The Ilyushin IL-78 (NATO designation “Midas”) is an aerial refueling tanker developed in the Soviet Union and first introduced in 1984. Its design is based on its predecessor, the IL-76; however, the Midas’ refueling capabilities are greatly expanded compared to its earlier cousin.
Flying Gas Pump
Powered by four Aviadvigatel D-30 KP turbofan engines, the IL-78 is a behemoth. The baseline model features a total transferable fuel load of 188,980 pounds, including 62,000 pounds from a pair of 4,820-gallon tanks in the freight hold. For comparison, the IL-76 has a maximum transferable capacity of only 22,000 pounds, making the IL-78 a game-changing upgrade.
The Midas transfers fuel solely through probe-and-drogue refueling methods. It can refuel up to four planes simultaneously and can deliver fuel at the rate of 900 to 2,200 liters per minute. The aircraft has a maximum speed of 540 miles per hour, a range of 4,500 miles, and a maximum altitude of 39,000 feet.
In addition to its refueling characteristics, the IL-78 can also be converted into a military transport aircraft for the air dropping or landing of cargo and crew.
Variants Offer More Function and Capacity
Since it first entered service, the IL-78 has spawned numerous variants. While the original IL-78 allowed for the transfer of up to 188,540 pounds of fuel, the more recent IL-78M (first entering service in 1987) allows for 232,540 pounds of fuel transfer.
Most recently, the IL-78M2 was introduced in 2019 to modernize the IL-78M and provide for an enhanced service life of the aircraft.
Other variants, such as the IL-78MKI (operated by the Indian Air Force) and IL-78MP (operated by the Pakistan Air Force) are essentially identical to the IL-78M or M2. However, one interesting aspect of the Indian Air Force’s IL-78MKI is that it is reported to be able to refuel six-to-eight Sukhoi Su-30MKIs in a single mission.
The Midas is operated by more countries than just Russia, India, and Pakistan, however. It is also operated by Algeria, Angola, China, and Libya. Former operators include Ukraine and even the United States – which purchased a used Midas from Ukraine in the 2000s, a plane that never seems to have received much use and remains downed.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, many IL-78s left in Ukraine were either converted to cargo planes or sold off to some of the above-mentioned countries. Even today, Ukraine offers modernization packages to many of the Midas’ customers, such as the Pakistan Air Force.
Although it is common in the world of defense news to focus on cutting-edge technologies in fighter jets or missiles, the importance of aerial refueling is often overlooked. The strides the Il-78 made in the 1980s were sufficient not just then but remain so today – as the plane retains many loyal users all these years later.
Alex Betley is a recent graduate of the Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he was an International Security Studies Civil Resistance Fellow and Senior Editor with the Fletcher Security Review