Russian An-124s Flying into Iraq, Afghanistan
A Ukrainian Antonov Airlines An-124 landing in Southern California in 2006
One of the little noted news stories to come out of the MAKS 2007 air show was the announcement by Motor Sich OJSC and Ukraine's Antonov Design Bureau that they would jointly resume production of the Antonov 124 "Ruslan" cargo plane. It has 25% more cargo capacity than the largest plane in the U.S. Air Force inventory, the C-5 Galaxy.
The An-124 and its successor, the An-225, were originally designed in the late 1970s to support Soviet oil and gas development in Siberia. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all new production of Antonovs came to halt. During the Nineties, when transport aircraft were still in high demand but civil and military aviation in the former USSR was in terrible shape, several Antonov jets crashed. However, since the year 2000, Antonov 124s and the -225 have safely logged thousands of flight hours without incident in some of the harshest climates on Earth.
Video of an Antonov 124 taking off from Zurich International Airport
According to industry sources, approximately 20 An-124s are currently in use around the world. Volga-Dnepr Airlines (VDA), the world's leading Antonov operator, runs hubs at Ulyanovsk and Krasnoyarsk but has offices in downtown Moscow and at Moscow's Domodedovo International Airport.
One An-124 is owned by by a very wealthy private individual in the Middle East, and operates out of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Another is owned by Libyan Air Cargo which is headquartered at Tripoli International Airport in North Africa. The rest of the An-124s currently in commercial service are operated by the Russian company Polet Cargo Airlines (PCA), and Ukraine's Antonov Airlines. The latter is based at Gostomel Airport outside of Kyev. Antonov Airlines is the only operator of the enormous An-225, the world's largest operational cargo plane, which can haul loads up to 200 tons.
Even Americans who closely follow aviation and defense news may not be aware that these Soviet-built behemoths have been supporting the NATO mission in Afghanistan since 2005. NATO has very little long airlift capacity besides the U.S. air fleet, and the Europeans are still waiting on delivery of the Airbus A-400M transport plane. Therefore the Antonovs have become a critical stopgap for NATO forces deployed in Central Asia. An-124s regularly ferry German and Italian peacekeepers from Europe to Bagram Air Base outside Kabul, landing on the same tarmac that Soviet troops used twenty years ago. An-124s are also being used to support major United Nations relief work in East Africa . In 2001 Antonovs were used by the U.S. military to recover pieces of a downed EP-3 spy plane from China's Hainan Island.
Most interestingly of all, in spite of the heated disagreements between Washington and Moscow over U.S. policy in the Middle East, Russian-owned An-124s have been flying into Iraq (though they are not permitted to enter the higher threat environment of Baghdad) off and on for over three years now. A spokesman for Volga Dneper airlines told Air Cargo World magazine in 2004 that the flights had been discontinued at that time, due to the deteriorating security situation in the country. However, by late 2005 the Russians had resumed commercial flights into Iraq. A Russian An-124 delivered Mi-17 helicopters for the new Iraqi Air Force to Iraq's Al-Muthanna Air Base in 2006. Today Russian Antonovs regularly pick up supplies in the UAE or Bhahrain and then deliver these loads to Basra International Airport in southeastern Iraq.
The Kremlin may have strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but there is no doubt that Russian companies are profiting from ongoing relief and reconstruction operations in the country. In April 2007, Russia's OAO Lukoil hosted the Iraqi Oil Minister in Moscow to negotiate the renewal of Saddam-era contracts to redevelop delapidated Iraqi oil fields.
In addition to the military and energy industries, Antonovs have often been called upon to handle the ocassional odd or unique piece of cargo. In the last several years, An-124s have hauled items such as an 85 ton vessel head to Pennsylvania for the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island, a German railcar preserved from the Holocaust era from the Netherlands to Texas, and a live whale from France to Japan.
Boeing regularly uses VDA An-124s to haul large jet engines from a General Electric plant in Cincinnati, Ohio to Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington. The large GE turbofans are then mated to airliners at Boeing's assembly plant in Everett. In March 2007 VDA ordered five 747-8 freighters from Boeing. Interestingly enough, VDA's main Russian rival, Polet Airlines, is the designated carrier of aircraft engines for Boeing's main competitor, Airbus.
Several American third party logistics operators (known in the industry as 3POs) charter Antonovs, but the bulk of the business comes from 3POs in Europe and in Asia. Since global oil majors like Shell, Exxon, and BP operate on tight schedules, where delaying delivery of mission critical components even for even a week can cost tens of millions, these huge multinationals are willing to shell out more than a million dollars to have 120 ton loads delivered in less than 48 hours. With oil prices at nearly $75 per barrel, the gas guzzling Antonovs themselves can cost more than $20,000 per hour to operate.
Just as its Soviet designers anticipated more than thirty years ago, the An-124 remains a critical airlifter for oil and gas development in remote Russian regions, including for Shell's Sakhalin II project, the largest energy project in the world. A re-engined and modernized version of the Illyushin 76, and proposals to produce a commercial version of the U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III airlifter, have yet to provide the Antonovs with very much competition.
An-124 landing at a NATO air base in Germany
The world's 120 ton plus airlift market remains an oligopoly split between three companies, two from Russia and one from Ukraine, and twenty aircraft. The Russian Air Force reportedly has twenty An-124s, but these are not all in flying condition. However, the news that original Antonov factory production will resume is good news for 120 ton charter customers, who have been paying and will continue to pay whatever the market can bear to "get it there yesterday".
The fact that privately owned Russian airlifters are providing airlift support for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a secret - but it has not been played up by either side, probably for similar political reasons. Some American Congressmen would probably want to know why America's NATO allies are still so short on airlift capacity that they have no choice but to turn to their former Cold War adversary for help; while politicians in Russia likely do not want Russian companies to be seen as profiting from America having "overstepped its boundaries" in Iraq.
All of this does pose an interesting question - if the Pentagon continues using Russian companies to provide critical logistical support for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, how seriously should Americans be taking all of the current hype about a "New Cold War" between the U.S. and Russia?