Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Update on the Iraqi airlift

Last December the Iraqi airlift began in earnest. Truckers were in short supply; supplies weren't making it through. In October, 23 U.S. soldiers famously refused to transport fuel but had to be forgiven rather than court-martialed.

Today I thought I'd see how the airlift is progressing. Though I have no data as proof, this appears to be largest sustained military airlift since the great Berlin airlift of the Cold War.

Why should you care? The reason I wrote about it at the time, as now, is that the airlift is one of those "metrics" that Donald Rumsfeld has such a hard time finding as to how well the war...I mean, pacification effort...is really going. It is also adding greatly to the cost of the war.

The mainstream media, however, are ignoring it. They prefer to focus on events involving personalities even as they do their best to cooperate with the Bush administration to put a smiley face on the war. Hence our recent news of progress concerns the capture of Saddam's half-brother (and how we're "tightening the noose" on al-Zarqawi)—which, in terms of its effect on the occupation, is even less meaningful than the capture of Saddam himself.

Information is sparse but here's what I've found—

"The most dangerous highways in the world"

On February 8 Defensetalk.com carried an Air Force press release that suggests the airlift continues to grow, which is to say that the ground conditions continue to deteriorate—

Recently 250 additional U.S. truck drivers per week were removed from the dangerous roads of Iraq because of expanded air operations that deliver cargo directly from the United States to airfields in Iraq. This, combined with existing air operations, now removes about 1,280 convoy drivers per week from Iraqi roads.

“Many cargo operations were flying into airfields that were located in … the most dangerous areas of Iraq,” he said. “Truck convoys would then drive outward from these airfields across the most dangerous highways in the world in order to deliver supplies to the military forces. There had to be a smarter way to get supplies to our forces.”

Air Force officials increased the number of aircraft available to mitigate convoy operations, but, until now, the focus was not in the areas where truck drivers were facing their greatest threat.

Today, strategic airlift delivers cargo directly to several airfields capable of handling the large aircraft, officials said. A hub-and-spoke system has been established to re-fly cargo to smaller airstrips where C-130 Hercules aircraft can land, but more importantly, to locations where the largest concentration of military forces are assigned.

These initiatives have not eliminated all trucks on the roads within the Sunni Triangle, but air support has certainly mitigated the threat for at least 250 more truck drivers per week that once traversed the most dangerous roads in the world, officials said. [emphasis added]

Casualties of the airlift?

If the insurgents are trying to eliminate supply transport and if the U.S. has switched from ground to air, it would follow that the insurgents must be trying to affect the airlift operation.

I suspect that that is what the downing on January 31 of the British Hercules C-130 was about. The Hercules is a plane that can be used for the "spoke" portion of the hub-and-spoke operation mentioned above.

While the crash was widely reported for 24 hours, by February 4 there was only a brief mention that the British military "with the assistance of U.S. forces" had concluded their investigation. No word of their conclusions. But on February 9 AF Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, the deputy commander of US Central Command was quoted as saying—

I personally believe there may have been either hostile action or something that happened inside the aircraft, but I doubt that it was mechanical in nature, if you know what I mean.

Amplifying this, the Scotsman adds—

Smith said there have been reports that ground fire was seen in the area at the time of the crash, and this is being investigated by the British government.

He expressed doubt that a shoulder-fired missile brought down the C-130, but he left open the possibility that it could have been a radar-guided surface-to-air missile or small arms fire.

“I don’t believe that airplane went down from a missile,” he said, noting later that he was referring specifically to what the military calls a man-portable, or shoulder-fired, missile.

A radar-guided surface-to-air missile?

Iraqification of the airlift

I bet you haven't heard anything about the Iraqi air force. Well, believe it or not, there is one.

A US Central Command press release dated February 3 says,

Iraqi air force officials welcomed the arrival of two UH-1H Huey helicopters Feb. 1 to Taji Air Base.

The completely refurbished helicopters will provide airlift support and important troop-moving capabilities for the growing Iraqi air force command. A gift from Jordan, this is the first in a series of scheduled deliveries to occur during the next 12 months.

A total of 16 UH-1H aircraft are slated to arrive in Iraq by February 2006. The Iraqi flag is displayed on the fuselage of both aircraft.

Currently, 14 Iraqi pilots are fully trained and awaiting additional flight instruction from their U.S. advisory support team (AST) pilots. Flight training will continue for the next several months until all 48 Iraqi pilots are certified. In the meantime, maintenance training will commence for the engineers and ground crews.

So Jordan is buying Hueys for the Iraqis. Interesting. But that's not going to do much for the airlift operation.

To learn about that we must turn—of all places!—to the New York Jewish Times in an article that appeared sometime in mid-February—

Two days after their first training flight on a C-130 cargo plane, a crew from an Iraqi Air Force squadron were back in the cockpit for their first mission: flying Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi round trip from Baghdad to As Sulaymaniwah West.

The Iraqi pilot who flew the aircraft described the mission as a great honor, one he was grateful to participate in. Allawi arrived at the landing zone by helicopter and quickly greeted the Squadron 23 crew as he boarded the cargo plane.

“It’s a big job,” said the pilot, who asked not to be identified for security reasons. “It’s a great thing to do, and we appreciate the Americans help in getting us trained to do this.”

The Iraqi crew included an engineer, loadmaster and navigator along with the pilot. They just happened to be on the flight schedule when Allawi needed transportation, said Maj. Mike Frame, a U.S. Air Force pilot with the 777th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron who is training the Iraqis with five other U.S. crew members from the squadron.

Getting the crew members up to speed to fly C-130s wasn’t too difficult, Frame said. All have prior experience, they just didn’t have the opportunity to maintain or expand their skills until Saddam Hussein was no longer in power, he said.

“The crews are much better than we expected,” Frame said. “They just need some time to get acquainted with the new plane and new flying procedures.”

The Iraqi crew completed a training mission Feb. 9 – their first time ever in the cockpit of a C-130 – in which they flew five other crews from their Talil, Iraq-based squadron to Amman, Jordan. Four of the crews are going through training in Amman; the fifth continued on for Hercules simulator training in Little Rock, Ark.

The United States gave Iraq three C-130 cargo planes in January to help incorporate airlift capabilities into their Air Force. The planes were overhauled and given new exterior paint jobs, which included Iraqi flags on the tail sections. [emphasis added]

My prediction: It'll be a long time before one of those "Iraqi Air Force" C-130s leaves the ground without some U.S. military advisors near the cockpit.

In summary

Conditions for Iraqi land transport have not improved. The airlift has grown. The U.S. is making some effort to get the Iraqis involved in it, but it looks pretty inconsequential for the moment.

Now whether those refurbished C-130s that we're donating to the Iraqis have anything to do with the $4 billion contract awarded to Boeing and whether this is a way to keep a portion of the cost of the war away from the public eye by putting it into the military's budget is a topic for another post—if I ever get around to checking it out.

Related posts
Will kidnappings alter the Iraqi employment situation? (updated) (7/26/04)
Turkish hostage executed (8/2/04)
More Turkish companies vamoosing from Iraq (8/8/04)
Where's the ice cream truck? (8/16/04)
The Iraq airlift has begun (12/18/04)
The Loose Noose (2/26/05)

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