A recent photo from North Korea showed an Il-76 transport in military colors. This was odd because while the North Korean state airline operates three IL-76s, the North Korean Air Force was never known to do so. The IL-76 in the picture appears to be a civilian version with a military paint job. It’s unclear what the North Koreans are up to, although it is known that North Korea has used Il-76s in the past for arms smuggling and shady business in general. So having one pass for a military transport might be part of some new smuggling scheme. Similar to the older American C-141, over 900 Il-76s were manufactured over the last thirty years. Nearly a hundred Il-76s were exported so far, mainly to Cuba, Iraq, China, India, Libya, and Syria.
The North Koreans are sometimes caught using air transport for smuggling. For example, in late 2009, the U.S. alerted Thailand that a Georgian Il-76 transport, flying from North Korea, would stop to refuel in Thailand, had false documentation, and other problems worth looking into. When the transport arrived and Thai police checked, they found that the manifest listed the cargo as oil drilling machinery but the stuff was actually 35 tons of weapons. The crew was arrested (for carrying weapons and false documents) and the cargo was removed to a safe location for more thorough inspection. After going through all the containers (mostly wooden boxes marked "oil drilling equipment"), the Thais found ballistic missile components, apparently for North Korea's most recent, 6,000 kilometer range, missile. These were apparently headed for Iran (which can pay big bucks for such stuff and North Korea needs the money). The documents found on the transport, and interrogations of the five man crew, revealed that North Korea went to great lengths to try and hide who owned the aircraft, what the cargo was, and where it was headed.
The Il-76 is the air equivalent of the old “tramp steamer” (elderly cargo ship favored by smugglers because of low cost but being reliable enough to deliver the goods). The Il-76 is certainly old and cheap (often available for as little as a million dollars) but reliability is becoming more of a problem. Several months before the Thailand incident all Russian Il-76 were grounded because the engine fell off one of them while it was preparing to takeoff. All Russian Il-76s remained grounded until it was determined that there was not a problem common to all Il-76s.
Despite attempts to revive Il-76 sales with upgraded models, Russia has not had much success getting export orders. Earlier this year China began receiving refurbished Il-76s from Russia. Last year China revived, in part, a 2005 deal to buy Il-76s. The new arrangement only involved China buying ten refurbished Il-76s. Back in 2005, China placed a $1.5 billion order for 38 Il-76 transport planes and Il-78s (tanker versions of the Il-76). A year later China cancelled the deal when Russia tried to up the price 27 percent. China went looking elsewhere, including urging its domestic aircraft manufacturers to come up with something. That process eventually led to the new Y-20, but in the meantime China needs some more jet powered military transports right now. China believes there are better options than cheap refurbished Il-76s.
One solution China is pursuing is developing an air transport similar to the American C-17. The new Y-20 appears to have a max weight of 220 tons and a max payload of 80 tons. In most other respects it appears very similar to the C-17. The Y-20 will likely also include many characteristics of the 195 ton Il-76, a Russian heavy transport that can carry up to 50 tons and that the Chinese have been using for decades. The Y-20 recently made its first flight and the 2 prototypes are being used heavily to work out any problems with the aircraft design. The aircraft is still a year or more from production.
The C-17 entered service 17 years ago and each one has a useful life of 30,000 flight hours. The 290 ton C-17 can carry up to 100 tons (including one M-1 tank) anywhere in the world because of in-air refueling. The C-17 costs about $250 million each. About 50 have been sold to foreign users, including Britain, Canada, Australia, and India. Qatar and the UAE each have 6, while Canada and Qatar each have 4. India has ordered 10. The U.S. Air Force operates over 200. China does not need that many Y-20s but it does want to get away from depending on Russia for heavy transports. Dealing with Russia can be difficult.
China is no longer interested in buying 38 Il-76/78s but is willing to work with Russia in developing a Chinese replacement for the Il-76. That’s the Y-20, which is using Russian engines and much more Russian aviation technology as well. Russia is still pushing the Il-76 as an inexpensive way to obtain a modern jet transport. Meanwhile, the airborne smugglers have lots of cheap Il-76s to keep the illicit goods moving.