India currently has 11 American C-17 Globemaster III cargo jets and 11 C-130J30 Hercules turboprops. They join India’s fleet of approximately 14 Russian IL-76 Candid cargo jets and 100+ Russian/Ukrainian AN-32 Cline turboprops.
Finally, HAL license built 89 British HS-748 turboprops, and some 57 still serve in the IAF, rounding out India’s transport fleets.
So India has quite a large fleet of over 193 medium to large jets and turboprops from the USSR/Russia, US, and UK. India’s transport fleets serve a variety of purposes in the tactical and strategic domains. Below are some examples of IAF use.
The airlift fleets maintain logistic links to far flung Indian bases, some of which may be more that 1000 miles apart, and located at high altitudes and inhospitable terrain. The recently activated Daulat Beg Oldi is one such example, as it is in a remote area, at high altitude, and in harsh, cold terrain. This base helps India keep an all weather eye on Chinese PLAN and PLAAF activities. India’s Special Forces (Spec Ops) are heavily utilizing the C-130J30’s, giving them power projection capabilities and reliable operations that they did not previously possess. Just the enhanced ability to surge highly trained paratroops to threatened areas helps to preserve the peace as likely opponents know that India could rapidly envelop and outflank their forces from the air, so operations that were marginally plausible before are now off the table. So India benefits strategically from the deterrence effect of the airlifters.
The IL-76 Candids serve as heavy transports and as platforms for India’s 7 IL-78 Midas tankers and 3 A-50 AWACS. The IAF has conducted missions with the Candids all the way to the US, during bilateral exercises. This ability to perform intercontinental exercises with distant partners greatly aids the IAF in their professionalism and bridge-building missions, and serves to cement strategic relations. India plans to acquire more Il-76 based AWACS, and has left some room for additional IL-78 Midas tanker purchases as well. The HS-748 fleet is old but still serve a useful function as a pressurized passenger transport and as multi-engine and perhaps navigation trainers. India has a long running program to replace the HS-748’s with the Airbus C-295’s. Time will tell if this comes to fruition.
The newest heavylift arrivals are the 11 C-17 Globemasters. These aircraft have established a sterling reputation and offer the IAF its largest payload capabilities, with a lift capacity of 86 tons, enabling the carriage of the heaviest main battle tanks and similar armored fighting vehicles. The IAF has put them to good use, and they have performed many out of area missions and disaster relief missions already. Originally the IAF wanted 15 of the giant airlifters, but had to stagger purchases as funds were not available to buy them all at once. By the time funds came in the IAF could only buy 11. Even so they are currently the largest operator of the type after the USAF.
So India enjoys a great many benefits, both civil and military, from having a large airlift capability. India’s Boeing C-17 Globemaster fleet, with almost a thousand tons of cargo lifting capacity and intercontinental range, forms a key part of that capability.