonov Design Bureau in the Ukrainian SSR of the Soviet Union, is noted for its significant cargo capacity, making it the world's second-heaviest gross weight production cargo airplane and the largest military transport aircraft currently in service. (Picture source: Russian social media)

Defense News March 2024