An Antonov An-225 cargo plane at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, in March 2011.

An Antonov An-225 cargo plane at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, in March 2011. Lance Cpl. Samantha H. Arrington

China to Expand Military Reach with a Fleet of the World’s Largest Planes

Ukraine’s Antonov has entered a pact with a Chinese firm to restart production of the An-225.

The Soviets built a single Antonov An-225 cargo jet — the longest and heaviest airplane ever built — to carry the Buran space shuttle. Now China wants a fleet of them.

A recently announced deal with Ukraine’s Antonov firm is the latest evidence of Beijing’s strategic aspiration to be able to deploy military forces rapidly, anywhere in the world.

“It would provide China with the large and global lift that not even the U.S. has possessed, except by rental,” said Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at New America who tracks Chinese military technology on his Popular Science blog. “It’s large enough to carry helicopters, tanks, artillery, even other aircraft.”

The six-engine aircraft, which can haul more than 250 tons, would help on the civil side as well, Singer said.

“It opens all sorts of new frontiers in both commercial and military air transport for China,” he said. “A fleet of civilian An-225s could quickly ship heavy, bulky cargo of massive scale ranging from construction equipment to a massive scale of consumer goods.”

Then there are uses that haven’t even been thought of, such as space launch or a mother ship for drones, Singer said.

Antonov announced last week that it had entered a pact with the Aerospace Industry Corporation of China to finish building an An-225 which has sat half-built inside a Ukrainian aircraft hangar for more than 20 years.

“[T]he parties expressed their intentions as for long−term cooperation,” Antonov said in a statement. The second An-225 will be built in Ukraine and the third in China, to be flown by the mid-2020s.

The deal is expected to be worth $300 million, with China picking up most of the tab, Singer said.

“The [deal] was signed at a state guest house and had the presence of senior Chinese government officials, Singer said. “It’s clear there’s strong government support in China for the deal.”

Antonov will also transfer technological know-how for the plane and its engines to the Chinese allowing them to build a new, modernized version of the plane indigenously.

The deal also deepens the relationship between Ukraine’s Antonov and China. Last year, the firm signed a deal to co-produce the An-178, a twin-engine cargo plane. It has also provided design and technical advice on China’s Y-20 cargo aircraft project. The Y-20 bears many similarities to the American, Boeing-made C-17 Globemaster III.

A Beast

The An-225 is a beast, more than 275 feet long with a wingspan of nearly 300 feet. It’s bigger than than the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747, the two largest passenger jetliners. In fact, the only plane ever built with a larger wingspan than the Mriya — Ukrainian for dream — is the Hughes H-4 Spruce Goose.

When Russian canceled its space shuttle program, the sole An-225 was sent to the boneyard where it sat idle for eight years. Antonov restored the plane, which flew again took to the skies again in 2001. An early 2000s Discovery Channel documentary about the plane’s restoration noted that special modules were being designed to carry cargo on top of the plane, like the space shuttle.

Since then, the plane — flown by Antonov Airlines — has been used to carry large machinery and equipment to all corners of the globe. The U.S. military has even hired the plane in 2011 to haul equipment to troops in Afghanistan.

But it might have served China better, from a reverse-engineering perspective, to have purchased the rights to the An-124, another massive cargo plane that was mass produced as opposed to a one-off An-225, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consulting firm.

“You’d get much better bang for the buck and a lot more flexibility just by building the base Antonov 124,” he said. “Why anyone would choose to build anything bigger, clumsier and more vulnerable at a much higher price point for much less results bespeaks either hubris or incompetence or a desire to say ‘we’re building the biggest plane.’”

History Repeats

The An-225 deal is essentially history repeating itself. China purchased the unfinished aircraft carrier Varyag from Ukraine in 1998. China finished building the ship, now named Liaoning, and has used it to learn how to operate an aircraft carrier at sea.

“As China’s naval aviators and the Liaoning’s crew gain experience operating aircraft from the Liaoning, China will make progress toward developing a potent expeditionary aircraft carrier force,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission wrote in its 2015 report to Congress. “Among other things, a fully operational Liaoning could contribute significantly to the PLA’s combat capabilities in the South China Sea, where the short range of China’s fighter fleet limits its power projection capabilities.”

China began work began building its own aircraft carrier last year. Beijing also purchased Zubr hovercraft from Ukraine.