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Do US military cargo planes carry arms to Israel through Turkey?

The US has reportedly been moving weapons and ammunition to Israel from around Europe using RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus
A C-130J aircraft of the kind used in one of the flights that landed in Turkey (AFP/File)

Details of two curious flight paths of US military cargo planes have raised the possibility that Washington may be using a military base in Turkey to supply Israel in its war against Gaza.

 A US military C-130J cargo plane, with the call sign of HKY130 and the registration number 19-5932 registration, flew from US Aviano air base in Italy to Turkey’s Incirlik on 3 November.

The cargo plane later took off from Turkey and landed in RAF Akrotiri on 5 November, a major British military base in Cyprus.

The flight was noted by Declassified UK, an investigative website which first spotted the flight, that RAF Akrotiri had not received any flights from Incirlik in the two months before Israel’s bombing of Gaza, according to records.

The flight was also interesting for another reason: its original takeoff location, the Aviano air base, is home to the US 31st Munitions Squadron, which maintains combat ready stockpiles, people and equipment.

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The squadron, which has hundreds of active duty employees, maintains four separate stockpiles valued at $790m.

The US has reportedly been moving weapons and ammunition to Israel from around Europe using RAF Akrotiri.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that over 40 US transport aircraft have flown to RAF Akrotiri, carrying equipment and munitions from depots belonging to the US and Nato for the Israeli army.

On 5 November, for example, hours after the US C-130J landed in RAF Akrotiri, there was a flight departing to Tel Aviv, with a call sign of GONZO62 and registration number of 96-6042.

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The operator of the plane was hidden in the open source air spotting website Radar Box, but the history of the plane suggests it has been flying to the US. The model of the aircraft is the CASA CN-235, an air transport and surveillance aircraft. 

Middle East Eye can now reveal that a second flight by another US cargo plane C-130J with the call sign HKY130 but a different registration number, 08-8602, flew from Ramstein air base in Germany to Aviano air base in Italy on 17 January. The next day, the plane landed in RAF Akrotiri after making a pit stop in Turkey’s Incirlik.

A UK defence official told Middle East Eye that the Ministry of Defence “doesn’t comment on the operations of allies” such as the US, despite the flights having landed at a Royal Air Force base.

Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Garron J Garn declined to reveal the contents of the US cargo flights “for operation security reasons”.

“The US maintains an ongoing and robust practice of dynamically employing aircraft and assets throughout the theatre,” he told MEE.

‘Nato procedures’

There are a number of scenarios that might explain the two strange flights out of Cyprus. 

The first is that the planes might have been flying to Cyprus and only made the stops in Turkey for fuel.

A Turkish defence official, who wanted to remain anonymous, told MEE that some US cargo planes make stops at Incirlik for refuelling purposes, and the defence ministry is not specifically informed about every flight that goes through Incirlik. 

'The plane might have been dropping off and picking up personnel in Incirlik, where thousands of American soldiers are stationed'

- Analyst

“There are Nato procedures in place,” the source said, referring to the fact that the US could use the airspace under the pretext of Nato operations and missions.

However, the route of the flights makes this possibility unlikely, since the planes have enough fuel to make it to Cyprus without stopping in Turkey, according to analysts.

One analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, who is familiar with the Pentagon operations in the region, said that the C-130J type planes that were used in the flights carry comparatively smaller cargo compared to other versions of the same type.

“You cannot carry many weapons, but some munitions,” the expert told MEE. “It is primarily used for transporting personnel. The plane might have been dropping off and picking up personnel in Incirlik, where thousands of American soldiers are stationed.” 

Middle East Eye understands that munitions pick-up and delivery seems to be the most likely reason.

Less likely reasons include picking up someone from Incirlik who has some sort of expertise needed in Israel, or obfuscating the source of weapons deliveries to Ukraine by switching them out in Cyprus.

 One final scenario is that the flights had nothing to do with Gaza.

“They might have been carrying something entirely unrelated to the Gaza war, maybe some equipment,” the anonymous analyst added.

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