India’s C-17 Globemaster III: A Versatile Force in Relief, Rescue, and Modernisation

An introduction to India's C-17 Globemaster III, serving as a versatile asset in humanitarian relief, evacuation missions, and modernising the Indian Air Force's transport capabilities

By Navya Simran Chhabra


With the ever-increasing furore for immediate relief for the war-stricken Gaza Strip, the first load of healthcare and disaster relief supplies from India took off from the Hindon airbase for Egypt’s El-Arish airport. The versatile and resilient C-17 Globemaster III of the Indian Air Force, a heavy-lift transport aircraft, was chosen for this task.

About the Globemaster III

The C-17 Globemaster III is a substantial military transport aircraft, originally designed and developed by McDonnell Douglas during the 1980s to primarily serve the United States Air Force (USAF). It officially entered service in 1995, as a part of the USAF fleet. It is now under the Boeing umbrella.

For more than a decade, this multi-service aircraft played a pivotal role in every international operation of India. This aircraft performs airlift and aeromedical missions, even in the most challenging terrains, and delivers any kind of cargo with ease. The largest plane in IAF’s inventory, C-17’s maximum takeoff weight is 77,500 kg, and its maximum payload is 265,000 kg, with a cruise speed of about 830km/hr. Currently, a fleet of 11 C-17 Globemaster III is owned by the IAF. Situated at the Hindon Air Force Station, these are operated by the No. 81 Squadron, which in Air Force parlance are known as ‘Sky Lords’. The Skylords squadron, equipped with three C-17s, formally became a part of the Indian Air Force (IAF) on September 2, 2013.

The C-17 Globemaster III is a substantial military transport aircraft, originally designed and developed by McDonnell Douglas during the 1980s to primarily serve the United States Air Force (USAF).

C-17 Globemaster III in Rescue Missions

Among the numerous rescue missions conducted by the Indian Air Force, a few standout examples include:

  1. Operation Raahat: In the midst of the military intervention in Yemen in 2015, the Indian Air Force initiated “Operation Raahat” to safely evacuate Indian and foreign nationals from the conflict-stricken region. The C-17 Globemaster III aircraft played a pivotal role in evacuating a substantial number of people, including Indian citizens, from Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and other locations. These missions underscored the aircraft’s remarkable capacity to rapidly transport evacuees to secure locations.
  2. Operation Devi Shakti: This operation was executed by the Indian Armed Forces to rescue Indian citizens and foreign nationals from Afghanistan following the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s assumption of power, and the withdrawal of US troops. It aimed to ensure the safe evacuation of individuals from a tumultuous and uncertain situation.
  3. Operation Ganga: The Indian government organised “Operation Ganga” as an evacuation mission to rescue its citizens, most of who were students, stranded in neighbouring countries during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The operation was carried out to ensure the safe return of Indian nationals facing challenging circumstances abroad.

The Indian Air Force has a fleet of 11 C-17 Globemaster III, which played a pivotal role in India’s all humanitarian operations in India and abroad for more than a decade including rescue missions and supply of provisions

Delivering Supplies

The impressive aircraft also plays a crucial role in providing provisions such as food, logistics, and medical supplies to the Leh Air Force Station, meeting the requirements of soldiers stationed in the harsh conditions of the Siachen Glaciers. Notably, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the aircraft gained significant attention for transporting vital supplies, including oxygen cylinders and ventilators, both within the country and internationally, with destinations including Singapore, Bangkok, Dubai, and various European countries, all in support of medical relief operations. Intensive efforts are in progress to revamp the Nyoma Advanced Landing Ground (ALG), which is presently constructed from mud. The aim is to ensure smooth and efficient takeoff and landing operations for the C-17 Globemaster III, ultimately strengthening our border security measures.

Comparison with Older Counterparts

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been actively modernising its ageing transport aircraft fleet, primarily with the aim of supporting the AN-32 and Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-76. To illustrate the upgrades, the Il-76 could carry up to 28 tons of cargo, whereas the C-17 can move nearly 75 tons in a single mission. With four powerful Pratt & Whitney PW2040 turbofan engines, a fully loaded C-17 can cover over 5,000 miles at 450 knots without refuelling. Similarly, while the AN-32 could ferry up to 50 soldiers, the C-17 can accommodate at least three times that number. This shift represents a significant enhancement in India’s airlift capabilities.

In the ongoing debate over the superiority of aircraft, pitting the C-17 Globemaster III against Lockheed Martin’s innovative C-130J, it’s worth noting that the former boasts a cargo bay length more than twice that of the latter and can handle a takeoff weight up to four times as heavy.

Boeing has ceased production of the C-17 due to insufficient demand while reports suggest that India had expressed interest in acquiring more C-17s. In such a situation, can India manufacture these aircraft?

No more Globemaster IIIs?

As the Indian Air Force (IAF) faces a pressing requirement for fleet and squadron expansion, it’s important to note that in September 2013, Boeing ceased production of the C-17 due to what it considered insufficient demand. Reports from India indicated that it had expressed interest in acquiring more C-17s. However, India’s acquisition plans were constrained by a sluggish procurement process and unfavourable economic conditions, and these plans were further limited when Boeing decided to halt production lines.

Can India Manufacture These Planes Instead?

Boeing possesses an adequate inventory of spare parts, even when factoring in requirements for Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) operations for the C-17 Globemaster III production. Drawing inspiration from the partnership between Airbus Defence and Space and Tata Advanced Systems in manufacturing the C-295, a similar collaboration can be explored for the Globemaster III. Such an endeavour aligns with India’s commitment to ‘Make in India, Make for the World,’ as these planes could be offered for sale to other countries as well, if demand arises in the current geopolitical scenario, teeming with conflicts between nations. This initiative would also enhance Boeing’s position in the defence industry and competitors alike.

-The writer is a policy and trade specialist with Invest India. She is an acute observer of the Indian Aerospace and Defence sector, with an eye for emerging iDEX start-ups and MSMEs. The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda