Big Beasts: The World’s Four Largest Military Transports

Key.Aero explores and analyses four of the world’s largest operational military transport aircraft. This list is informed by available technical data and based on the size and payload capacity of platforms that are currently in active service.


4. Boeing C-17A Globemaster III

This heavy-lift strategic transport first flew in September 1991 and was first introduced into US Air Force (USAF) service in January 1995. The platform is operated outside the US on an international scale, with examples in operational service with Australia, Canada, Kuwait, NATO, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the UK.

Powered by four Pratt & Whitney F117-PW-100 high-bypass turbofan engines, the Globemaster III has an unrefuelled range of more than 4,500nm (5,179 miles or 8,334km) with a payload of 100,000lb (45,360kg) – according to the Royal Air Force (RAF).

C-17A [Boeing]
A USAF-operated C-17 refuels with a Boeing KC-46A Pegasus during a test flight on July 12, 2016. This image perfectly shows the size of the Globemaster in comparison the the Boeing 767-based tanker and an F-16 Fighting Falcon. Boeing

The C-17A provides a heavy-lift cargo and troop transport capability to the nations that operate it. The platform can also provide an aeromedical evacuation mission. In day-to-day operations, the Globemaster requires three crew to operate: two pilots and a loadmaster. For aeromedical missions, the aircraft accommodates five more crew members: two flight nurses and three medical technicians.

The platform is able to air-lift some heavy equipment. It can carry a single US Army M1 Abrams battle tank, three ICV Stryker armoured personnel carriers, 102 paratroopers with their equipment or 54 ambulatory patients. It can also carry light-to-medium sized helicopters.

AirForces Intelligence data states that (as of August 6, 2020) the number of operational C-17s in the world stood at 275, of which 222 are operated by the USAF.

C-17A Globemaster III Size Specifications
Wingspan 169ft 10in (51.8m)
Length 174ft (53m)
Height 55ft 1in (16.8m)
Payload Capacity 170,900lb (77,519kg)
C-17A [USAF/Greg L Davis]
MSgt William Lugo - a C-17A Globemaster III loadmaster from the 89th Airlift Squadron (AS) 'Rhinos' - checks the paperwork of Patriot missiles before the aircraft transported them overseas. This image provides a good view of the amount of space the C-17A offers in its cargo hold. USAF/Greg L Davis


3. Antonov An-22'Cock'

Antonov’s An-22 (NATO reporting name: Cock) has one unique feature that the other three aircraft on this list do not. It is powered by four Kuznetsov NK-12MA counter-rotating turboprops instead of turbofan engines. Due to this, the An-22 is the largest propeller-driven military transport aircraft in operational service today.

With its maximum payload, the aircraft has an operational range of 2,700nm (3,107 miles or 5,000km). The aircraft first flew in February 1965 and has been operated by Russia in a military role since 1973. The Russian Aerospace Forces operated a total of 28 examples, but that number has been reduced to three which remain in limited service, according to AirForces Intelligence data (as of August 6, 2020). The An-22 is also in civil use.

An-22 [Russian MoD]
An An-22 - operated by the Russian military - takes off from Migalovo air base in the nation's Tver region in the spring of 2020. Russian Ministry of Defence

The platform is bigger than the US-designed C-17 Globemaster III and is capable of conducting heavy-lift transport, airdrop and paratrooper insertion operations. It requires between five and six crew members to operate and employed in harsh environments.

Cargo is loaded onto the aircraft through a rear door and the aircraft features a twin-tail design, another unique feature when compared to other aircraft on this list. The An-22 has played a key role in the production of its larger Soviet-designed counterparts. In 1987, it transported the wing centre section and outer wing panels for the Antonov An-225 Mriya – the world’s largest transport aircraft – on top of its fuselage – you read that right!

An-22 Size Specifications
Wingspan 211ft 3in (64.4m)
Length 190ft (57.9m)
Height 41ft 1in (12.5m)
Payload Capacity 176,470lb (80,000kg)
An-22 [Russian MoD]
A Russian An-22 starts up. Note the platform's unique counter-rotating turboprop design and its sheer size in comparison to the people on the ground. Locally known as the 'Antey', the aircraft is the largest turboprop driven military transport in the world. Russian MoD


2. Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy

The C-5M Super Galaxy is the largest heavy-lift strategic transport currently operating by a Western nation and is solely employed by the USAF. It is the latest incarnation of Lockheed’s Galaxy family, which first entered US service in June 1970 with the C-5A.

Two more variants (C-5B and C-5C) would serve the air arm before the type underwent a large-scale modernisation programme in the early-2000s. Aircraft that underwent this process were re-designated as the C-5M Super Galaxy.

As part of the process, the C-5’s four GE Aviation TF-39 high-bypass turbofan engines were replaced with GE’s CF6-80C2-L1F (F138) turbofans. This change provided 22% thrust to the platform and made it quieter, in line with Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The USAF received its first C-5M in February 2009 and the last aircraft to undergo the process was handed back to the service in August 2018.

C-5M Super Galaxy [USAF/Greg L Davis] #1
A C-5M Super Galaxy - serial 85-0005 (c/n 500-91) - on final approach into Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, on September 22, 2015. This aircraft is operated by the 9th Airlift Squadron (AS) 'Proud Pelicans' and was on a routine training flight from the base. USAF/Greg L Davis

The C-5M features five sets of landing gear, comprising of 28 wheels. It requires a crew of seven to operate, consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, two flight engineers and three loadmasters. As well as its rear and aft doors, the Super Galaxy’s nose can also be opened to load larger payloads, enabling crews to simultaneously load and off-load cargo at each end of the aircraft.

It boasts an unrefuelled range of approximately 4,800nm (5,524 miles or 8,890km) with a payload of 120,000lb (54,431kg). With no payload, the USAF states that the aircraft has an approximate range of 7,000nm (8,055 miles or 12,964km).

According to AirForces Intelligence data, as of August 6, 2020, the USAF operated 52 examples of the C-5M Super Galaxy.

C-5M Super Galaxy Size Specifications
Wingspan 222ft 9in (67.9m)
Length 247ft 10in (75.3m)
Height 65ft 1in (19.8m)
Payload Capacity 281,001lb (127,460kg)
C-5M Super Galaxy [USAF/TSgt Nicholas Rau] #1
Personnel unload a US Army CH-47 Chinook from a Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy - operated by the USAF's 'Proud Pelicans' - at Bagram Air Field in Iraq on December 26, 2015. USAF/TSgt Nicholas Rau


1. Antonov An-124'Ruslan'

Developed by the Soviet Union, the Antonov An-124 Ruslan (NATO reporting name: Condor) is currently the world’s largest operational military transport aircraft. This monster-sized aircraft first flew on December 24, 1982, before entering operational service with Russia in January 1986.

Russia is currently upgrading its fleet of 22 An-124s to An-124-100M-standard – a process which started in 2012. According to AirForces Intelligence data, as of August 6, 2020, three aircraft had undergone the modernisation and had returned to service with the Russian Aerospace Forces. The platform has also seen operational military service with the Libyan Air Force and the UAE Air Force.

The platform is in both military and civil use. It can carry two Mil Mi-8 Hip heavy-lift transport helicopters, a single Cessna 650 Citation III business jet, three 40ft (12m) shipping containers and rocket boosters used by Roscosmos – Russia’s state-owned space agency.

An-124 [USMC/LCpl Natalie M Rostran] #1
A civil operated An-124 prepares to accept three CH-46E Sea Knight tandem rotor heavy-lift transport helicopters at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Futenma in Okinawa, Japan, on June 17, 2013. USMC/LCpl Natalie M Rostran

Powered by four Progress D-18T high-bypass turbofans, the An-124 has a range of 4,500nm (5,179 miles or 8,334km) with a 176,370lb (80,000kg) payload. For day-to-day operations, the An-124 requires a crew of six: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, chief flight engineer, electrical flight engineer and two loadmasters.

On the outside, the An-124 shares a lot of commonality with the US-designed C-5 Galaxy. Both of the four-engined aircraft feature rear and nose cargo doors to enable simultaneous unloading and loading operations. One noticeable difference is the Condor’s employment of a conventional tail design instead of the C-5’s T-shaped tail. The An-124 also features oleo strut suspension, which enables the aircraft to essentially kneel down to better accommodate loading at the front.

An-124 Size Specifications
Wingspan 240ft 6in (73.3m)
Length 226ft 8in (69.1m)
Height 69ft 2in (21.1m)
Payload Capacity 330,693lb (150,000kg)
An-124 [USMC/LCpl Brooke Deiters] #1
A civil An-124 Ruslan - operated by Volga-Dnepr - prepares to accept USMC equipment at MCAS Futenma in Okinawa, Japan, prior to transferring it to MCAS Iwakuni in Japan on August 2, 2016. Note that the aircraft is 'kneeling' to make loading from the front easier. USMC/LCpl Brooke Deiters