How to stop the Antonovs?

Another day, another airstrike. Not Syria. Not Afghanistan. Not north-west Pakistan. This is Sudan, whose daisy-chain of low-intensity wars stretching from Darfur in the west to the Nuba Mountains and finally Blue Nile in the east, so supremely economical with column-inches in the international press, makes more high-profile wars look like youngsters. The Syrian civil war may be more brutal day-to-day, but it looks like an amateur at intractability in comparison to the interlocking set of centre-periphery conflicts in Sudan that have been running, on-off, for nearly thirty years. There are few heroes here - grave abuses abound on all sides of Sudan’s conflicts, rebel and government alike. 

But one key unifying tactic since the 1990s has been ‘dumb’ aerial bombardment. The Sudanese Air Force simply rolls unguided bombs – usually basic HE bombs, occasionally napalm or cluster munitions, sometimes just barrels filled with explosives and shrapnel –from the cargo ramps of the Sudanese Air Force’s fleet of Soviet-made Antonov cargo aircraft on high-altitude sorties over rebel-held areas. They are sometimes followed up by direct-fire air-to-ground rocket attacks on both rebel forces and civilian villages by attack helicopters and ground-attack jets. But not always: SAF’s objective with its Antonov bombings seems not to be to degrade the scattered rebel forces, against which such indiscriminate, untargeted bombardment is wholly ineffective; but to cause just enough death, injury and jeopardy to force civilian populations sustaining those rebels to flee from their villages into caves, or swelling refugee or IDP camps.

Best estimates suggest that this and other conflict tactics have displaced some 875,000 women, men and children across Sudan since January 2012 alone; including 275,000 in Darfur since the start of this year (nearly double the number in 2011 and 2012 combined). These fresh displacements have added to a burgeoning IDP population that may currently stand at some 2.5 million, and has at times during Sudan’s conflicts risen to an estimated 6.1 million (if we’re playing poker with human misery, Syria’s displaced population currently stands at an estimated 6.5 million). And one of the most common reasons for their displacement given by refugees flowing into South Sudan is summed up in a single word: “Antonovs”.

Regardless of its intention, the indiscriminacy of this tactic is plainly unlawful under international humanitarian law. And since 2005, “offensive military flights” of any kind have also been specifically forbidden in one region, Darfur, by a binding resolution of the UN Security Council, which also prohibits the movement into Darfur of the military aircraft and weapons used in such flights.

And yet almost every week since that resolution was passed, for eight years, the Sudanese government has violated this double prohibition with complete openness, and complete impunity. The Antonovs used for its ‘forbidden’ bombing sorties, week-in, week-out, are parked up openly beside the aircraft of the UN/AU peacekeeping mission at Darfur’s main airports, and loaded with bombs in front of UN personnel. (At El Fasher airport, Sudanese army personnel on occasion wheel the bombs to the Antonovs on superannuated Heathrow Airport baggage trolleys that are scattered about the airport, and have somehow made their way from South London to Darfur). Sanctions-violating Antonov bombing raids and helicopter airstrikes are as readily documented throughout Darfur as they are in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and have been wearily reported to the Security Council by its own Expert Panel on Darfur every year since 2006, alongside documented evidence of regular new arrivals into Darfur of SAF Antonovs, Su-25 ground attack aircraft and Mi-24 attack helicopters. There’s absolutely nothing clandestine about this sanctions-busting.

The Security Council has been presented since 2006 with an annual barrage of evidence that its Sudan resolutions are being openly violated almost daily. Yet it has yet to strengthen the sanctions, save adding a modest and essentially toothless requirement in 2010 for states exporting arms to Sudan to get end-user assurances – of the kind that Sudan routinely violates in any case. It’s never even been able to agree to add any individual or body to its list of (sanctioned) Sudan sanctions violators since 2006. Sudan is not Iran, or Eritrea: it's neither sufficiently important for Council members to spend real political capital on unblocking opposition within the Council to tougher measures, nor sufficiently unimportant to avoid such opposition in the first place. So the Security Council’s Sudan dossier remains in complete stasis. And the export decisions of Sudan’s key circle of suppliers of military aircraft and their weaponry – Belarus, Ukraine, China and the Russian Federation – remain largely immune to international public censure.

So what can the international community do to undermine the capacity of the Sudanese government to wage unlawful aerial war against its own population? I think we probably need to stop pretending that embargoes or geographically-bound conflict prohibitions really work very well, even where they’re actually taken seriously by the international community. I’m not convinced that it’s possible to build a semi-permeable membrane around a state that catches arms and aircraft going in, human rights abusers coming out, and lets everything else pass. Certainly not in Sudan. But what we can do instead is look at the leverage the international community has over the key things that sustain particular egregious military tactics and technologies – their supply chains.

In the case of Sudan, there’s repeated condemnation of Antonov aerial bombardment from human rights organisations, the UN, and governments; but very little scrutiny of the commercial and legal leverage that the international community has over:
  • The international logistics of the supply chain for technology itself: how Antonov transport aircraft, and aircraft munitions (bombs and rockets), are supplied to Sudan;
  • The domestic logistics of these supply chains within Sudan;
  • The skills and supplies needed for the maintenance of these aircraft;
  • The airside services that sustain these aircraft on the tarmac.
In fact all four actively involve commercial, non-Sudanese – and in some cases European – actors, oeprating across international borders:

These international actors are, in general, acting entirely within the law (I'm making no allegation that the companies or organisations named below are complicit in, or responsible for, embargo violations or international crimes; and I’ll leave the question of morality to the theologians). But European countries and intergovernmental organisations often have jurisdiction and influence over their activities nonetheless. Here's what they could do.

(N.B. Much of what follows is based on research undertaken last year for this Small Arms Survey paper. The Small Arms Survey is, of course, in no way responsible for the opinions and analysis below.)

The international supply chain

The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) perennially have to acquire Antonovs to replace those that – fairly frequently - die or crash. The last acquisitions I’ve been able to identify were a pair of An-26s: previously ageing Romanian Air Force planes which were brought out of retirement near Bucharest, refurbished at an aircraft repair plant in Zhulyany near Kiev during 2009, and then flew on to Khartoum in November 2009 and February 2010 respectively where they were re-designated with Sudanese military registrations. Both have since been spotted in Darfur. Significantly:

  • Their last-known owner, prior to them ending up with SAF, was a European company: while being repaired in Ukraine prior to delivery to Sudan, the two Antonovs were registered under the ownership of a Greek-registered aircraft broker, directed by Ukrainian nationals, called Asterias Commercial. The precise brokering chain of these aircraft remains unclear, but if it turns out that a Greek-registered company was involved in selling them to the Sudanese military, as well as being purchased from an EU member state, then arguably the EU embargo on Sudan - which unlike the UN embargo covers the whole of the country rather than Darfur alone, and enjoys substantive political consensus - could be applied to stop such sales. (Though it may require some tweaking of the embargo Common Position itself, or the EU Dual-Use Regulation, to ensure that transport platforms like Antonovs are covered when they’re sold to embargoed entities like the Sudanese military - a serious loophole that EU states have failed to close for years).
  • Because they were refurbished in Eastern Europe, typical for Soviet-origin cargo aircraft, they had to be delivered to Sudan via European-surveilled airspace - in this case from Ukraine via Turkey and Jordan. Could Eurocontrol member countries deny overflight rights to Antonovs headed to the Sudanese military? Perhaps not – it would probably be difficult for European air traffic controllers to spot and deny airspace to these ferry flights since they flew under a call-sign belonging to the Ukrainian civilian air company Meridian, which had registered their Ukrainian registrations during refurbishment; and didn’t receive military (numerical) registrations until after they’d arrived in Khartoum.
  • On the other hand, regular resupplies of the aircraft munitions deployed against civilians in Darfur, and elsewhere in Sudan, also take place through Eurocontrol airspace, and are easier to spot. Air warfare platforms themselves need resupply: for instance, the Sukhoi-25 ground attack jet aircraft whose attacks on civilian settlements are widely documented, were supplied between 2008 and 2010 by Belarus, which has to regularly re-supply them with the S-8 air-to-ground rockets used in such attacks (see photo at top), and with spare parts for the jets themselves. These S-8 rockets have been delivered to Khartoum by a cargo airline close to the Belarussian government, in rotations which take its cargo planes across the Black Sea, through Turkish airspace and down through Egyptian airspace. These countries issue overflight permissions for such flights, and all already have the right to block their airspace to aircraft carrying “weapons of war” (under Article 35 of the Chicago Convention). Turkey has reportedly closed its airspace to Iranian cargo aircraft flying to Syria suspected of carrying arms – so why not persuade Turkey to require cargo flights flying between Belarus and Sudan to prove that they’re not carrying munitions or spare parts for air weapon platforms known to be being used in violation of international law, before they grant them overflight permission?

Domestic logistics

A widening group of air cargo companies provide flights for the domestic ‘air bridge’ re-supplying SAF forces in Darfur. Previously solely reliant on domestic Sudanese cargo airlines, the Darfur air bridge has now begun to involve foreign companies too, flying on contract for the Sudanese military. From April to June 2011 an Il-76 cargo aircraft being operated by the Armenian air cargo company V-Berd Avia flew cargo into Darfur for the Sudanese Ministry of Defence, reportedly including vehicles, from Khartoum and El Obeid, flying under a Sudanese military call sign. Last year the UN Panel reported a second foreign-operated Il-76 offloading SAF cargo in Darfur in December 2011, though they didn’t identify its operator. Its new report in early 2014 may bring further revelations.

If it’s shown that these and other foreign operators have carried sanctions-violating cargo, then foreign aviation authorities and government procurement bodies could blacklist them and circumscribe their operations elsewhere. (The Emirati transport hub of Sharjah, the former operating base of V-Berd Avia, has already denied landing rights to several Armenian airlines since early 2012 – not, it appears, on embargo violation grounds).


SAF’s Antonovs keep flying thanks to two levels of maintenance provision. First, their original manufacturer, Ukraine’s Antonov Company, sends engineers to Khartoum periodically to carry out ‘extension of service life’ work. In 2010-11 the company worked on five Sudanese Antonovs with military registrations. Antonov Company insists this was done on the basis of contracts with a private Sudanese company, Sudan Master Technology Engineering Complex (well-known to be controlled by the Sudanese government), and based on assurances that these aircraft would not be used in Darfur or in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions. There's no suggestion that Antonov Company has acted in any way unlawfully. But in fact three of these Antonovs (numbers 7705, 7706 and 7777, in case you're interested) have been listed in public UN reports as operating for SAF in Darfur – the military registrations alone should be enough to ring alarm bells. The Chicago Convention, of course, requires aircraft designers and manufacturers to exchange information about continuing airworthiness with countries where their aircraft are operated. But such information-exchange obligations don’t extend to maintaining or extending the service life of aircraft themselves – particularly not aircraft being used in contravention of international law.

Pressure on the Antonov Company, and other prospective international maintainers of SAF’s Antonovs, could come from the fact that the Antonov Company also does millions of dollars of work every year for the UN (they lease a large number of Antonov aircraft requiring maintenance and certification, and also use the Antonov Company’s in-house airline for freight services), other international organisations, and many governments. Stopping such contracts would admittedly be a nuclear option. Many UN logistics operations, for instance, are wholly reliant on leased-in Antonov aircraft, already often poorly maintained. But there are other maintenance providers for Antonovs; and other aircraft types and providers also available, as the UN’s helicopter procurers are beginning to realize.

Second, the Sudanese government has enjoyed foreign assistance to establish its own domestic aircraft overhaul and maintenance facilities over the last five years. Much routine maintenance of SAF’s Antonovs and Mil-type attack and transport helicopters is now carried out at the Safat Aircraft Plant near Khartoum. While it also overhauls civilian aircraft, the Safat plant is described candidly by Sudan’s state Military Industry Corporation (MIC) as “one of MIC strategic projects...to provide the Armed Forces with the necessary warfare to enable them perform their duties”.

Safat was established with the participation of foreign companies including Russia’s Novosibirsk Aircraft Repair Plant, which has been licensed to maintain Mil-type helicopters in Khartoum (the Novosibirsk company is also currently being paid by NATO to train Afghan helicopter engineers). Ironically, Safat itself also appears to have enjoyed business as a result of the UN peacekeeping missions in Sudan, whose helicopter sub-contractors have apparently used Safat to maintain some of the missions’ Mil transport helicopters , alongside the Sudanese military Antonovs and helicopters being used so systematically to break the peace. To encourage Safat not to maintain embargo-busting aircraft, the UN could ensure that their missions' helicopters aren’t maintained there either until Safat stopped doing so.

Airside services

Finally, SAF’s Antonovs and other military aircraft rely on commercial service providers at their operating stations in Darfur, and elsewhere in Sudan. One stands out: the Malaysian oil company Petronas directly refuels SAF’s Antonovs and Su-25 ground attack aircraft on the tarmac at Darfur’s major civil-military airports.

Here the legal position is potentially more complex. The Security Council’s Sudan embargo Panel has argued that the provision of Jet-A1 fuel to military aircraft in Darfur is itself a violation of the UN embargo.

In response to press criticism, Petronas states that “Sudanese government authorities, in particular the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of Sudan, can and does take control of the operation of the services at Nyala Airport [in Darfur] from time to time. In such instances, not only [Petronas], but all other fuel suppliers present at Nyala Airport must comply with local legal requirements, including directives issued by the CAA. Such directives may include directing [Petronas] and other fuel suppliers to refuel a Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) aircraft requiring such services at the airport.”

If keeping civilian-bombing aircraft in the air is indeed the price for operating at Darfur’s airports, perhaps Petronas shouldn’t do business there. The UN and humanitarian aircraft that also use Petronas’ services in Darfur could refuse to do so until Petronas stops refuelling SAF’s Antonovs and attack aircraft; in extremis the UN mission could presumably supply itself in-house or via its own contractors instead (as it already does to distribute fuel for the mission’s generators and vehicles). Meanwhile governments around the world doing business with Petronas - and selling their oil to them - likewise have huge commercial leverage.


So: a modest proposal. If European and other governments are concerned to make it harder for the Sudanese government to violate UN sanctions and bomb civilians, here’s a few things they might do:

Part of the Supply ChainActors

INTERNATIONAL SUPPLY CHAINAntonovs obtained via EU suppliers/brokersEU member states could ensure EU embargo on Sudan covers complete civil/military transport aircraft, enforce embargo, and require licensing and due diligence on exports and brokering of transport aircraft to embargoed destinations
INTERNATIONAL SUPPLY CHAINAir-to-ground munitions (esp. S5/S8 rockets for Su-25s and Mi-24s) re-supplied by air via Eurocontrol airspaceEurocontrol member states - especially Turkey – could refuse overflight permission to likely resupply flights unless proof they are not carrying munitions or parts for air warfare platforms [Lithuania and Turkey already do so for suspected arms flights to Syria]
DOMESTIC LOGISTICSForeign air cargo operators have operated military ‘air bridge’ between Khartoum/El Obeid and Darfur to resupply SAF forces and assetsIf shown that these have carried sanctions-violating cargo, foreign aviation authorities and government procurement bodies could circumscribe these airlines' operations e.g. refuse aviation permits and air operating certificates
MAINTENANCEForeign company provides service life extension work for SAF Antonovs in KhartoumUN/other IOs/govts could decline or place conditions on future contracts with such companies unless they stop working on embargo-violating SAF Antonovs
MAINTENANCEKhartoum’s Safat aviation plant maintains SAF Antonovs and military helicopters, with foreign assistanceUN could stop its contractors doing business with Safat/repairing UN aircraft there
AIRSIDE SERVICESPetronas (Malaysian state-owned oil company) provides fuel services to SAF Antonovs and ground attack aircraft in DarfurUN and others could decline future business with Petronas in Darfur unless they stop refuelling SAF aircraft.

UN/govts could likewise place conditions on their business with Petronas unless they stop refuelling SAF aircraft

None of these, alone, is guaranteed to scupper Sudan’s air warfare capability: many of the actors involved in its supply chain are to some degree substitutable. But such pressure could raise costs, disrupt military capabilities, reduce the frequency of violations. And in any case, the aim must surely be not to deprive a sovereign nation of its air force altogether, but to put sufficient pressure on it to stop bombing civilians.

And if we doubt that supply-chain-pressure can make a difference, consider this photograph:

Second-from-left is one of the Sudan Air Force’s other transport aircraft: one of six US-made C-130s that were supplied to Sudan under Nimeri in the late 1970s. They sit, unused, on the military apron at Khartoum airport. Their engines are occasionally turned over, but they’re not airworthy, even by the suicidal safety standards of the Sudan Air Force. Their redundancy, I’m told by Sudanese aviation professionals, is due to the stringency of the blanket US trade sanctions on Sudan since the 1990s which prevent the acquisition of parts and maintenance for them. And so the Air Force has to rely on ex-Soviet Antonovs instead. I’m absolutely not advocating similar blanket trade sanctions. But targeted commercial and governmental pressure on key parts of Sudan’s air warfare supply chain could have a real effect in enforcing prohibitions that already exist in international law.

Photo at top: Umm Eshesh, eastern Darfur, Sudan, site of S-8 80mm air-to-ground rocket attack, 2011 [N.B. likely by Mi-24 or Su-25 aircraft]


  1. It is a good article. I am going to use it in my writing and will reference it.

  2. It is a very good article. It is worth drawing attention to such possible solutions even if the hope may be forlorn that those with power will listen