The Russian military recently conducted a curious training exercise in which some of its Il-76MD cargo aircraft bombed mock targets and strafed them with their 23mm tail guns. It's an unusual capability, especially for a modern air force, but one that Russia has demonstrated before. It's not clear, however, how effective the lumbering airlifters might be in employing these tactics in an actual operational scenario.
The Russian Ministry of Defense released a video from the exercise on Mar. 2, 2020. Il-76MDs from the Russian Air Force's 12th Military Transportation Aviation Division, based at Migalovo Air Base near the city of Tver, conducted the drills. Migalovo is just over 100 miles northwest of Moscow.
The exercise included dropping unguided 100-pound class P-50T practice bombs during the day and at night, according to the caption of the official Russian Ministry of Defense video. The Il-76MDs could carry up to four of these bombs on a pair of pylons under each wing, outboard of the engines.
During the day, the Il-76MDs carried out level bombing runs while flying at an altitude of just over 13,120 feet. At night, the aircraft dropped their bombs from just under 1,970 feet. The strafing runs using the two twin-barrel GSh-23 23mm cannons in the tail of each Il-76MD took place at much lower altitudes.
The Il-76MDs have a large and heavily windowed navigator's positions on the underside of the nose. The aircraft's crew used existing navigation and aiming equipment, typically employed during parachute and aerial cargo drops to aim the P-50Ts, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense.
The P-50Ts create both a flash and a smoke signature when they hit the ground. The Russian Ministry of Defense said that some of the bombing runs were meant to reflect tactics wherein Il-76MDs would use illumination or smoke bombs to mark landing zones or targets ahead of airborne operations or airstrikes. However, other bombing runs, as well as the strafing, was supposed to be practice for actually using the Il-76MDs to conduct their own strikes on hostile targets.
This actually isn't the first time the Russian Air Force has done this. Russia made a point of announcing that it would begin training its Il-76MD crews to carry out these missions, and would be stationing crews capable of loading bombs onto the transports at bases such as Migalovo, in 2015. “The task of the pilots is to carry out autonomous landing in an unprepared and unfamiliar area in the rear of the simulated enemy," Russian Air Force Colonel Igor Klimov said at the time, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.
However, the ability of at least some of the Russian Air Force's Il-76MD fleet to carry the underwing pylons appears to have predated this and is a distinctly Soviet feature. Other Soviet-era airlifters, including the An-26 twin-engine turboprop, can also be fitted with pylons for weapons, if desired.
In the early years of the fight against ISIS, the Iraqi Air Force was a particularly prolific user of its An-32 transport planes, a derivative of the An-26, as bombers. India has also modified a number of its An-32s to drop bombs, including via a system that personnel can install in the main cargo bay, which sends bombs falling out of the rear cargo ramp.
The general idea of using transport planes, or even militarized airliners, or modified versions thereof, as bombers dates back to before World War II. In the years leading up to that global conflict, and in its early stages, this made good sense as these aircraft were typically the largest and longest range types available with the greatest overall payload capacities. Expediency and necessity meant the practice continued for decades after World War II ended.
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Air Force notably used C-130s to drop massive bombs, ostensibly to clear landing zones for helicopters, though they sometimes used them to devesting effect against enemy forces. Special operations MC-130s dropped 15,000-pound class BLU-82/B bombs, or "Daisy Cutters," over Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991 and Afghanistan during the open phases of the Global War on Terror following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. In Iraq, the bombs were primarily used to clear minefields, while the U.S. military used them to target cave complexes in Afghanistan. In both cases, the huge weapons were also employed in part because of their psychological effect.
The Air Force dropped the last BLU-82/B during a training exercise in 2008.
The Air Force has adopted the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), or "Mother of All Bombs," to replace the BLU-82/B. The MOAB has a total mass of 21,600 pounds and, to date, has been employed just once, in 2017, against terrorists belonging to the ISIS franchise in Afghanistan. Its massive size means that it still takes an MC-130 to drop it.
The newest AC-130 versions in Air Force service now, the AC-130W Stinger II and AC-130J Ghostrider variants, are also capable of employing more typical precision-guided bombs and missiles, in addition to their gun armament. There were reports in 2019 that Russia was also considering converting An-12 turboprop cargo planes into a similar gunship configuration, but there has been no further news on that front since then.
Still, beyond highly specialized weapons such as the MOAB, or Russia's "Father of All Bombs," which also reportedly requires a cargo aircraft such as the Il-76 to employ, the idea of using cargo aircraft as more traditional level bombers has largely disappeared from the doctrine of major air forces around the world. The Russian Air Force is certainly the most prominent to continue actively training airlifter crews to carry out these missions.
How effective these tactics might actually be in a real combat environment is debatable, as well. Dropping unguided bombs while flying along at above 13,000 feet, or even just 2,000 feet, is not a particularly discriminate or precision affair. Il-76MDs carrying out these kinds of strikes might be able to suppress enemy forces around a landing zone, but would not be able in any way to reliably destroy them. There is no indication that the Il-76MDs are configured to employ precision-guided munitions or that there are plans to modify the airlifters to do so in the future.
Precision-guided munitions remain in relatively limited use across the Russian Air Force, as a whole. The Kremlin has been criticized for years for using actual combat aircraft, including purpose-built Tu-22M bombers, to drop dumb bombs, especially over populated areas. There were similar concerns that Iraqi An-32s, and the Iraqi military's use of helicopters to carry out level bombing runs from higher altitudes, posed a greater risk to civilians than to ISIS terrorists.
A U.N. report on Mar. 2, directly accused Russian forces of committing war crimes in Syria by using these tactics and there is significant evidence that the Kremlin is deliberately carrying out indiscriminate strikes as it supports Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad's brutal battle against anti-regime forces. Assad's forces stand accused of similar crimes, including using Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters to drop now-infamous improvised "barrel bombs" over opposition-controlled cities and towns. All of this calls into question the actual combat utility of employing Il-76MDs as bombers in even low-level conflicts.
In addition, the Il-76MDs would be very vulnerable platforms for these kinds of operations, especially during low-level strafing runs, in all but the most permissive environments. Small countries, as well as non-state actors, have steadily shown their ability to acquire and field surprisingly capable surface-to-air missile systems, in recent years. The proliferation of both shoulder-fired man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, and longer-range systems has been particularly pronounced in Syria, where Russia is heavily engaged, and Yemen.
All told, the countries that have actually employed cargo aircraft as bombers in recent years seem to have done so more out of necessity than a clear military utility. Russia may continue to train its Il-76MD crews to carry out these operations, but it remains to be seen if they will ever put these tactics to use operationally.
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