How the Pentagon Quietly Turned Half a Billion Dollars Into $32,000
The military didn’t tell inspectors it planned to junk troubled aircraft
The logistical nightmare that is America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan got a lot worse in August, when the U.S. Air Force scrapped 16 G.222 transport planes worth roughly half a billion dollars.
These were planes the Air Force had bought for the Afghans, but which rarely flew. And just how much is half a billion dollars worth of military aircraft, in scrap value?
We know about the expensive scrap heap thanks to a letter that John Sopko—from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a watchdog agency—sent to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James on Oct. 3.
As shocking as the junking is to us, it also came as a surprise to Sopko and SIGAR, whose job it is to make sure the U.S. wastes as little money as possible in Afghanistan.
A SIGAR official told War is Boring that no one informed the watchdog group that the 16 G.222 planes would be “torn to shreds and sold as scrap for six cents a pound.”
The Italian-made transport aircraft were from a batch of 20 that the Air Force purchased in 2008—for a cool $486 million—and gave to the tiny, impoverished Afghan air force.
The Afghans couldn’t handle so many big planes.
After arriving in Kabul, 16 of the twin-prop G.222s mostly sat on the tarmac at the international airport. War Is Boring’s own David Axe saw them languishing beside the terminal every time he flew in and out of Afghanistan. Another four G.222s mouldered at an American air base in Germany.
Sopko asked about the planes for years. And he wasn’t alone. The Department of Defense Inspector General—a watchdog agency that’s similar to but separate from SIGAR—looked into the idle aircraft way back in 2012.
The Air Force said then that the G.222s were too expensive to maintain and needed too many pricey spare parts. By September 2012—after four years in Afghanistan—the transports had flown for a collective 234 hours. Contracts required them to fly 4,500 hours over the same period.
The DODIG discovered that the military would need to spend an extra $200 million in spare parts and repairs just to get the aircraft ready to fly on a sustained basis. Instead, the Air Force let the G.222 contracts expire in March 2013. After that point, no one even tried to maintain and fly the lonely airlifters.
In November 2013, Sopko met with commanders in Kabul to discuss the tarmac-bound aircraft. Officials copped to the program’s faults and delivered a presentation on how to avoid similar problems in the future.
But returning home, Sopko wanted to know more.
“Why [did the Pentagon purchase] aircraft that apparently could not be sustained,” Sopko asked in a December 2013 letter to Hagel. “What will happen to the [planes] currently sitting unused at the Kabul International Airport and in Ramstein Air Force Base Germany?”
Some time following the date of Sopko’s letter, the Air Force towed the G.222s in Kabul to the other side of the airport. There, the Defense Logistics Agency scrapped the planes … and sold the resulting pile of metal to an Afghan company.
Again, the scrap went for six cents a pound. $32,000 in all.
The Defense Logistics Agency didn’t respond to War Is Boring’s requests for comment. We also reached out to the Defense Department and the Air Force. Both sent us the exact same prepared statement. “The Department of Defense recently completed disposal of aircraft located in Kabul, Afghanistan, to minimize impact on the draw-down of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.”
In short, scrapping was the best way to get rid of a bunch of problem planes, according to the military. “[The Pentagon] strives to ensure every reconstruction project is executed in a manner that demonstrates responsible stewardship of taxpayers’ dollars,” the statement continues.
“Working in a wartime environment … such as Afghanistan brings with it many challenges,” the statement concedes. “We continually seek to improve our process.”
We reached out to the Defense Department’s spokesman on the G.222 issue—a Maj. Bradlee Avots—to ask if the military had informed Sopko of its plan to destroy the aircraft. He was the first to send us the canned statement. He then proceeded to ignore our follow-up phone calls and emails.
“We value the oversight provided by inspectors general and audit agencies,” the statement insists. “And incorporate their findings and recommendations into subsequent efforts.”
We’re not buying it. Apparently Sopko’s not either.
“Explain whether alternatives to scrapping the planes were considered,” Sopko demanded in his Oct. 3 letter. “If alternatives were considered, why were they not pursued, such as flying the planes out of Afghanistan to the United States, Europe or other country for sale?”
That doesn’t sound like the statement of a man whose oversight the military values—and who’s happy with the Pentagon’s forthrightness.
We attempted to talk to the Air Force about its communication with SIGAR. Ann Stefane—a media operations officer for the flying branch—responded with the same prepared statement we’d already received from Avots.
We pressed her. “I don’t have anything beyond the statement I provided,” she wrote via email.
“We … are focused on building the capability and capacity of our Afghan partners to improve accountability and help instill sound financial management practices in daily operations, while reducing the risk of fraud, waste and abuse,” that prepared statement claims.
But Sopko wants to know whether the G.222s were airworthy when the Air Force destroyed them—and whether “efforts were made to return the aircraft to the manufacturer or to obtain a refund.”
“Additional information will be provided following an ongoing review to respond to the questions posed in the SIGAR letters,” is how the Pentagon responded to the inspector’s Oct. 3 query.
Let’s hope the military can do a better job communicating with Sopko about this half-billion-dollar scrap job. It sure did a terrible job talking to us.