Sunday, January 6, 2008

A local flight of the condor....

Oh man, how I hate it when the Post & Courier scoops me when I’m backlogged on writing blogs.
I’ve been trying to write this blog for over a week in my limited spare time, and then on Saturday they go & scoop me with a front-page article!!! Damn!
Anyways, I’m still going to post my blog.

I understand that everyone and everything has their limits. I also understand that the hectic tempo of flight demands into and out of both Iraq and Afghanistan puts a lot of strain on the Air Force’s fleet of C-17 and C-5 cargo jets. These are complex pieces of equipment that need maintenance after a certain amount of flight time, which takes airframes out of the flight rotations. Occasionally, some routine cargo flights to the war zones may need to be farmed out to civilian cargo companies on a contract basis.

I also understand that in certain cases, the need to expedite and hurry the delivery of certain equipment may mean that Air Force aircraft may not always be available to carry combat vehicles to the front lines and that again, contract aircraft must be used. But just because I understand it doesn’t mean I have to like it. Especially when the contractors and aircraft in question are from a country that as of late hasn’t exactly been buddy-buddy with our country.


One of the big contractors that’s been delivering our supplies to both war zones is a company called Volga-Dneper Cargo, a Russian company that is the world leader in shipping oversized bulky cargo around the globe, such as aircraft parts and engines, satellites, rocket boosters, offshore oil rig gear, and even armored vehicles and helicopters. The company uses Russian crews, including pilots. They are able to accommodate such loads by using a fleet of the massive Antonov-124 Condor, a rough equivalent to our own C-5 Galaxy heavy-lift transport. The other company is Polet Cargo Airlines, another supplier of Condors. Both are subcontracted through American-flag carriers Atlas Air and Lynden Air Cargo as part of the military's Civil Reserve Airlift Fleet.

I see Atlas’ 747’s come in and out of Charleston all the time. As of late, several times a month I’ve looked in the Charleston skies and seen the massive white and blue Condors with the Russian flags on the tails as they fly in to pick up the MRAP vehicles. I know the demand for MRAP’s is high to help protect our troops from IED’s, and that the need dictates that we fly as many over there as fast as possible, and it’s rather expensive to fly them over at 2-4 vehicles per trip. A ship loaded with 240 MRAPs left Charleston for Iraq last month, taking over three weeks to get there, a better bargain but a longer wait for desperately needed vehicles.

What rankles me is that we have foreign crews from a country that’s not exactly been buddy-buddy with us as of late, with nuclear-capable bomber flights and vague saber-rattling by President (read: neo-dictator) Putin, flying our newest piece of military technology around. Say what you want, but you’ll never convince me that unless we have armed guards on these flights to keep the crews under watch, that there isn’t a full-scale bum-rush of intelligence-gathering going on during that 18-hour flight to the Sandbox. The FSB (spelled: KGB) is most likely the supplier of these trusted & valued employees, and I’m sure they’d love to dissect our gear first-hand and get all the intelligence possible to clone the technology for themselves.

It’s not only MRAP’s that get sent overseas on Condors, and Iraq isn’t always the destination. In April of last year, the Air Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing had some of their HH-60G Pave Hawk search & rescue helicopters flown to Afghanistan by Russian Condors. The Pave Hawk is a highly modified version of the Army Black Hawk helicopter which features an upgraded communications and navigation suite that includes integrated inertial navigation/global positioning/Doppler navigation systems, satellite communications, secure voice, and Have Quick frequency-hopping radio gear to defeat jamming. All HH-60Gs have an automatic flight control system, night vision, and forward looking infrared systems that greatly enhance night low-level operations. Additionally, Pave Hawks have color weather radar and an engine/rotor blade anti-ice system that gives the HH-60G an adverse weather capability. Gee, you think that the Russians might want a peek? Maybe so. And sure, there were a couple airmen from the 129th on the aircraft and as a general rule the helicopters get a form of shrink-wrapping, but I’m still uncomfortable with the situation.

Perhaps I’m just being an alarmist. Perhaps I’m just being paranoid. Perhaps the shock of the US Air Force needing to spend 300 million dollars to have other countries fly our sensitive equipment to a war zone has me in Cold War Mode again. According to Army Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Rice, Public Affairs Officer for the US Transportation Command, the contracting of aircraft does not mean that the military lacks the ability to do the job with its own aircraft. He said the Russian aircraft frees C-17s and C-5s to fly other missions. "As we continue on a daily basis to support operations, we still want to move troops, bullets and beans," Rice said. That’s fine, sir. But why can’t we let our planes fly the sensitive gear and let the subcontractors fly the troops and sundries like ammunition, bottled water, toilet paper, and Ramen noodles?

Enquiring minds wanna know.


Pasty White Boy said...

That's great while in Afghanistan last year a Condor came in on fire to Bagram Airfield. The flight was carrying the AAFEE's stock for the month. The pilots landed and ran from the plane, right it the minefield. They lucked out twice by not finding a mine. Another Condor was grounded at FOB Salerno for a few weeks for landing too hard and punching the nose gear into the well. Remember only the best at lowest cost for the troops.

Randy Barnett said...

I completely agree with you. I love the sight of a lumbering C5 (we get a few into Donaldson Center where Lockheed does some repairs).

The thought of outsourcing this work to our enemy (and Russia is DEFINITELY our enemy) scares me. At a MINIMUM we should tie the outsourcing to lower rhetoric from their leaders.