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NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan could further crimp airfreight supply

Pentagon says US has pulled out almost a quarter of equipment and supplies

The German military contracted Antonov Airlines to haul equipment from Afghanistan with its giant An-124 freighters. (Photo: Leipzig/Halle Airport, Uwe Schoßig)

The diversion of large commercial jets to assist with the U.S. and NATO military withdrawal of troops and equipment from Afghanistan could create temporary transport shortages for companies seeking heavy airfreight capacity because freighters are already scarce, a regional manager for logistics provider Kuehne + Nagel said.

The Defense Department late Tuesday said the military drawdown from Afghanistan is nearly one-quarter complete thanks to airlift support from the Air Force and commercial cargo carriers. Aircraft operating under the direction of Air Mobility Command (AMC) have flown out the equivalent of about 160 C-17 planeloads of equipment and materiel from installations in the country. More than 10,000 pieces of military equipment have been turned over to the Defense Logistics Agency so far. 

The C-17 Globemaster, which has a rear ramp and maximum payload of 85.5 tons, can carry the Army’s 69-ton MI Abrams main battle tank, armored vehicles, and trucks and trailers. The cargo floor has rollers that can be flipped from a flat floor to accommodate wheeled or tracked vehicles to rollerized conveyors for handling palletized cargo. 

AMC is also deploying giant C-5 cargo aircraft and commercially contracted cargo aircraft, Scott Ross, a spokesman for U.S. Transportation Command, said in an email. 

Cargo airlines eligible for military business belong to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Under the CRAF program, airlines contractually commit  to supplement military air transport during wartime or other emergencies. To encourage carriers to participate, only CRAF partners can bid on government airlift contracts issued through the Defense Department during peacetime.

Meanwhile, the German army began shipping equipment from Afghanistan earlier this month with the help of an An-124, a Ukrainian-built superfreighter, operated by Antonov Airlines. The plane carried two helicopters to Leipzig/Halle Airport, the airport operator said in a news release.

U.S. Transportation Command has not contracted for An-124 airlift, Ross said, adding the organization “does not speculate on future support requirements.”  

President Joe Biden has ordered all U.S. troops and equipment to exit Afghanistan by Sept. 11, after 20 years of fighting to prevent the country from becoming a haven for terrorists again.

The use of commercial partners to supplement U.S. and NATO armed forces’ capabilities could soak up some aircraft that otherwise would be available for commercial operations, said Edward DeMartini, vice president for North American airfreight development at logistics provider Kuehne + Nagel, during a recent customer webinar.

Defense officials, he suggested, might seek Antonov An-124 superfreighters operated by Volga-Dnepr Airlines and Antonov Airlines, or possibly specialized Boeing 747s, because they can lift heavy pieces of equipment such as tanks and armored vehicles. 

“That is going to have an impact on other project-related capital goods movement around the world and it could mean that those people who would normally use an Antonov, perhaps to move a crane, are going to have to shift their focus to Boeing 747s with nose-load capability, and therefore take some of that 747 freighter fleet out of the normal air market,” he said.

The supply of all types of cargo aircraft is extremely tight because passenger airlines are flying about 85% below normal international capacity due to COVID-19 border restrictions and health concerns. The widebody aircraft used for long-haul flights represent more than 50% of normal cargo capacity, but the industry is operating at a 15% deficit compared to 2019 while international trade and demand for cargo services simultaneously continue to rapidly grow.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Antonov Airlines An-124 was built in Russia. It’s built in Ukraine.)

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Companies in desperate hunt for aircraft to move cargo

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]