Heavy Lifters

The IAF needs to re look its option for heavy lift aircraft post 2030

Atul Chandra

The Indian Air Force (IAF) presently operates a fleet of Russian and American built transport aircraft comprised of Boeing C-17 Globemaster IIIs, Ilyushin IL-76s, Lockheed Martin C-130Js and Antonov AN-32 / AN-32 REs.

The IAF’s fleet of Boeing C-17 Globemaster III heavy-lift transport aircraft has transformed its strategic airlift capability

With a growing need for heavy-lift assets in the Himalayas and especially the Ladakh region, the IAF may soon need to induct additional transport assets into the region. The continued deployment of large Chinese forces in the region will perforce require the IAF to allocate a heavier share of its transport fleet than before, for troops and logistics movement on the Indian side of the border.

Even as recently as January this year, there were an estimated 60,000 Chinese troops deployed opposite the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh. With China having the advantage of motorable roads and superior infrastructure on its side of the LAC, India is left with no option but to rely heavily on its fixed wing and rotary wing assets for troop movement and logistics deployment. However, the summer months, with their higher ambient temperatures, severely restrict the ability of transport aircraft to carry heavier payloads.

The IAF will soon need to start looking at replacements for its ageing IL-76 and AN-32 transport aircraft. The need to replace these aircraft has become even more urgent due to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, which complicates the availability of spares for both types.



The IAF operates a fleet of 11 C-17 strategic transport aircraft which provide rapid strategic combat airlift capabilities for the armed forces. Boeing delivered 10 aircraft to the IAF between 2013-2014 and the 11th and last aircraft was delivered in August 2019. The IAF formally inducted the C-17 into service in September 2013 with the newly formed C-17 squadron ‘Skylords’. The C-17 fleet affords the IAF tremendous flexibility in terms of operational response  in any future campaign.

The aircraft’s ability to transport large payloads across vast ranges, land on short, austere runways, and operate in extremely hot and cold climates makes it ideally suited for Himalayan operations. The C-17’s long range, heavy lift capability will allow troops and equipment to be shifted between theatres rapidly. With a maximum payload of nearly 75 tonne, the C-17 can take off and land in 3,000 feet (914.4 m) or less. IAF C-17s are supported by Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III Integrated Sustainment Programme (GISP)—which is a performance-based logistics (PBL) programme. It helps the air force manage forecasting, purchasing and material management for its C-17 fleet.

Boeing and Mahindra Defence Systems formally opened a centre in Gurgaon to provide C-17 training services to the IAF in July 2016, which has since completed thousands of training hours for aircrews and load masters. A three-year training renewal agreement was signed in 2019 for C-17 training services for the IAF. The centre features a complete training solution for C-17 pilots and load masters with advanced simulation, course ware and computer-based training to practice the complete range of tasks required for military airlift operations and humanitarian missions, along with other scenarios such as aerial refuelling and emergency procedures. The facility includes weapons systems and load master station trainers that can be employed individually or networked together to rehearse complete missions. The simulator’s flight deck supports training with night vision goggles for comprehensive mission training.

The government accorded approval to buy 10 C-17 Globemaster III along with associated equipment for the IAF in June 2011. The C-17 was selected to meet the IAF’s operational requirements of a Very Heavy Transport Aircraft (VHETAC).


The IAF’s IL-76 has been plagued by poor serviceability, a matter likely to be further exacerbated by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and Western sanctions on the former for starting the conflict. The IAF’s fleet of 14 IL-76 MD aircraft were acquired between 1985-89. A 2017 CAG audit brought out the poor serviceability rates of both the IL-76 transport aircraft and IL-78 mid-air refuellers of the air force.

the IAF’s Soviet-era Ilyushin IL-76 MD
transport aircraft

While the required average serviceability rate set by the air force for its transport aircraft fleet is 70 per cent, as per the CAG report, the Il-76 and Il-78 fleet’s average serviceability rate between 2010-2016 was 38 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively. The IAF is unlikely to retain the IL-76 in service till 2030 due to the continued problems in keeping this fleet airworthy. The air force also had plans to upgrade its IL-76’s with modern avionics, though it is not known if this was completed. The Il-76’s Soloviev D-30KP-1 turbofan engines need to be overhauled after every 2,000 flying hours. Ilyushin has also upgraded the Il-76 MD to the newer Il-76 MD-90A standard, which has a 60 tonne payload and reduced fuel consumption. It is not known if the IAF will upgrade its existing IL-76 MDs to Il-76 MD-90As.

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