An idiot’s guide to today’s modern military transport aircraft


Are you up to speed with a new generation of tactical transport aircraft? Know your Shaanxi from your Embraer? If not, then here is an approachable guide to the lovable juggernauts currently in production (so no C-17). Airlifters of the world, unite and take over! 

Kawasaki C-2 ‘Digital Dirtbike’ 


Japan does things its own way. With only a small domestic order they have succeeded in making a world-class strategic transport. which is pretty miraculous. Even with the delays caused by F-15Js hogging the air force budget and failures during the C-2s testing, the programme has progressed far quicker than its European rival, the A400M.

A degree of commonality with its cousin (the P-1 maritime patrol aircraft) has helped the C-2, as has a strong desire in Japan to re-enter the global arms market. The increased reliability of jet engines in the last thirty years has seen large airliners turning from four to two engines, the C-2 follows this trend. It is likely that its two turbofans are far less troublesome than the advanced turboprop system of the comparable A400M. It is not known if the aircraft has the fine handling characteristics of a Kawasaki motorcycle.

Max payload: 37.6 tons

Max take-off weight: 132.5 tons

Max speed: Mach 0.76

Shaanxi Y-9 ‘Super Panda Cub’


Just think Chinese C-130J. The Shaanxi Y-8 was a knock-off of the Soviet An-12, an aircraft similar in role, weight and age to the original C-130. The Y-8 was modernised to become the Y-9. Like the C-130J, there is a multitude of specialised variants of the Y-9.

Payload: 25 tons + (55,090lb)

Max. takeoff weight: 77 tons (170,000lbs)

Max speed: ~650km/h+ (351kt, 404 mph+)

Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules ‘New faithful’


The original C-130 was so expensive to develop that legendary aircraft designer Kelly Johnson predicted it would kill Lockheed.  His prophecy proved spectacularly wrong, and the type become synonymous with the tactical transport. The masterstroke of America’s new transports was the use of the turboprop, making the Hercules faster than piston-engined airlifters, and less thirsty and intolerant of bad conditions than jets. The C-130 was in production for an insanely long time: it started in the presidency of Eisenhower and ended in that of George W. Bush! No aircraft but another Hercules could replace it and in 1999 the C-130J Super Hercules entered service. The C-130J is a Hercules in appearance and general form only, as virtually every system is new. Following a rather shaky start, the C-130J is now a huge success and serves around the world with just about every air arm that isn’t on a boycott list. It has spawned maritime patrol, gunship, special forces support, tanker, weather reconnaissance and civilian variants. It has also appeared in number of films, including Jurassic Attack.

Max payload: 19 tons (for 2.5G operations)

Max take-off weight: 79 tons 175,000 lbs (overload configuration)

Max speed: 348 kts / 645 km/h


Antonov An-178 ‘The Kiev Killer-whale’ 


Antonov have made more tactical transports than anyone else. The Ukrainian company specialises in large tough aircraft, and despite disinformation efforts made by a certain country hostile to Ukraine, the company remains in business. It is certainly a far more challenging time for Antonov than its golden Soviet era, when its designs poured off the assembly lines in massive numbers for both the military and civilian market of both the Warsaw Pact and friendly countries around the world. Uncertainty has dogged the programme which follows the unfortunate, but potentially excellent, An-70 of the 1990s. The An-78 is primarily intended to replace Cold War types which include the Antonov An-12, An-26 and An-32. The aircraft shares around 50-60% commonality with the An-148/158 regional jetliners. With Antonov’s wealth of transport know-how it is likely that the An-178 should prove a superb machine if it can overcome the perilous situation of its motherland.

Max load:  18 tons

Max take-off weight: 51 tons

Max speed: Mach 0.8, max. cruising speed 825 km/h


Alenia C-27J Spartan ‘The Pocket Herc’ 


A pocket Hercules with half the amount of engines, the plucky Spartan is tough, superbly manoeuvrable, and seemingly able to do anything that is asked of it. The origins of the aircraft are pretty bizarre, it started life as a V/STOL transport built to support the NBMR-3  NATO supersonic V/STOL strike fighter (the same brief that gave us the bananas Do-31). As has been noted on this site before, NBMR-3 is a kind of Kevin Bacon of aircraft projects: almost all aircraft can be traced back to it in less than six steps. The project was headed by the great Giuseppe Gabrielli, arguably the most prolific aircraft designer of history (his designs included the formidable G.55). The VTOL need was dropped when NBMR-3 was scrapped but the transport, now the G.222, was continued as a conventional aircraft; what Italy wanted was a essentially a ‘hot-rod C-119 Boxcar’, a tough little airlifter that could land anywhere and survive in austere situations. This the G.222 did brilliantly. It was reborn in 1999, cleverly utilising the same glass cockpit and engines as the new C-130J. The result is perhaps the most underrated military aircraft in service. Its less than less-than-steller career in the US has nothing to do with the aircraft and a lot to do with the air force’s jealous suspicion of the army’s procurement of fixed-wing aircraft.

Airbus C-295 ‘Mr Understated’


The Clark Kent of military aircraft, the 295’s unassuming looks belie its remarkable powers. Though barely thought about, the 295 is performing myriad tasks around the world with a multitude of air arms.

Max payload: 9.25 tons

Maximum take-off weight: 23 tons

Max speed: 576 km/h (311 knots, 358 mph)

Il-76MD-90A ‘Super Candid’ 


During the long bitter Soviet Afghan War, the Il-76 carried 89% of Soviet troops and 74% of all the freight that was airlifted. As Afghan rebels were unable to shoot down Il-76s at the aircraft’s high operating altitudes they instead adopted the tactic of attacking the transport aircraft during its take-off and landing runs. Il-76 pilots faced frequent assaults by Stinger and Strela missiles as well as heavy machine-gun fire. Despite this, the IL-76s suffered relatively few casualties — testimony to both the daring skill of the crews and the fact that the aircraft was built like a tank. Of course the aircraft is not indestructible, and two were destroyed in drone strikes in Libya earlier this year.

With almost 1000 airframes produced, upgrades were inevitable. The upgraded versions have a glass cockpit, upgraded avionics, new internal wing structure and far more efficient Aviadvigatel PS-90 engines. Both new-build and modernised aircraft feature these systems, being the product of a Russian manufacturer its slightly tricky to work out which are completely new, but the curious can make their own conclusions after digesting the official website.

Max payload: 60 tons (normal limit 52 tons)

Max take-off weight: 210 tons

Max speed: Mach 0.82

Embraer KC-390 ‘The São José Colossus’


Yes — as I recently explained to a family member as we boarded an ERJ — Brazil makes aircraft and they’re excellent. The RAF’s Tucano was designed in Brazil as were the  phallic ERJ series and desperately dull E-Jet family. This Hercules-class transport builds on this experience. It’s a big gamble, but one that may well pay off. The project has moved swiftly, garnering important partnerships – including a cooperation agreement with Boeing (whatever that means), and industrial arrangements with several nations including Argentina and the Czech Republic (Aero Vodochody makes the rear fuselage). Embraer boasts of the KC-390 will have the lowest life cycle costs in the medium airlift market which may prove true. The ‘390 is analogous to the An-178 and it will be interesting to see how the two fare.

Max payload:  26,000 kg (57,320 lb)

Max take-off weight: 86,999 kg (191,800 lb)

Max speed: Mach 0.8

Xi’an Y-20 胖妞 ‘Chubby Girl’


Yes it looks like a C-17 (albeit with rather more elegant 50s-style engine nacelles, a bit less flab and a natty Commie paint-job) but the Y-20 is its own machine. Was espionage involved in the design? Quite probably, but it’s hard to see how else you could sensibly design an aircraft in the class. For example —  how many other aircraft on this list have a tail that resembles that of the YC-15? As with most Chinese aircraft, it is using stopgap engines: until the arrival of the DS-20 it will use the Soloviev D-30. This is essentially a non-afterburning higher bypass version of the engine used on the MiG-31 so is clearly not the ideal power-plant for efficiency. I’m being slightly mean here, as the engine was originally designed for the Tu-134 — and its more modern versions power the Tu-154M —  but it is still far behind Western engines. It will do the job however, and the Y-20 will be a shot in the arm for the PLAAF who currently rely on a rather geriatric fleet of Cold War types.

MTOW: 220000 kg (485,000 lb)

Max payload: 66 tonnes (145,505 lb)

Cruise speed: Mach 0.75

Airbus A400M Atlas ‘The Bulbous of Seville’ 


Despite the project starting life an astonishing thirty seven years ago, Europe’s airlifter remains a tad immature. Depending on your personal politics you can blame any of the following culprits: Lockheed, who flirted with the European companies before jumping ship to create the C-130J; the partner nation’s governments for interfering; the companies involved for slowing down the project — though admittedly the Cold War ending could not have been predicted — and charging too much; the nature of collaborative projects which are always slow and expensive; the design with its controversial and overly ambitious power-plant and transmission system (which was given to a team with insufficient experience) or the fact it was made in Europe which always makes things expensively. Perhaps the biggest hurdle facing the A400M is the fact it is not American, it is hard to imagine the type not being a massive success if it had emerged from the Boeing sheds with USAF as the primary customer. Somewhat ironically, it would be perfect for USAF.

Airbus underestimated how much of a pain it was working with air forces, and the type suffered from being pushed through arbitrary testing milestones rather than concentrating on what was absolutely necessary.  Which is a shame as the type has a great deal of potential. If it can live up to the promise of being a machine that could can carry out the strategic missions in tactical conditions — and do so with reliability, survivability and manageable costs  — it will be a truly great aircraft.


Max cargo load: 37 tons

Max take-off weight: 141000 kg (310,852 lb)

Top speed: Mach 0.72

Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

Special thanks to Thomas Newdick.



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  1. Alex

    Perhaps worth noting that Y-20 uses the same engines as Il-76 and is generally highly “influenced” by that one’s design. Notably wingbox and ramp design.

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