Air Transportation: Managing Maintenance Money Matters

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July 31, 2019: In mid-2015 the Afghan Air force received the last of four second-hand C-130G transports. These were replacing the 20 smaller (two engine) C-27A transports the Afghans already had but could not support. The four-engine C-130H is the most common version of the C-130. It has a range of 8,368 kilometers, a top speed of 601 kilometers per hour, and can carry up to 18 tons of cargo, 92 troops, or 64 paratroopers. Apparently, the U.S. feels it will be easier, and possible, to keep a smaller number of C-130Hs operational, especially if American aid officials take more control over maintenance funds.

There are other problems the C-130s will solve. The Afghans have a hard time holding onto pilots. But there are enough pilots to handle four C-130s. If this works more C-130Hs might can be added as conditions permit. That is not likely to happen because initially, the four Afghan C-130Hs were not getting much work. That appears to be changing as the Afghans become more skilled at airdropping supplies via parachute.

The four C-130Hs are the only large supply transports the Afghans have. In 2012 Afghanistan announced that it would cancel the contract to buy and use 20 C-27A transports. The official reason was the inability of the Italian maintenance firm to keep the aircraft operational. The unofficial reason was the unwillingness of the Italians to pay as much in bribes as the Afghan officials were demanding. Over half a billion dollars was being spent on buying and operating the C-27s and all the money was coming from the United States. Afghan government and air force officials were determined to grab as much of that cash as possible. That meant there was not enough money for the spare parts and tools needed to keep the C-27As flying. The Afghans can be self-destructive in so many ways, and letting these transports get away because not enough could be stolen from the contracts was another example. There were other problems with the Italian government enforcing an embargo on Afghanistan which blocked delivery of spare parts to Afghanistan. The American officials who set up the C-27A deal underestimated how difficult the Italian embargo would be, and how much time and money was wasted coming up with workarounds.

The Afghan Air Corps was supposed to get 20 C-27A transports, but only 16 had been delivered when the contract was canceled. These Italian made aircraft are easy to fly and very popular with their Afghan pilots, as well as several other nations that use them. Able to carry up to ten tons of cargo, the C-27As gave the Afghan military a more reliable (than older Russian An-32s) and flexible air transport capability. For example, the C-27A can fly as slow as 160 kilometers an hour, with the cargo door open, to drop cargo by parachute. Until 2015, Afghanistan could depend on NATO transports, but after that they were on their own. To deal with that Afghanistan was going to buy some An-32s from Ukraine, but that didn’t work out either and five of the six  An-32s still around were unfit to operate.

The C-27As were obtained for Afghanistan by the U.S., from the Italian Air Force, for $16 million each. The C-27A is a two-engine medium-range transport, designed to fly into small airfields at high altitudes. This 28 ton aircraft usually carries six tons (or 34 passengers) for up to 2,500 kilometers and lands on smaller airfields than the C-130 can handle. The U.S. Air Force bought ten C-27As in the 1990s but took them out of service because it was cheaper to fly stuff in the larger C-130. At least until the air force had to operate in Afghanistan.

Two of the Afghan C-27As were outfitted as VIP transports, for the Afghan president and other senior officials. That indicates how safe and reliable the Afghans considered their new, although second-hand, transports. Afghanistan also has six Russian An-32s. These twin-engine transports are actually a modernized and more recent version of the Russian An-24 transport. The original design is from the early 1960s. The An-32 can carry 6 tons of cargo or up to 50 passengers. Max speed is 540 kilometers an hour and range is 2,500 kilometers. The crew consists of two pilots and a loadmaster. The An-32 is still in production (nearly 400 have been built since 1976) and it is used by air forces in India, Bangladesh, and Ukraine. Parts are easier to get than for the C-27A and maintenance is simpler. But the corruption and personnel shortages in Afghanistan made even the An-32s too much to handle.

In an effort to get past the epic and durable culture of corruption in Afghanistan the U.S., which supplies all the money for the Afghan security forces, obtained a different kind of maintenance contract for the four Afghan C-130Hs, Details of this deal were worked out by 2019. What makes this deal work is that Afghans have nothing to do with handling the maintenance money. There was also tighter controls over Afghan access to stocks of valuable spare parts (which, if stolen, will fetch a price on the black market). This deal costs about $10 million a year for each of the C-130Hs. These are old aircraft (built in 1975 and 76) but well maintained and it is not unusual for C-130s of this age to still be in service. The flight and loading crews are Afghans as are some of the maintainers. Training Afghans to operate and maintain these aircraft is not all that difficult. But keeping them in service once trained is another matter. The crews and maintainers can make more money with their new skills in another country. Also, Afghanistan is a dangerous place and Afghans with marketable skills see migrating (legally or illegally) a viable option.

 


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