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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The mouse is mightier than the MiG

The mouse is mightier than the MiG

The pride of Cambodia's Air Force - 20 MiG-21 fighter bombers - were designed

by Russian engineering genius Mikoyan Gurevich. They can travel at twice the speed

of sound, fire rockets and machine guns and drop bombs.

Well, they could if they were air worthy, but they are not. They have been grounded

by mice.

There is no word on whether the saboteurs had any particular political affiliation

or whether it was just the taste for electrical insulation that led them to wreak

havoc in the aircrafts' electronics. But there is no question that their work has

been effective.

The accumulated damage from mice, the weather and souvenir hunters, particularly

during UNTAC, means there is little chance the 20 planes will ever fly again.

The MiGs are the most obvious sign of the parlous state of the Royal Cambodian Air

Force. Lacking money and spare parts, there are more aircraft rotting than flying.

There were originally 21 MiGs. One crashed during pilot training in Vietnam, and

four are currently in Israel for a refit, though there is no money to pay for that

work.

The rest are deteriorating on the grass at the military airport at Poch-entong. One

air force technician estimated that each 15-year-old MiG has only flown an average

of 300 hours.

There is a further problem with maintaining a jet fighter capability - the pilots.

The original MiG pilots were highly-trained in Russia and Vietnam, but most of them

have left. They are now flying for commercial airlines or have switched to flying

other types of military aircraft.

The rest of the air force's equipment is not in much better state.

Cambodia has 22 fixed-wing aircraft, but a sorry lot they are:

ï There are three Soviet-built AN-24 cargo planes. One is grounded after a heavy

landing, and there is neither the money nor the spare parts to repair it. The other

two are overdue for routine maintenance.

ï There are three British-built BN-21As, small passenger planes. One crashed, another

hit a van parked on the airfield in Kratie and is still there, but the third is still

flyable.

ï There are two Chinese-built Y-12 17-seater combined passenger/cargo aircraft. Both

are flying, but they are soon to be taken over by Royal Air Cambodge.

ï The single Focke F-28 is in Indonesia for an inspection, and is being held there

till the bill is paid.

ï The Falcon 20E corporate jet was damaged during last year's coup and has been hastily

repaired, but its maintenance schedule is in disarray.

ï One of the six P92 trainers crashed and the others have been grounded because there's

no money for maintenance and parts.

ï Of the six L39 jet trainers, one crashed killing the pilot. The other five are

still flying but are due for routine maintenance.

There are also approximately 12 Mi-8 and Mi-17 helicopters but air force sources

said that prior to last week's crash only two were flying, and they were based out

at Takhmao for Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's use. These are regularly cannabalized

for parts, so the actual number of machines fit to take to the sky at any one time

is debateable.

Parts have been ordered from Vietnam for two Mi-8s following the Preah Vihear crash.

There is also an ex-Funcinpec Mi-8 that is used to ferry VIPs around, as is a small

Squirrel helicopter.

Two Mi-26 helicopters which belong to businessman Teng Bunma are available for government

and military use. However one has been grounded for maintenance.

The Mi-26 is the largest helicopter in the world and can be used for moving troops,

equipment and cargo.

Bunma's are usually crewed by Russian pilots and technicians.

One Western aviation expert had some simple advice for people contemplating a trip

on an air force helicopter - "be very, very cautious".

He said the lack of maintenance and irresponsible pilot operations mean the helicopters

are death traps.

He said that the latest crash could have been much worse: "In that heat at that

altitude, over-loaded things stop flying."

He also said the practice of carrying cargo without tying it down, and passengers

travelling without wearing seat belts, was also "a disaster waiting to happen".

He said it created a huge danger of being crushed during turbulence or rough landings.

Air force staff aren't confident that things will get better. One officer said there

is just not enough money to go round.

"Now Cambodia has an economic crisis so I cannot suggest to the government to

buy new aircraft. I am not even thinking of what aircraft we could buy as replacements,"

he said.

A technician at the airport said that there was a political and military belief that

an air force was unnecessary, and that the army and navy were defense enough.

Ironically, for a country that has a shortage of qualified people, the air force

has enough technicians to maintain and repair the aircraft. It is the shortage of

parts and money that has lead to the almost complete immobilization of its planes.

Historically the Cambodian Air Force has had little combat experience. It has seldom

been called on to bomb insurgents such as the Khmer Rouge or, of late, Funcinpec

forces at O'Smach.

One Western observer suggested this was because the government doesn't trust the

air force.

He said that the government was worried that if they sent pilots to attack somewhere

like O'Smach they could bomb government troops and claim it was a mistake.

This lack of trust stems from an internal split within the service - the fixed-wing

side was predominantly supportive of Funcinpec, while the helicopter side was CPP.

This may explain the gover-nment's reluctance to spend money on training and equiping

people who could turn very sophisticated and powerful weaponry against it.

The occasions the air force has been used in an attacking role have been rather unique.

Helicopters have been equipped with rockets to attack ground targets but to do so

they have to fly in low and are vulnerable to ground fire.

The KR in Anlong Veng have got anti-aircraft weaponry.

A more successful tactic has been to have a soldier drop mortar bombs out of the

back of a BN-21A from a height of about 10,000 feet.

This was tried against the Khmer Rouge with some limited success. The bombing was

a bit inaccurate but the ground troops couldn't shoot the plane down.

Commander of the Air Force, Kong Mony, said there has been a shift in the government's

idea for the role of the air force.

"Since the last election they [the government] have not been interested in jet

fighters.

"Instead they have been interested in cargo planes. Maybe they think that the

cargo plane is more important than a jet," he said.

Mony is concerned about his service's reputation and professionalism. "I don't

want other countries looking down on our country by watching us with a glance. I

want them to watch with a straight eye."

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