Murphy's Law: The An-32 Special Delivery

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May 15, 2018: At the end of 2017 the Iraqi Air Force released sortie data on its aircraft during the 2014-17 war against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). During that period the Iraqis had only about a hundred fighters, ground attack, recon, transport and armed trainer aircraft available. But these aircraft flew 31,000 sorties, most of them support (recon, transport) missions. But 17 percent were combat missions. These were all ground attack and usually with unguided (dumb) bombs. Most of those attack missions were carried out by two dozen Su-25 (the Russian “A-10”) attack aircraft. The second most common attack aircraft was the six An-32 transports, which mostly (85 percent of the time) flew transport (of personnel and cargo) missions. But the An-32 and its predecessors the An-24/26 had been used as a bomber since the 1970s and Iraq continued that practice. India, Sudan and even Russia (in Afghanistan during the 1980s) had used these twin-engine transports as bombers. Since the 1970s there were modifications available to attach four bomb racks to the fuselage for 500 pound bombs. Four more of these bombs could be dropped from the back ramp of the aircraft. Antonov also provided a crude, but effective, bomb sight so the bombs could be dropped on area (military, urban or industrial) targets while flying high enough to be safe from rifle and machine-gun fire.

In 2012 Iraq received six An-32 air transports it had ordered from Ukraine in late 2009. The An-32 is actually a modernized, and most recent version, of the Russian An-24/26 transport. The original design is from the early 1960s and 1,600 were built (38 percent as An-26). In the 1970s an even more powerful versions (An-30, An-32) entered service, but only about 360 of these were made. The 27 ton An-32 is basically an An-26 with better engines and modifications for tropical operations. This version can carry 6.7 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.

Iraq bought An-24s from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but these were all gone by 2003. Antonov built the original An-24 series to be simple, rugged and easy to use and maintain. They succeeded. Four decades later, it should not be surprising that over 500 of the An-24/26s were still operating. That's not the first time this has happened. After 70 years, there are still several hundred American DC-3 transports working in odd (and often remote) parts of the world.

The six Iraqi An-32s flew 7,000 sorties during 42 month long war with ISIL. That’s an average of nearly one sortie a day for each Iraqi An-32. Some of the An-32s were out of action for days or weeks for repairs and at times each transport flew several sorties a day. And 14 percent of all those sorties were attack sorties in which the cargo was bombs. These were usually Chinese bombs since the U.S. had no reason to supply Iraq with these type bombs until the first Iraqi F-16s entered service in late 2015. If you have the cash China will deliver quickly, no questions asked.

Until the release of this sortie data Iraq never made a big deal about the heavy use of the An-32 as a bomber. But the An-32 bombing missions would explain the reports of heavy civilian losses during some bombing missions. As is popular throughout the Middle East, civilians hurt during an effort to kill an enemy is considered unfortunate but necessary. These days U.S. bombers only use smart (guided) bombs and missiles whenever there might be civilians about. The An-32s bombed ISIL targets in urban areas and ISIL deliberately kept civilians close to provide some protection from American smart bomb attacks. Even ISIL knew it was more productive to blame all civilian casualties on American smart bombs, not unguided bombs pushed out the back of a Cold War era Russian transport.

 


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