Advertisement

Canada just seized one of Russia's dwindling supply of massive heavy-lift cargo planes

Canada just seized one of Russia's dwindling supply of massive heavy-lift cargo planes
  • In early June, Canada seized a Russian plane that had been stuck in Toronto since February 2022.

  • The aircraft was an Antonov An-124, one of the biggest transport aircraft in the world.

  • It was one of the few heavy-lift transport aircraft that Russia's military still has in operation.

Cargo planes have become indispensable enablers for modern warfare. There never seems to be enough of them to meet demand for hauling weapons, supplies, and personnel.

So Canada's seizure of a Russian cargo aircraft is bad news for a Russian air-transport fleet that is now a shadow of what it was in its Soviet glory days.

This month, Canada confiscated an Antonov An-124, one of the biggest transport aircraft in the world. It arrived at Pearson Airport in Toronto to deliver Covid-19 tests in February 2022. Soon afterward, Canada closed its airspace to Russian aircraft in response to Moscow's attack on Ukraine on February 24.

Antonov An-124
A Volga Dnepr Airlines Antonov An-124 grounded at Canada's Pearson International Airport in May 2022.Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The plane has been sitting at the airport since then. To add insult to injury, it has accrued more than $330,000 in parking fees, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The aircraft is the first physical asset seized under Canada's Special Economic Measures Act, which was amended in June 2022 to allow confiscation of assets belonging to entities deemed responsible for a major breach of international peace, corruption, or human-rights violations.

The AN-124 "is believed to be owned by a subsidiary of Volga-Dnepr Airlines LLC and Volga-Dnepr Group, two entities against which Canada recently imposed sanctions due to their complicity in President Putin's war of choice," the Canadian government said in a press release.

"Should the asset ultimately be forfeited to the Crown, Canada will work with the Government of Ukraine on options to redistribute this asset to compensate victims of human rights abuses, restore international peace and security, or rebuild Ukraine," the government said. Ukraine's prime minister said earlier this year that Kyiv planned "to confiscate" the plane.

Antonov An-124 Hostomel Kyiv Ukraine
A damaged Antonov An-124 at Antonov Airport near Hostomel in Ukraine in August 2022.Ruslan Kaniuka/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

Losing a single plane aircraft will hardly dent Russia's military or civilian air-transport capacity, but it does highlight how far Moscow's aerial cargo fleet has fallen since its Soviet heyday.

The Soviet Union had more than 1,100 military transports by the time it collapsed, according to a study by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. Today, Russia has just 446 such aircraft, according to the 2023 edition of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Then and now, the crown jewel of the fleet was the An-124, a four-engine giant that was Russia's equivalent of the US military's C-5 Galaxy. The An-124 can haul about 132 tons of cargo. (The latest C-5 variant, the C-5M, can haul roughly 140 tons.) A total of 54 were built between 1985 and 2004, with 26 going to the Russian Air Force and the remainder to private carriers.

The An-124 became a fixture of heavy air transport, capable of carrying troops and their gear, main battle tanks, and even NASA and SpaceX rockets. Ironically, An-124s were chartered by NATO nations to haul cargo to alliance forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Germany Bundeswehr NH90 helicopter AN-124
A German military helicopter is unloaded from an An-124 during redeployment from Afghanistan in May 2021.Jan Woitas/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Russian military today is estimated to have about a dozen An-124s, while Antonov — now a Ukrainian aviation company — had six, though one was destroyed by Russian bombardment during the invasion.

There were plans in the early 2000s to build replacement aircraft as part of a joint Russian-Ukrainian production program. (The Soviets had built one of the An-124's production lines in Ukraine). But this cooperation ran into a snag: The An-124's D-18 engines were made in Ukraine.

After Russia's annexation of Crimea and Ukraine's ban on military-related exports to Russia, "it became impossible to acquire Ukrainian-built engines for aircraft, which raised the issue of keeping An-124s flying as their engines could not be replaced or spares purchased for their maintenance," the RUSI report noted.

Russia seems to have learned how to maintain the AN-124's engines without Ukrainian help, though it remains to be seen if the Western embargo on aircraft components for Russia will have any effect on the aircraft's serviceability.

Whether from crashes or confiscations, Russia can't afford to lose many of these giant transports.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider