Key Point: Moscow has air-borne units and enough transport planes to get its army around Eurasia quickly.
When it comes to being air-mobile, the Russian military is second only to the U.S. military. According to the 2018 Military Balance Report, Russia fields 177 heavy to medium transport aircraft. This stands in contrast to America’s 658, China’s 84, France’s 46, and the UK’s 44. Russia’s transport fleet has proven useful in recent operations in Syria, but how did such a numerous fleet evolve in a military that has a strong focus on ground warfare? What unique capabilities does it have?
One of the primary impetuses that drove the creation of a large transport fleet is the existence of the VDV, a specialist airborne branch of the Russian military separate from the rest of the ground forces. While the U.S. Marine Corps can be thought of America’s specialist rapid-deployment expeditionary force, with Marine Expeditionary Units pre-packaged and ready to deploy across the globe on a moment’s notice, the VDV operates on a similar concept. The primary plane in the Russian transport fleet is the Il-76, which was expressly designed for usage by the VDV as a transport and paradrop aircraft.
For a truly rapid-deployment role, pure “paradrop” units exist in the VDV. These units are designed to deploy an independent, lightweight mechanized infantry fighting force straight from the aircraft. The Il-76 is designed to fit three BMD airborne infantry fighting vehicles in the rear, enough to equip a single platoon of VDV. Furthermore, as the BMDs get larger, the aircraft get stronger. The one of the latest versions of the Il-76, the Il-76MD-90A, is outfitted with a stronger airframe and engines to cope with the increased weight of the new BMD-4. The traditional “assault” role of the Il-76s is evident in their original design’s provision for rear-facing 23mm anti-air guns to possibly defeat enemy fighters.