Why does the U.S. Air Force use dozens of transports that look like Russian aircraft and operate quietly, and unmarked, in many remote areas? It’s all about clandestine operations, at least the ones the CIA or DEA aren’t running. It’s all about AFSOC (Air Force Special Operations Command).
AFSOC provides specialized transports, helicopters and gunships for SOCOM (Special Operations Command) missions by army (Special Forces and rangers), navy (SEALs) and marine commandos. AFSOC also supports the air force air commandos (combat weathermen, pararescue, air controllers). This is done with a collection of nearly 200 aircraft and helicopters and 15,000 personnel.
AFSOC, like the rest of SOCOM, prefers to keep a low profile and for that reason many AFSOC transports are unmarked and are rarely noticed as they operate in remote, and often lawless, parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America. Some of these anonymous transports look like the Russian An-26 transports that were widely used by smugglers after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. The AFSOC version is called the C-145A and is actually the Polish An-28, built under license in Poland since the 1980s. Fewer than 200 An-28s were built. Costing $14 million each the 7.5 ton C-145A is a twin engine transport that can carry 16 passengers, ten paratroopers or 2.2 tons of cargo. Being a Russian design the C-145A was more familiar to many in places like Africa and Afghanistan, where Russian aircraft had long been used. The C-145A is rugged and simple to fly and maintain.
But the benefit of having a specialty aircraft like this does not justify the expense of the logistics and maintenance infrastructure to keep it operational. Most of the light AFSOC transports are Western models like the Do-328 (as the C-146A) and PC-12 (as the U-28A.) Most AFSOC transports are equipped to operate at night and in any weather, as well as at very low altitudes.