The accelerated drawdown of U.S. and other combat forces in Afghanistan is expected to lead to a heavy demand for airlift as vast amounts of military equipment begins to be moved out of theater. But contrasting attitudes to the use of commercial cargo capacity is likely to mean a difference in millions of dollars in the cost to the individual defense departments of the countries involved in the staged withdrawal.
Those best placed to immediately benefit from this reverse surge will be operators who have already been closely involved in the build-up and continued support of military operations in Afghanistan. UK-based Coyne Airways describes itself as a non-asset-based airline with the understated mandate of serving “difficult-to-reach” destinations — none more so than Afghanistan. But today, Coyne Airways has built up its services to the extent of operating two weekly B747-400F flights to Bagram, Kandahar and Kabul out of its Dubai hub.
“The upgrade to B747-400F capacity demonstrates the demand we are having to meet on these routes,” said Larry Coyne of Coyne Airways. “We also supplement these services with IL-76F flights to points such as Camp Bastion and Camp Leatherneck, allowing us greater flexibility and the ability to provide direct service to other forward-operating bases.”
Up until now, it has virtually all been one-way traffic into Afghanistan. But with the recent U.S. announcement that a military drawdown will start as early as next year, instead of 2014, as originally planned, that traffic flow could soon switch to reverse.
“We obviously keep a close watch on what is happening in this market, and we have had what could be some early indications of this policy change,” Coyne said. “Some of our B747-400F flights are now beginning to return with full loads of what the U.S. military term ‘retrograde’ traffic to Dubai, from where it can easily be transported by ocean.”
The given word was that the U.S. military exit strategy from Afghanistan would likely see it dump most of its equipment in the desert. That is not how it works these days, and “retrograde” is likely to quickly become the watchword for operators in the Afghanistan market. “This equipment is far too valuable and sophisticated to leave to rust,” Coyne said. “Besides, the U.S. Defense Department has become very wise and savvy to making the best use of the commercial market to provide its logistic support at competitive rates.”
According to Coyne, the U.S. Defense Department has an annual transportation budget of $3 billion, 70 percent of which is allocated to the private sector. “I heard a top U.S. general recently comment that they would not be able to move a fraction of the equipment they would want to if it were not for the use [the military] makes of the commercial market,” he said.
Contrast the stance in the U.S. with the UK’s Ministry of Defense, which insists that it directly handles all defense-related transport business, a policy shared by most other European defense departments. “It is a policy you could possibly understand if it related to a strategic build-up in a war zone,” Coyne said. “But we are now talking about a much more measured withdrawal — yet they insist on sticking to the same policy.”
This is clearly an issue that riles Coyne — not because of the loss of possible business to his airline, but for the sheer non-commercial inanity of such a policy. “Instead of going to the forwarders or operators like us, they go to the charter market and pay through the nose for each single charter,” Coyne said. “Worse still, they keep the business in-house and use military C-17 lift to facilitate their needs.”
According to Coyne, C-17 capacity costs 300 percent more than commercial freighter lift. He said this means the military is paying about $10 per kilogram of freight, whereas a commercial business would most likely charge somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 per kilogram.
Coyne Airways is still closely involved with another depleted war zone, Iraq, which it also serves from its Dubai hub. Still unable to mount its own services due to the monopoly in the market held by RUS Aviation, Coyne has swallowed the pill and makes use of the capacity offered by RUS Aviation. “It is a situation which has worked out well for us,” Coyne said. “In addition to offering a couple of weekly IL-76 freighter services to Baghdad, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, it means we can also serve other points, such as Basra, Kirkuk and Mosul on request.” RUS Aviation is also probably quite happy with the cooperative, as Coyne Airways is its main client and provides upward of 70 percent of the cargo on most flights.
The Caspian Sea region may not be classified as a war zone, but it certainly falls under the Coyne Airways difficult-to-reach criteria. But again, by subjugating other firms’ capacity, the non-asset-based British airline has secured a very strong position in this oddball market. In this instance, Coyne has been able to access block space on a weekly British Airways World Cargo B747-8F flight from London Stansted via Cologne to Tbilisi, Georgia.
About 80 percent of that traffic, which is a mix of oil-related freight and consumer goods, is then routed to Kazakhstan, Armenia, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, according to Coyne.
But Coyne Airways has hit something of a buffer more recently with the decision by BAWC Airways to reschedule its flight from a Monday to a Thursday departure.
“The Monday operation was ideal for us and our customers,” Coyne said. “We are now seriously looking at the option of starting a second service on a Monday out of a European point; if there are eastbound freighter operators out there, we would like to hear from them.” Coyne Airways previously experienced difficulties on the route when it added a supplementary B747-400F service out of Frankfurt flown by Jade Cargo. That proved to be an unpopular originating point and was ended.
The carrier now gets a strong traffic feed from the U.S. across its network. Coyne Airways, although an independently owned concern, acts as an exclusive general sales agent. “Sales in the U.S. have climbed by more than 60 percent in the last year,” Coyne said. “That has been generated from a mix of defense work, oil and gas business and general cargo.”
It would seem that Coyne can’t stay out of a war zone for long. He’s currently assessing the start-up of services in Libya. “We are looking to help get the oil industry going again by providing internal cargo capacity to move equipment inland to the oil fields,” Coyne said. “We would be working with a Libyan partner on the project, with initial thoughts pointing to the use of AN-12 capacity.”