Beyond the destruction of an icon of world aviation, the de facto neutralisation of the entire fleet of large Ukrainian Antonov aircraft poses a major problem for all Western armies (except for the United States), which have long relied on the Antonov “family” to transport their heaviest equipment around the globe, cheaply.
One of the most striking images of the early phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was that of the world famous Antonov AN 225, destroyed, burned out and cleaved in two in its hangar at Hostomel airport. “Mriya” as it is known (dream in Ukrainian), had garnered an pseudo-cult following in the global aviation industry due to its status as the world’s largest aircraft. But its destruction also symbolised the end of a Western reliance on Antonov as a provider of large-scale logistical aircraft going back decades.
For over 20 years, NATO member states and other armed forces around the globe have been relying on Antonov aircraft for intercontinental logistics. Recent events in Ukraine are forcing Western powers to rethink logistical arms deployment, and move away from a decades-old reliance on large aircraft in order to make the best possible use of available airborne resources.
Antonovs: a key element of Western logistics
For some time now, Western powers and the NATO alliance have been using Antonov aircraft for strategic logistical missions. Back in 2018, Antonov Airlines offered to step into provide any required additional support to the EU and NATO’s Strategic Airlift International Solution (SALIS) programme after the exit of Volga-Dnepr. In particular, the company promised a consortium of 10 countries guaranteed access to AN-124 aircraft for NATO and EU operations. The AN-124 has the capacity to travel 4,500 km at a height of up to 10,000m carrying a maximum load of 120t. The aircraft is 36m long and 4.4m high, meaning it is capable of transporting large, heavy armoured vehicles to and from theatres of operations.
Indeed, AN-124s have been regularly spotted around the globe in recent years due to their exceptional load capacity, capable, for example, of transporting Singapore Defence Force Apache AH-64 helicopters to Australia for military exercises, or British armoured vehicles to Bosnia for Exercise Quick Response back in 2020. Mriya herself was often spotted on NATO-led logistical missions, such as the retreat from Afghanistan back in 2021. It was observed unloading 3 RAF Puma helicopters at RAF Brize Norton, blowing down the perimeter fence on takeoff. More recently, the Australian Department of Defense used an AN-124 to send 20 Bushmaster armoured vehicles and six M777 howitzers to aid the Ukrainian government’s defence of its country, although Western countries’ access to the aircraft remains wholly insufficient for current logistical needs.
Just last year the firm was awarded a contract to provide a further five years of strategic airlift capabilities to NATO and the EU. The agreement ensured that two AN-124-100s remain available around the clock for SALIS, with additional AN-124-100 planes available on request. An Antonov representative is quoted as saying that the agreement “confirms that NATO appreciates the high level of services provided by our company and trusts its Ukrainian partner.” The war in Ukraine, however, has had unforeseen consequences on the West’s access to these heavy load logistical aircraft provided by Antonov.
The war in Ukraine has meant that Western armies have had to reevaluate their dependence on companies such as Antonov who provide these rare logistical solutions. This has meant an increase in reliance on Western-made logistical aircraft such as the Airbus A400M Atlas or the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which themselves can be hard to come by for with the mounting needs of NATO forces in the framework of the continental strategic realignment in response to the war in Ukraine.
The A400M project, for example, was launched back in 2003 as a joint venture between partner nations Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK, who committed to a combined 170 aircraft, and export buyer Malaysia four. The plane has a capacity of 37,000 kg (81,600 lb) and has a cargo compartment with a width of 4.00 m (13.12 ft) x height 3.85 m (12.6 ft) x length 17.71 m (58.1 ft) (without ramp 5.40 m (17.7 ft). These characteristics mean that the plane is limited in its heavy load capacity, and cannot transport many of the heavier or larger tracked armoured vehicles, guns or tanks, which the Antonovs can. The plane has become ubiquitous worldwide: “The aircraft flies more than before, and we see it more or less everywhere around the globe,” said Clive Schey, A400M programme head at the company’s military aircraft unit.
The C-130 Hercules has an even smaller payload, weighing in at just 19,000kg (42,000 lb), or 6 pallets or 2–3 Humvees or 2 M113 armored personnel carriers 1 CAESAR 155mm self-propelled howitzer. This essentially means that all modern tanks, tracked armoured vehicles and artillery systems are too heavy to be transported in C-130s, meaning lighter, smaller and simpler systems must be prioritised for a more effective strategic logistical approach. The European C-130 fleet is ageing, and some EU countries have turned to newer aircraft to fulfil their logistical needs. The Netherlands, for example, recently agreed to replace their fleet of C-130s with 5 Embraer C-390s. The C-130s will remain in service until 2031, with the increase in fleet size a direct response to logistical issues arising from the retreat from Afghanistan and increased need in Eastern Europe as the war grinds on.
A logistical constraint that reinforces the suitability of ‘medium’ force models
In such a configuration, the lack of access to Antonov-sized logistic support aircraft means that land forces cannot rely primarily on thick armour and heavy equipment, but rather on mobile, capable and rustic systems that combine tactical and strategic mobility and can therefore be easily deployed and transported in aircraft such as the A400M, C-130 or C-390 mentioned above. These have the double advantage of being both deployable by these aircraft, but also in large numbers and with few rotations, by large aircraft.
Some European armies have opted for forces that are both easily deployable and capable of high-intensity operations. This is notably the case of France, which has a wealth of operational experience over the last 20 years, praised for its prowess, notably by the Rand Corporation, whether in Iraq or in the Sahel.
It owes its successes in particular to an optimal approach to the compromise between firepower/protection/mobility, whether for combat vehicles or artillery pieces. This last point is an emblematic example, underlined by the renewed tactical interest for howitzers and other artillery systems in Ukraine, especially in the context of attrition that dominates high-intensity confrontation. Some artillery pieces are better suited for rapid deployment to distant fronts, or by air in an environment with a highly degraded infrastructure using the range of aircraft available. The 155m CAESAR self-propelled howitzer mentioned above is a good example of this due to its mobility and ease of deployment. In addition to its tactical mobility, which gives it a much higher level of survivability than towed guns (such as the American M777), its strategic mobility is its major asset.
Developed by the French company Nexter, the CAESAR can be easily airlifted to theatres of operation. With a weight of 17.7 tonnes, the CAESAR can be transported fairly easily on A400s or C130s, which is not the case for the American M109 howitzer, which weighs 27.5 tonnes, or the German Panzerhaubitze 2000, which weighs in at 55.8 tonnes, or the British AS 90, 45 tonnes.
The relatively low weight of the CAESAR has not prevented it from becoming one of the most effective guns in the field, with a range of up to 40 km. It is also extremely mobile, especially compared to its tracked counterparts, thanks to its 6×6 chassis and 600 km operational range. It has proven itself in operations in which France has been engaged, as mentioned above, and is attracting sustained interest from a country which is currently playing host to the world’s highest intensity conflict, namely Ukraine, who have been benefiting from it for some weeks.
These characteristics have given CAESAR an optimal combination of strategic and tactical mobility, protection and firepower, which it shares with the other components of the Scorpion system, such as the Jaguar or the Griffon, which (after France) Belgium is in the process of acquiring, or with the Stryker BCT type units, which are experiencing renewed interest.
A combat concept whose relevance seems to be confirmed by the lessons learned during the first months of the war in Ukraine, and which pragmatically takes into account the major logistical constraints that strategic decision-makers are facing today.