Does the Soviet An-225 Have a Future? World’s Largest Aircraft May Fly Again Better Than Before

Following unconfirmed reports that the world’s largest aircraft the An-225 had been destroyed during clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces, this was verified on February 27 by the state-owned defense conglomerate UkOboronProm and by Defence Minister Dmytro Kuleba. 

While footage of the damaged aircraft has not been seen, and Ukrainian government-affiliated sources have been found to have fabricated a number of claims since the outbreak of hostilities on February 24, there remains a significant possibility that the aircraft was indeed destroyed or seriously damaged considering that the airfield at Hostomel Airport where it was based was contested in battle.

 Despite its destruction, the An-225 program may still have a promising future after the cessation of hostilities in Ukraine. 

The six-engine Soviet aircraft first flew in 1988 and was designed to be able to launch Buran space planes as the country led the world at the time in the development of reusable spacecraft. The A-225 is loosely based on the design of the smaller four-engine An-124, which serves in the Russian Air Force and in several civilian airlines. 

The An-225 program was seriously set back by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the division of the Russian and Ukrainian economies, with the latter’s sharp decline preventing it from continuing the program or even completing the mostly already assembled the second airframe that had begun to be produced under the USSR. 

Ukraine’s foreign policy was long aligned with Western interests, and undermining industrial cooperation with Russia meant that many of its key industries could not survive including its the aviation industry it had inherited. Furthermore, Western pressure on Kyiv restricting its cooperation with China in sensitive technologies reportedly played an important role in ensuring that, while offers of Chinese funding and support for the An-225 program were made, these were never allowed to materialize. 

The sole complete aircraft inherited by Ukraine thus remained entirely unique and was used for commercial purposes with its first commercial mission being the delivery of 216,000 meals from Germany to Oman for the United States Military. It was later contracted by Canadian and U.S. forces for further logistical operations supporting Western war efforts in the Middle East. Its ability to transport particularly heavy items such as 160-ton generators by air, which no other aircraft could, was highly prized by a number of clients.

With Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine potentially placing a Russian-aligned government in power, there remains a significant possibility that industrial cooperation could improve in the conflict’s aftermath. 

The result may be renewed momentum for the program with Russian funding and technical support. There is also the possibility of a trilateral program with China, which is currently pursuing joint development of an airliner with Russia under the CR929 program. 

The result may be a revival of the An-225 itself, possibly with completion of the second airframe which is already 60-70 percent built, or else use of its technologies to develop a more modern heavy lift aircraft possibly of similar size but with lower operational costs - which was a major shortcoming of the original. Such an aircraft could serve a number of functions including in military logistics, civilian cargo transport, or even supporting the Chinese or Russian space programs.

 Indeed, the Airspace Industry Corporation of China previously reportedly had an interest in cooperating with Ukraine to build further An-225s to launch satellites. The An-225 aircraft holds records for the largest wingspan, the heaviest airframe, and the largest cargo capacity at 640,000kg, and should Ukraine fall under a government with a different alignment to the past 30 years there remains a not insignificant potential for it to gain support from parties which were previously considered politically unfavorable to revive the unique project. 

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