NATO’s AN-124s: A Russian Solution to the Airlift Problem… And More?
On March 23, 2006, NATO put a multinational airlift contract into effect. As things stand now, 6 giant Antonov An-124-100 strategic air lifters will be available to NATO members Belgium (just added), Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Great Britain, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Non-NATO countries Finland and Sweden are also part of the “Strategic Airlift Interim Solution” (SALIS), so named because it is designed as a gap-filler until new A400M tactical airlift planes or other airlift options can be deployed in numbers by around 2025 or so.
Details of this arrangement, the Antonov’s exceptional commercial success in contrast to its American counterpart, and some future possibilities are all covered below.
Siberian Giant: The AN-124 Ruslan
AN-124 aircraft are slightly larger than the USA’s gigantic C-5A Galaxy, but unlike the Galaxy or the C-17 they have found new life and exceptional success in the civilian and contract cargo market. The AN-124-100M-150 is an operationally improved version of the AN-124 outsize and heavyweight cargo aircraft, capable of transporting single or multiple pieces of cargo weighing up to 150 tonnes (330,000 pounds) as well as outsize cargo. On the outsize cargo front, the AN-124 is the only aircraft that can carry the Boeing 777’s new GE90 engines. Its cargo capacity is roughly double that of a C-17 Globemaster III’s 77 tonnes (170,000 pounds), all at a significantly lower cost per aircraft.
The An-124-100 is actually a fully commercial derivative of the military AN-124, with more than 14 years experience of intensive, global commercial operations. 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.
Modification of the aircraft to AN-124-100M-150 status extends the AN-124’s freight capacity from 120t to 150t, and adds 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. The new aircraft will also reduce required crew size from 6 to 4.
“The AN-124-100 ‘Ruslan’ is a unique aircraft,” said Alexey Isaikin, Aviastar SP Chairman and President of Volga-Dnepr Group. “It is in such high demand in the global air cargo market that we are doing our best to re-launch serial production of the aircraft at the Aviastar aviation plant in Ulyanovsk.” In August 2005, Volga-Dnepr Airlines signed an agreement to acquire five new AN-124-100M-150 freighter aircraft after signing a delivery agreement with the Aviastar SP aviation plant, as part of the AN-124-100 Production Recovery Project.
For SALIS – And Beyond?
Participating SALIS countries have committed to leasing a minimum number of flight hours per year, which allows the German contractor to base two of the Antonovs at Leipzig-Halle in Germany for instant, first-come-first served availability. The remaining four aircraft will be held in reserve in Ukraine or Russia by SALIS GmbH on the same first-come-first served basis with six days notice. SALIS represents both Ukraine’s Antonov ASTC (Ukraine) and Russia’s Volga-Dnepr Group, and the planes will be manned on an equitable share basis by trained Ukrainian and Russian crews.
Ultimately, the AN-124 could prove to be a long-term solution for many smaller countries outside the core Airbus Military A400M consortium.
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$ 115M 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 USA is debating 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, and even seem to be creating obstacles to civilian use.
Absent realistic alternatives, many European countries may also continue to find that AN-124 leasing is a compelling alternative to buying expensive and much smaller tactical transports for comparatively uncommon expeditionary use.
Indeed, the costs of the AN-124, its civil certification, and the ability to fit it with western engines and avionics may even cause some countries to consider its value as an outright strategic airlift purchase. The biggest problem with Russian aircraft is their poor after-sales support in comparison to western manufacturers; but Antonov has proposed and prepared for westernized versions like the AN-124-200, whose engines and improved avionics would both improve performance and side-step key maintenance & servicing issues.
Canadian defense think-tank CASR published a report comparing AN-124 aircraft to the C-17 on cost and performance grounds. It also discussed a ‘cost recovery’ operating model, in which the AN-124s would be leased out as outsize cargo options in the $115 million per year and growing North American market when not in use meeting military, government, and humanitarian commitments. Which is to say, most of the time. Canada’s aerospace, mining, and energy industries would stand to be especial beneficiaries of such a scheme; for instance, the Mackenzie Delta oil and gas fields development and the Alaskan Pipeline Project are known to require additional An-124-100 capacity in the future.
The one thing CASR’s study appears to have wrong is the cost per plane, possibly deriving it from World Bank documents like this one. More reasonable numbers of $80-120 million per plane are noted in an annotation, but do not flow through in CASR’s analysis. At the high end, this would be about the cost of an A400M and only 60% of the cost of a C-17; it’s also very cost competitive with options like 747-400 cargo aircraft, while offering capacity and size advantages. Archives of the UK Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee reveal that bids based on the AN-124 were seriously considered as a C-17 alternative, and some evaluators judged them to be superior on cost and performance grounds.
Even with the new numbers plugged in, therefore, an AN-124 ‘cost recovery’ project may still make sense given the outsize cargo market’s pending growth; indeed, Volga-Dnepr chairman Alexei Isaikin has forecast AN-124 capacity shortages by 2008.
Could government or public-private operation of AN-124s on a “military with cost recovery basis” be a model – or an opportunity – for others? CASR’s study is preliminary and flawed, and there are more numbers to crunch. Meanwhile, another kind of crunch may be looming in military airlift and civil outsize options, bringing the question into sharper focus. Time will tell.
Additional Readings & Updates
- Antonov (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.
- Antonov (Jan 29/07) – ANTONOV airplanes maintenance base has been opened in Leipzig
- NATO (June 28/04) – The full SALIS Memorandum of Understanding. Provided courtesy of the Slovakian Ministry of Defence, but hosted here at DID to ensure availability.