Murphy's Law: Greed And The Safer Aircraft


January 14, 2013: Afghanistan recently 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 is the unwillingness of the Italians to pay as much in bribes as the Afghan commanders were demanding. Over half a billion dollars was being spent on buying and operating these aircraft 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 of this.

More self-destructive behavior is expected. The Western donor nations are getting fed up with the increasingly aggressive Afghan corruption. Last year, as the Afghans asked for more military aid, the donor nations instead cut contributions. The Afghans were told that the aid would be reduced from $11 billion a year to $4.1 billion a year between 2012 and 2017. That would only change if, by some miracle, the Afghans managed to get their thieving ways under control. Currently, the Afghans will go to great lengths to get around donor auditors and anti-corruption measures. The C-27A was a case of everyone just giving up. Expect to see more cases like this.

The Afghan Air Corps was supposed to get 20 C-27A transports, but only 16 had been delivered when the contract was cancelled. 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 can depend on NATO transports, but after that they will be on their own. To deal with that Afghanistan is going to buy some An-32s from Ukraine.

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 most 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 (361 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.

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 nearly a thousand An-24 series aircraft are still working. That's not the first time this has happened. After 70 years there are still several hundred DC-3 transports working in odd (and often remote) parts of the world. But with age comes problems. Engines, and other parts of these aging aircraft, are prone to fail at bad moments. A major problem with the An-24 is the shortage of spare parts. The network of factories producing the parts fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The parts supply network has been slowly rebuilt, with many factories outside of Russia now producing needed components. Quality of these parts varies, which adds to the sense of adventure one has when flying in these aircraft. Thus the Afghan preference for the C-27A but only as long as there were sufficient bribes. The Russians are much more comfortable with the bribery. While the An-32s are cheaper to operate, they are less effective and more dangerous.




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