An American MRAP is loaded on to a Russian An-124 aircraft at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, in 2012. (photo: U.S. Air Force 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs)
Russia's potential blockage of the U.S. military's transportation corridors to Afghanistan has received a fair amount of attention as the U.S.-Russian relationship has collapsed over the crisis in Ukraine. Behind the scenes, however there is also discussion of suspending the substantial commercial cooperation that the U.S. military has with Russia over transport to and from Afghanistan.
At issue are the massive Antonov An-124 aircraft, the largest cargo plane in regular use. There are only three companies in the world that operate the 20 An-124s in commercial use, and only two of them -- the Russian company Volga-Dnepr and the Ukrainian company Antonov -- conduct military business, according to a 2012 article by Defense Media Network: "In the last dozen or so years, Russian and Ukrainian commercial carriers have flown thousands of missions in support of American and allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and all over the globe." The aircraft are useful in particular for carrying the Mine-Resistant, Armor-Protected (MRAP) vehicles in heavy use by U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Volga-Dnepr has ten An-124s and Antonov seven, and Volga-Dnepr's director of North American operations, Colon Miller, said business is booming: “We’ll go from an oil mission out of Houston, Texas to something out of Africa, or a mission to Central Asia, then to Europe and back to the United States, a military mission leaving Charleston Air Force base, head over to CENTCOM area, offload its cargo in Afghanistan, pick up additional cargo while it’s there and fly it back to Kuwait and then reposition to South America for an oil job back to the United States, then Indonesia, Australia, Russia. They’re hot moving, pretty much all the time.”
But that was in 2012. Now that relations with Russia are in a free fall, the U.S. is looking at divesting itself of Russian business. One industry source who works regularly on Afghanistan transport told The Bug Pit: "Due to the recent strain in U.S-Russia relations, I understand that USTRANSCOM may no longer be open for doing business with Russian air carriers." (U.S. Transportation Command, or USTRANSCOM, is the branch of the U.S. military in charge of shipping military equipment around the world.)
"The AN-124 has been very useful in delivering outsized/oversized cargo. Although we won't speculate on future actions or requirements, we do have options, including using military aircraft or certifying other non-U.S. carriers that U.S. carriers could hire for potential cargo missions," US TRANSCOM spokeswoman Cynthia Bauer told The Bug Pit. Representatives of Volga-Dnepr in the U.S. did not respond to requests for comment.
Some in the U.S. have called on the Pentagon to drop Volga-Dnepr and do more business with Ukrainian Antonov. James Hasik, an analyst at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, wrote that this could be a way to bolster Ukraine's defense industry. Among his recommendations: "[D]on’t just renew the ... contract with Antonov when it expires at the end of the year. Expand it well beyond the six huge aircraft it provides. Kyiv needs the money, and trade beats aid most days. In keeping with Western sentiment to punish Russia commercially, work to disentangle Volga-Dnepr Airlines from that relationship. Make this an exclusively NATO-Ukrainian show. That’s far less provocative than a security guarantee, but it’s more than a signal."
Still, given the high demand for these An-124s, the Ukrainian planes wouldn't be able to make up all the Volga-Dnepr business. Seems like the Pentagon's calculation will be: how much of a logistical headache would it be to drop this Russian business.