The PLAAF currently operates three Ilyushin Il-78 (NATO code name: ‘Midas’) aerial refuelling tankers, which were remanufactured examples acquired from Ukraine in 2012. China’s previous attempt to purchase 8 newly-built Il-78s along with 30 Il-76 transports from Russia and Uzbekistan in 2005-07 was unsuccessful, when the deal collapsed after prolonged delays and price hikes.
- Type: Aerial refuelling tanker
- Designer: Ilyushin Design Bureau
- Manufacturer: Chkalov Aircraft Production Association, Tashkent, Uzbekistan
- First flight: 1983
- Introduction: 2015 (PLA Air Force)
- Crew: 6
It was widely reported that China and Russia signed a deal worth US$1.045 in late 2005 for the purchase of 30 examples of the Il-76 ‘Candid’ transport and 4 examples of the Il-78 ‘Midas’ tanker. This followed years of speculations that the PLAAF was seeking Russian tankers to support its Su-30MKK ‘Flanker-G’ fleet, which cannot be refuelled by the Chinese indigenous HY-6 tanker. Russian Air Force Il-78 tankers were demonstrated to the Chinese military during the first Sino-Russian joint military exercise in September 2005.
First deliveries of these aircraft were due to begin in 2007. However, none of the aircraft had been delivered three years after the deal was signed. This was mainly caused by the dispute between the aircraft manufacturer Tashkent Chkalov Aircraft Association and Russian state-owned weapon exporter Rosoboronexport over the price of these aircraft, and the subsequent decision by the Russian side to transfer the production of these aircraft from Tashkent, Uzbekistan to Ulyanovsk, Russia.
Despite the various speculations about a possible renegotiation, the deal had eventually collapsed by 2009. As an alternative, China was forced to seek second-hand planes from Russia and Ukraine to fill the gap in its strategic airlift and aerial refuelling capabilities. Between 2011 and 2012, China signed two contracts with two state-owned defence export firms Ukrspetsexport and Rosoboronexport respectively for the purchase of three Il-78M ‘Midas’ tankers and 10 Il-76MD/MT ‘Candid’ transport aircraft respectively. The contract for the three refurbished Il-78 tankers worth US$44.7 million was finalised in December 2012, with the Mykolaiv Aircraft Repair Plant (MARP) responsible for the repairs and refurbishment of these aircraft. These aircraft were received by the PLAAF in 2016. ((Kyiv Post. 2017. China sees Ukraine as alternative to Russia in arms trade, expert believes. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.kyivpost.com/ukraine-politics/china-sees-ukraine-alternative-russia-arms-trade-expert-believes.html. [Accessed 18 August 2017].))
There are two variants of the Il-78 available and it is not known exactly which model was purchased by China. One possibility is that these are the Il-78MP variant converted from surplus Ukrainian Il-76 stocks. The Il-78MP is a dual-use multirole transport/tanker with removable tanks carried in the aircraft’s cargo bay, with a fuel payload capacity of 85 t. Four examples of the same variant are in service with the Pakistani Air Force (PAF). Another possible source of these aircraft is the ex-Ukrainian Air Force Il-78Ms, which are dedicated tankers with a fuel payload capacity of 138 t. Both variants are fitted with three UPAZ-1M ‘Sakhalin’ refuelling pods, with two carried under the wings and one fitted on the port side of the rear fuselage. China may have also obtained some examples of the UPAZ-1M refuelling pods from Ukraine for research and reverse-engineering.
The Il-78 has been developed on the basis of the Il-76MD and is designed to provide in-flight refuelling for long-range aircraft and frontline aviation in day/night, all-weather conditions and in poor visibility. The tanker is fitted with a three-point probe and drogue refuelling system (one under each wing and they removable, and one mounted on the port side of the rear fuselage). Fuel tanks are carried inside the aircraft’s cargo compartment, and additional fuel can also be transmitted from the aircraft’s own wing-box fuel tanks. The aircraft can carry 69.2 t of fuel over 1,000 km distance, or 50 t over 2,000 km, or 20.7 t over 2,500 km. ((Ilyushin Aviation Complex Official Site. 2017. Il-78. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.ilyushin.org/en/aircrafts/special_aircraft/1178/. [Accessed 18 August 2017].))
The aircraft is powered by four D-30KP-2 turbofan engines, mounted on underwing pylons and housed in individual pods secured on the engines, each rated at 117.68 kN (12,000 kgf).