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Air Force steps up Iraq cargo flights

/ Source: The Associated Press

The Air Force is making more cargo flights over Iraq to keep Army transport trucks off the country’s dangerous roads, accepting the increased risk to planes and added cost to reduce the threat on the ground, officials said Tuesday.

During the last month, the Air Force reorganized the operations of its cargo lifters and is now flying about 450 tons of cargo around Iraq daily, said Lt. Col. Mike Caldwell, an Air Force spokesman. That’s an increase of about 100 tons a day over its previous average, he said.

Most of the missions are flown by propeller-driven C-130 Hercules transports; the Air Force has 64 available in and around the Iraq theater, officials said. The larger C-17 Globemaster and commercial aircraft also are used for some flights.

The cargo consists primarily of repair parts and ammunition. They flights also carry armored Humvees from Kuwait to Baghdad, eliminating for the vehicles the risks of a four-day drive.

While they carry only a small portion of the 25,000 tons hauled daily around Iraq in support of the U.S.-led military effort there, Air Force officials say the cargo flights keep about 180 people off the roughest roads in a 24-hour period.

The flights “give the ground forces the opportunity to reduce the traffic on the most dangerous routes,” said Gen. John Jumper, the Air Force’s chief of staff, according to a transcript of comments he made Tuesday.

On a given day in Iraq, 3,000 vehicles in 215 convoys are moving around, according to Air Force figures. They face ambush by insurgents and attacks from roadside bombs. Scores of soldiers and drivers have been killed or wounded while on convoy duty.

Many of the heavy trucks in these convoys are without armor and are protected only by troops in escorting Humvees. An Army Reserve unit refused to go on a convoy mission in October because they believed it was too dangerous. The military acknowledged some of their concerns were valid but punished some of the soldiers for refusing orders.

Greater risk for aircraft
Still, increased flights by cargo aircraft subject them to greater risk. Insurgents have shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that are capable of taking down low-flying aircraft, although C-130s and other military planes have defenses against them.

“There will be increased SAMs,” Jumper said. “But we’ve also got 100 casualties a month in convoys. We’re not sending C-130s in there undefended, so they have the right kind of equipment to go in there and defend themselves.”

Last year, a civilian cargo jet was hit with a shoulder-launched missile after takeoff from Baghdad, and earlier this year a burst of automatic gunfire killed a passenger aboard an Australian C-130.

In addition, the increased flights probably will mean greater fuel and maintenance costs and stress on air crews. Flying a C-130 costs $3,400 (euro2,553) an hour, Air Force officials said.

“I am totally disinterested in the cost,” Jumper said. “It will be paid for. We will do what it takes.”

Some Air Force officials ultimately hope to haul as much as 1,600 tons a day around Iraq, officials said.