Tim Ripley Alan Peaford

The arrival in Paris of the giant Antonov An-124 "Ruslan" has upped the stakes in the UK's competition to lease a minimum of four strategic transport aircraft.

Ukrainian company Antonov is bidding for the contract in partnership with Luton airport-based Air Foyle, against strong opposition from Boeing's C-17A Globemaster III and the Airbus Industrie A300-600 Super Transporter.

Industry sources at Paris indicate discussions were taking place to bring forward the contract award from January 2000 to September or October this year because of shortages of strategic airlift capability that were highlighted during the Kosovo crisis.

Speaking at the Paris airshow yesterday, UK under secretary of State for the Defence John Spellar said: "Kosovo validated our strategic defence review's assersions that we require more mobility and airlift - We need to build it up."

Antonov's charter arm is currently playing a major role in the deployment of British forces to Kosovo, flying to Skopje in Macedonia five times last week. The company's involvement followed a ban by Moscow on rival charter firm HeavyLift and its Russian ally Volga-Dnepr using Russian-based Ruslans to carry British military cargoes, because the Kremlin wanted to show its opposition to the NATO mission in Kosovo.

"When the An-124s were taken away the Ministry of Defence had a big gap," says Air Foyle strategic advisor Owen Truelove. "We've flown from Leeming, Cardiff and Brize Norton so far. We already have an enabling contract with an agreed price, so when HeavyLift pulled out we were able to step straight into do the job."


The British have been using the massive Ruslans, which can carry 70-tonne cargoes, since February to support its Balkan peace-keeping operations.

Warrior infantry fighting vehicles have been flown to Macedonia to reinforce the British contingent serving with NATO.

US Air Force C-17s have seen extensive service during the Kosovo crisis, deploying men and equipment of the US Army's Task Force Hawk into Albania via the single small runway at Rinas airport.

Boeing firmly believes that other NATO countries should be participating more fully in the heavy lift programmes and that the C-17 and its US backing offers the ideal solution.

"There was concern over the ban on using An-124s," says a Boeing spokesman. "It left exposure. There is security in the C-17."

Boeing is under contract with the US Air Force to build and deliver 120 C-17 Globemaster III through 2004. The aircraft was declared operational in January 1995 and since then the fleet has amassed more than 125,000 flying hours.

The aircraft's operations prior to the Kosovo conflict included flying troops and equipment to Bosnia and humanitarian missions to deliver hurricane relief supplies to Honduras and Nicaragua.

The key to the C-17's speedy success with the US forces has been its flexibility.

A cockpit crew of two and one loadmaster can operate the C-17. "The aircraft was designed so that the loadmaster can change the configuration no matter how strong he - or she - may be," said the spokesman.

The cargo compartment can carry army wheeled vehicles in two side-by-side rows, or carry 101 paratroopers.

Boeing has just delivered the 50th aircraft to the US Air Force and has flexibility to offer the aircraft to other governments.

The company is believed to be looking at special operations requirements for the US government and as well as the UK Short Term Strategic Aircraft (STSA) procurement project, Boeing will be expressing its belief that the G-17 is the ideal candidate to meet the Future Large Aircraft (FLA) requirement for several European countries.

Source: Flight Daily News