More AN-124s On The Way?
Antonov’s AN-124 Condor began as a Soviet super-heavy military transport aircraft that would be even larger than the American C-5 Galaxy. After coming out on top in that particular ‘mine is bigger than yours’ contest, the AN-124 outdid its American rivals again by going on to a surprising second career in the civilian sector. It has become the de facto global standard super-heavy cargo aircraft for outsize loads. Even NATO uses the Condor these days, via its SALIS lease of 6 AN-124s to meet the military transport needs of 17 participating nations.
On the flip side, that popularity means existing AN-124s are accumulating flight-hour fatigue, and some of them have yet to be upgraded with newer electronics and engines. As the fleet ages, freight carrier Volga-Dnepr chairman Alexei Isaikin was quoting forecasting AN-124 capacity shortages by 2008. Hence the Dec 15/06 negotiations held at ANTONOV ASTC headquarters with key customers Volga-Dnepr Airline JSC and Aviastar JSC. Those arrangements remain cloudy, but clarity may be coming from an old source, as Russia looks to begin ordering new military airtlifters.
Days of the Condor: Re-newing the AN-124
The current An-124-100 is actually a fully commercial derivative of the military AN-124, with more than 15 years of operational experience. The civil An-124-100 was certified in 1992, and meets all current civil standards including ICAO Stage/ Chapter III noise limits and modern navigational equipment requirements. These upgrades let the AN-124 operate with a decreased crew, offer increased range of flight and payload, add new engine options that meet the newest ICAO standards, and incorporate modernized avionics.
Modification of the aircraft to a reported AN-124-100M-150 status is said to extend the AN-124′s freight capacity from 120t to 150t, reduce required crew size from 6 to 4; and add a strengthened front cargo ramp, simplified and accelerated loading/unloading, increased range, an improved braking and tire system, and upgraded avionics including a ground proximity warning system.
Aviastar JSC Executive Director Mr. V. Savotchenko, hinted at concrete arrangements for further production when he said in 2006 that “…the plant did not stop production of the airplanes. That is why we are ready to renovate serial production of the airplanes, the giants of AN-124 family.”
The engineering and production reality behind that statement remains murky, but in September 2004, the governments of Russia and the Ukraine announced that series production of the An-124 would be restarted, with to 80 An-124-100M upgraded aircraft to be jointly manufactured by Aviastar and Aviant between 2006-2020. That project has been delayed, and there have been no public reports of a contract, but neither has it been affirmatively cancelled.
In the interim, a military contract to begin producing a 10-20 new Condors for Russia’s military is moving forward alongside a confirmed refurbishment program for Russia’s existing fleet. Once signed, this military contract could break the logjam by re-opening production; from there, it’s just a question of rate and scale.
Global Markets and Competition
In 2006, Herman A. Kurapov’s research pegs the global out-sized air cargo market at:
“…about US$250M in annual sales. 5300 tonnes of cargo are carried and 14,600 flight hours flown. During the ’90s, the market grew 12% per year on average, compared to 5-6% growth for regular airfreight. Business has quadrupled in the last 10 years and is expected to reach US $ 500M by 2010 and become worth US $ 2B within 30 years.”
Much of this market is not military in origin; indeed, Kurapov claims that more than 52% of this market (or US$ 115 million per year) is currently North America-related (35-40% of total sales in the US market, 11-12% in Canada).
This indicates that the AN-124 is likely to occupy a unique and sustainable space in the global cargo market for quite some time to come, with new aircraft rolling off the production line and financing available. Across the Atlantic, the USAF is undertaking upgrades to its decades-old C-5A Galaxies that will give them acceptable mission readiness profiles via new engines and electronics. They also seem intent on shuttering C-17 production despite usage and wear levels in the existing fleet that have been significantly higher and more strenuous than originally envisioned. Oddly, the Americans even seem to be creating obstacles to civilian C-17 use.
Over the longer term, the An-124 could find itself facing competition from a completely different type of platform. Blimp-like hybrid airships are rising slowly but noticeably, as new materials, new designs, and fuel cost economics all combine to create new levels of comparative performance. As of 2011, near-term possibilities seem to be concentrated in the 20-30t range, with offerings including cargo versions of the US Army’s LEMV surveillance blimp, Aeros’ Pelican, Boeing/JHL’s Skyhook partnership, and Lockheed Martin’s Skytug.
Their carrying capacity is significantly below the AN-124′s, but the firms involved are all explicitly targeting industries that need outsize aerial transport services. They also believe that there are no significant engineering obstacles to scaling their designs well past the 100t range. When combined with ultra-low fuel costs and the ability to land without a runway, the An-124 could be facing a formidable competitor in future years. The long-term question for Antonov and its operators is how much that competition will act as a substitute for their platform, and how much it will grow the outsize lift market as a whole.
Contracts and Key Events
Aug 16/11: Speaking at Russia’s MAKS-2011 military exhibition, United Aircraft Corp CEO Mikhail Pogosyan tells reporters that there is no formal contract yet, but:
“Starting from 2015, we plan to supply the Defense Ministry with ten An-124s as part of the arms procurement program until 2020.”
Oct 27/10: Russian and Ukrainian leaders sign a Participants’ Agreement to establish a joint venture between Antonov and Russia’s state-owned UAC. According to Antonov:
“The joint venture will be engaged in coordination of activity of enterprises of ANTONOV and UAC in directions of vendor items purchase, production, marketing and sales, as well as after-sale support and design of new modifications of ANTONOV aircraft. The list of programs to be realized by the JV includes: further development of AN-148 regional jet of a new generation, AN-70 STOL military transport, assumption of new versions of AN-124-100 RUSLAN freighter.”
Sept 30/10: Russia’s RIA Novosti says that a proposed Russia-Ukraine venture has received orders for 60 An-124 cargo aircraft, to be produced by a forthcoming Antonov/UAV joint venture joint venture.
What they do not have, is a contract – and one is not announced by Antonov as of August 2011. That doesn’t mean a contract cannot exist, but it does make its status rather murky. Russia’s RIA Novosti
July 19/10: The Russian Defense Ministry’s 2011-2020 spending plans includes about 20 An-124-100 Ruslans. Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Popovkin:
“We are now working on this issue… We intend to buy about 20 such aircraft… We plan to modernize two [existing AN-124] planes annually [under a recent contract], and starting from 2015-2016, if the manufacturers are ready, we will start purchasing them.”
That last bit is the challenge. Restarting production is always expensive, and the study mentioned in the June 24/08 entry seems to set 40 orders as the threshold for a good financing case.
June 11/10: Russia’s Kommersant newspaper quotes UAC head Alexei Fyodorov and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as saying that Russia had proposed the joint production of the AN-124 in the USA to the U.S. government, and that the issue would be on the agenda of President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to the United States later in June.
A number of American firms do have AN-124 outsize heavy lift contracts, including Boeing, the United Launch Alliance, and Lora. The Pentagon has used them too, and reportedly has contract options until 2016. Still, this was probably a very short conversation. The cost of setting up even a final assembly line will run into 9 figures, which offers little incentive to Boeing without a lot of orders. that’s unlikely, since there is little economic or political incentive for the US government to encourage the AN-124. The Ukranians were reportedly upset by even the mention of this topic, and wish to keep production in the Ukraine. RIA Novosti.
Dec 25/09: Merry Christmas to the Air Force? RIA Novosti:
“I believe that by 2020 we will begin receiving new aircraft of this type,” Lt. Gen. Viktor Kachalkin, commander of the 61st Air Army, said Friday at a news conference in Moscow.”
First, they have to resume production.
Nov 24/09: Russian and Ukranian media report that a $500 million investment looks set to relaunch AN-124 design in 2010, with a goal of beginning production in 2012. Key quotes include Russian President Dmitry Medvedev:
“There’s a market niche for new large cargo transporters. If we don’t seize this opportunity, others will.”
Volga-Dnepr President Aleksey Isaikin, whose airline owns 10 of the planes:
“BP used our 124s to ship oil rigs to a deposit in Colombia. They say it worked out tens of times cheaper than by boat. But we desperately need new planes to fill demand.”
The price tag is estimated at $200 million per plane, which pleases state-owned United Aircraft Corporation President Aleksey Fedorov:
“We will manufacture 70 new 124s in the first phase. That will require investment by the government of half a billion dollars.”
This is still not a contract. The first task will be re-creating a reliable supply chain, and prospecting work has begun. The Ukrainian government is reportedly considering state financing for related development projects to modernize the Antonov An-124-100 and its D-18T engines. Interfax-Ukraine reports that a relevant agreement was reached by the Russian-Ukrainian intergovernmental economic committee, at a Moscow meeting of its subcommittee for cooperation in aircraft. RIA Novosti’s RT | Interfax-Ukraine | StrategyPage.
Nov 17/09: Ukrainian Industry Minister Volodymyr Novytsky is quoted as saying that Ukraine and Russia will speed up work on preparations for resuming the mass production of An-124 Ruslan aircraft in 2010. The 2 countries had already started preparatory work, including design work by Antonov to modernize the avionics. BSANNA.
June 24/08: Russia’s RIA Novosti:
“It will take 4 billion rubles ($165 million) and at least 40 solid orders to resume production of the An-124 Ruslan (Condor) heavy-lift cargo plane, the RBK daily said on Tuesday citing a feasibility study… by Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation and Ernst & Young, stated that An-124s could be manufactured at Ulyanovsk-based Aviastar from 2012 at a rate of one to two a year. If 40 firm orders are secured, a business plan would be drafted and a loan sought.”
The study estimates 70 potential orders until 2030, at a current cost of $150-160 million each.
April 27/07: The new Ruslan AN-124-100M-150 has completed tests. Antonov announces the completion of Russian GosNII GA and GosNII Aeronavigatsiya certification tests for the new AN-124-100M-150. Documentation is now being prepared for consideration by the Interstate Aviation Committee, in order to obtain their certificate for the AN-124-100M-150.
Dec 15/06: Representatives of ANTONOV ASTC, Volga-Dnepr Airline JSC and Aviastar JSC sign an “agreement on modernization and construction of AN-124 Ruslan aircraft family.” Antonov ASTC press release.
- Antonov ASTC – AN-124 Ruslan
- Aviation Zone – Antonov An-124 Ruslan (Condor)
- Air Force Technology – AN-124
- Aviation Zone – Lockheed C-5 Galaxy
- Aviation Zone – Boeing C-17 Globemaster III
- Air Cargo World (April 2006) – Planning Projects Properly. “Frustrated by the ad-hoc nature of project cargo operations, Volga-Dnepr wants more say in supply chain planning…”
- CASR (February 2006) – Strategic Airlifters: a Comprehensive Comparison between the Boeing C-17 and the Antonov An-124-100 [Author Bio | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4]. Note that AN-124 purchase price given in Part 2 & 3 appears to be off by a factor of 8; this may have been confused with an upgrade price.