Writing in Izvestiya on December 26, Ilya Kramnik concluded that a shortage of aerial tankers is damaging the readiness of Russia’s air forces. He makes a convincing argument that Moscow has upgraded its air power but failed to provide the logistical support to operate it successfully.
“The fact that the country didn’t have the money to maintain large air forces to ensure the necessary composition of forces in any direction¹ became clear in the 1980s, and by then all future multipurpose fighters and frontal bombers had gotten the requirement for aerial refueling in their technical tasks. The transfer of aviation units from one direction to another, including with the help of aerial refueling, looked like a quicker means to support the concentration of forces than a transfer using intermediate airfields, and certainly much cheaper than maintaining the necessary number of aviation groupings in all directions.”
“But there are no tankers. All this grandeur falls on one regiment of tankers with 15 Il-78 or Il-78M aircraft built on the base of the Il-76 transport aircraft.”
Kramnik makes good (and obvious) points in the article, but there are other things worth knowing to be thrown in here.
The day after Kramnik’s article, Ulyanovsk-based Aviastar-SP announced that its “convertible” Il-78M-90A tanker has entered flight testing.
Presumably the Il-78M-90A is the same as the new Il-76MD-90A, but equipped to accommodate fuel storage tanks in its cargo bay and refuel other aircraft when not deployed as a transport.
TVZvezda offered video from inside the new transport/tanker.
Visiting Aviastar in August, Deputy Defense Minister and arms tsar Aleksey Krivoruchko said the Russian MOD is considering a contract with the firm for 14 Il-78M-90A tankers to be delivered by 2027. He also indicated that number might grow.
So Kramnik’s call about maybe getting to a fleet of about 30 new and old tankers sounds about right. But, as recently as 2013, the Russian air force was talking about acquiring 30 new tankers.
By the by, the USAF operates something north of 450 tankers, and that’s counting only KC-10 and KC-135 aircraft.