Stop Relying on Russian Aircraft

Ariel Cohen /

The United States is increasingly relying on the Russian Federation for supplying U.S. forces stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is because the U.S. does not have enough C-17 military transport aircraft to address all of its logistical needs and meet its commitments around the world. Freedom is not free, and neither is the Russian help.

In 2007, the United States paid $47,000 per hour to lease Russian Antonov AN-124 “Ruslan” strategic heavy lift jets. In fiscal year 2007–2008, the U.S. taxpayers paid more than $840 million total to the Russians. This equals what the Department of Defense would pay for four additional C-17 aircraft, which would serve the U.S. military for the next 40 or 50 years. Instead, the Obama Administration, in an effort to achieve immediate dollar savings, proposed to cancel the C-17 program in the defense budget last year.

With additional $400 billion in cuts in the defense budget that the President proposed last month, U.S. national security is apparently one of the few areas where the President is willing to cut. In the long term, however, taxpayers will pay even more in Russian plane leasing fees than if the Administration continued with the program and procured more C-17 aircraft.

Due to its versatility, the C-17 aircraft is an invaluable resource when dealing with humanitarian catastrophes in hard-to-access areas, such as Haiti or Chile after earthquakes in 2010. These events increased the operational tempo of the C-17 fleet—and increased U.S. reliance on foreign aircraft. This reliance ended up costing the U.S. taxpayers $2 billion. This money could have been used to procure eight additional C-17 aircraft and create jobs to support the U.S. declining defense industrial base.

The U.S. is not alone in reliance on the giant Ruslans. In 2006, the NATO leased six Antonov An-124-100 transport aircraft from Russia and Ukraine to bridge the gap between NATO’s strategic airlift capabilities and demands of its “out-of-area” military operations. The initiative is yet another demonstration of diminishing capabilities of our European allies.

In the future, the U.S. will be required to help its allies and friends with consequences of similar catastrophes in the future. Hence, the U.S. should be able to provide for its strategic airlift capabilities, because others might not be able or willing to meet America’s needs. A capable air cargo fleet is one of the essential components of U.S. power projection capabilities, which essentially underpins the current world order.

Increasing dependence on the foreign airlift capabilities, especially those of Russia, should be worrisome also from the intelligence perspective. By supplying the U.S. forces in a conflict area, the Russian Federation can obtain sensitive information about their locations, movements, and classified equipment. Does the U.S. really want to rely on the country whose spying activities in the U.S. reached Cold War levels? What would happen if the Russian Federation provided sensitive data to other players hostile to the U.S. interests, such as Iran or China?

It may be cost effective to lease the Ruslans for humanitarian operations. It is a whole different question if U.S. power projection capabilities are jeopardized by relying on the Russian strategic airlift in military contingencies.

This post was co-authored by Michaela Bendikova