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Wednesday January 24, 2007 20:18 by SWM PR - Small World Media
CD Stelzer investigates the secret role of freight airlines under contract to the US military and asks why they are allowed to refuel at civilian airports all over the world
ISLAND – WINTER 2006/2007 On three successive nights in early August 2006, members of the Trident Ploughshares raided Prestwick Airport in Scotland. After breaching security fences with wire cutters, the anti-war activists observed US Air Force transport planes on the tarmac and in a nearby service hangar. In two instances, they brazenly boarded military aircraft, rummaging through their interiors before being arrested.
The activists suspected the Americans of using the airport as part of an operation to resupply Israel with deadly munitions. They did not find the evidence they sought, but news of their arrests stirred a controversy in the United Kingdom. The ensuing debate over airport security among other issues overshadowed what the protesters had discovered.
At Prestwick, the ‘citizen inspectors’, as they call themselves, observed Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo planes mixed in with the military aircraft. The same company — Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings of Purchase, New York, owns the two commercial transporters. Both are registered as private businesses, offering a wide range of services to civilian customers.
Both companies are also part of the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) — an arm of the United States Air Force. Frequent use of Prestwick by CRAF carriers is one reason the assorted scofflaws gave for committing their acts of civil disobedience.
The activists say they knew about the suspicious activities of these particular air cargo companies because their Irish counterparts at Shannon Airport, so-called ‘plane spotters’ had long reported on them.
Despite the clamour of anti-war protesters on both sides of the Irish Sea, few details concerning these US military-sponsored flights have been released.
To date, officials in Ireland and the United Kingdom have remained mostly reticent, failing to acknowledge any impropriety with respect to the US military’s use of civilian air facilities.
When asked directly, a spokesperson for the US Air Force Air Mobility Command (AMC) at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois refused to divulge whether CRAF planes specifically carry weapons, preferring instead to generically refer to all cargoes as Defence Department ‘freight’.
The AMC spokesperson also denied that CRAF planes are engaged in any intelligence-related activities, contradicting a 1996 Defense Department regulation that allows ‘classified material up to and including Secret [to] be transmitted outside the United States’ on board CRAF aircraft.
A spokesperson for the Atlas Air Worldwide declined to comment, as well, saying only that ‘as a matter of corporate policy, we do not publicly comment on our customers, their cargo, routes or schedules’.
There is no doubt, however, that CRAF planes are hauling weapons. In a recent letter obtained by ISLAND through Senator David Norris’ office, Minister for Transport Martin Cullen cited five instances in which Polar Air Cargo flights had been granted exemptions by the Government to fly weapons or munitions through Irish air space. In September, the US Defence Department allocated another $2.3 billion to the CRAF programme for the next fiscal year. Teams of American civilian airlines bid on these lucrative military contracts.
This year, as in the past, Atlas and Polar teamed up with Federal Express, which scored a contract valued at between $185 million and $1 billion — nearly half of CRAF’s current budget. The Pentagon implemented the CRAF programme in 1991, during the first Gulf War. But doling out military air support work to the private sector goes back even further.
The US defence establishment started employing commercial airlines several decades ago, a habit that has had the side effect of blurring the line between civilian and military aviation. More important, it creates a gray area used to finance US covert operations. A close look at a company once closely affiliated with Polar Air Cargo is a good way of shedding some light on this murky netherworld.
[The rest of this feature can be read in the current issue of ISLAND.]