On July 18, a small plane full of U.S. commandos made an emergency landing on a road in Uganda. This incident shines a light on the important role contractors continue to play in U.S. operations in Africa—and the competitive nature of the business.
The aircraft developed an undefined technical difficulty during its flight and attempted to return to Entebbe airport in Uganda. The pilots successfully put the twin-engined transport down on a stretch of road in the town of Kiwawu after running out of fuel.
No one on the plane or on the ground was injured.
The small CASA-212 cargo aircraft was en route from Uganda’s Entebbe airport to South Sudan. Nine Americans were on board, along with a crew of two.
We don’t know for sure what units the individuals were from or what their exact mission might have been. But other reports have already identified the troops as American commandos and the local news footage showed on soldier who appeared to be wearing a green beret.
NTV Uganda television channel interviewed, at the scene, a U.S. Marine Corps colonel with parachute wings and no visible unit insignia. The individuals were working with Uganda’s People’s Defense Force, Colonel Duke explained to NTV’s reporter.
These troops could have been helping hunt down member’s of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group and its leader Joseph Kony. The UPDF provides the bulk of the African forces for this mission, which spans across Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
The CASA-212 in question also supports the conclusion that the individuals were assigned to Special Operations Command Africa. Private contractor EP Aviation LLC owns the plane.
EP Aviation in turn acts as a subsidiary of the AAR Corporation. In November 2013, AAR won a contract to fly SOCAFRICA operators around central Africa.
The Pentagon works with almost all of the countries on the continent to fight terrorism, train professional militaries, deal with regional crises and more. Special operations unit have historically been the go-to force for these missions, though regular troops are increasingly involved.
Contract air force
But Washington has only one formal base on the continent and does its best to maintain a low profile during operations. After centuries of colonial domination, African governments are generally keen to assert their independence and downplay the presence of foreign troops.
As a result, Africa Command relies heavily on contractor-flown planes and helicopters to haul troops and cargo to what it prefers to call “operating sites” and “forward operating locations.” Small, innocuous, civilian-type aircraft are far less imposing that large, gray Air Force transports.
In fact, the Pentagon requires the planes to be as inconspicuous as possible. One 2012 airlift contract specifically said that contractors would have to get formal approval to fly aircraft in any other color than white.
The contracts to supply this commercial air force also have become very lucrative. AAR’s contract to fly two planes around the region is worth more than $22 million.
So it should come as not surprise that Evergreen Helicopters—the contractor that won the previous iteration of the contract—quickly disputed the Pentagon’s decision. Evergreen’s fleet also includes the CASA-212.
AAR, and its subsidiary EP Aviation, quite visibly have won out. But the planes needed to keep flying while the government sorted out the objections.
In the end, the Pentagon paid Evergreen to fly the missions for an extra five months. There was “no other option” to “avoid a lapse in service,” according to contract documents.
Evergreen also has two helicopters in the region helping out U.S. forces. One of the company’s Sikorsky S-61s—similar to the helicopter in Afghanistan shown above—hauled mechanics and fuel to the scene of the accident last week.
In May, the the next iteration of this contract was also awarded to AAR. Evergreen—now doing business as Erickson Transport, Inc.—is protesting this decision as well.
Last month, the U.S. Transportation Command—which runs both of these contracts—announced that it would again temporarily hire Erickson to avoid a break in the service. The new emergency contract will run for four months, with the possibility of a two-month extension after that.
AAR Corp may well win this new budget battle, too. Whatever happens, we can expect contractors to keep on supporting American missions Africa for the foreseeable future.