Airborne tactical transport. One of the principles of modern warfare is that a country can never have too much airlift capacity. With this in mind, Defence hopes to have another slow motion crack at plugging an annoying gap in capability caused by the retirement of the long-serving Caribou battlefield airlifters last year. Known as project AIR 8000 Phase 2, this is likely to be a re-run of a competition a decade ago that had exactly the same aim, but was cancelled for reasons that are the subject of speculation and rumour, which will be put to rest later in this story.
28th Aug 2011
AIR 8000 Phase 2.
Battlefield airlifter – the missing ingredient.
Kym Bergmann / Canberra
Airborne tactical transport.
One of the principles of modern warfare is that a country can never have too much airlift capacity. With this in mind, Defence hopes to have another slow motion crack at plugging an annoying gap in capability caused by the retirement of the long-serving Caribou battlefield airlifters last year. Known as project AIR 8000 Phase 2, this is likely to be a re-run of a competition a decade ago that had exactly the same aim, but was cancelled for reasons that are the subject of speculation and rumour, which will be put to rest later in this story.
In a broad sense the RAAF’s transport fleet seems to be in a period of decline. The four remaining C-130H aircraft out of the eight purchased will soon cease flying; a fifth C-17 is being acquired – but at the expense of an extra two C-130Js. The 10 C-130Js that are in service are working at full stretch and are being subjected to a great deal of wear and tear. The Multi-Role Tanker Transports have started to arrive but face delays with introduction into service that seem to have more to do with Australian process and documentation than with the aircraft themselves. But the most obvious gap is at the lighter end of the scale with the retirement of the last of RAAF’s 14 Caribous in 2010.
The twin-engined Caribous were remarkable aircraft for their time and are actually irreplaceable in terms of unmatched short landing and takeoff capability – but they were aircraft of limited speed, range and payload. They served Australia and numerous other countries splendidly for forty years but they are now well and truly obsolete. Because they are no longer available, the RAAF is having to make uncomfortable compromises in the way that it handles in-theatre transport demands. In the words of one senior source “we are getting by, but not very well”.
Put simply, there are many missions for which a C-130J is too large and for which helicopters are not well suited for reasons of range and speed limitation plus – especially in peacetime – greater operating and maintenance costs. Caribous were able to carry around 30 troops or three and a half tonnes of cargo over short distances typically of a few hundred kilometres. The replacement aircraft – if Defence gets that far - will be considerably more capable in payload and range.
As an interim capability, the RAAF has leased five very small King Airs and has received a further three transferred from the Army – but these commercial aircraft are only useful for flying half a dozen passengers at a time and cannot conceivably perform the role of a battlefield airlifter. Such tasks involve taking cargo or troops from the strategic airlift part of the fleet – C-17s and C-130Js – and using their shorter landing and takeoff capability to distribute those loads in smaller batches within the theatre of operations. The new aircraft will also have an important role for supporting Special Forces operations, where their smaller size makes them better suited for covert missions than the platforms currently being used.
In a strange repeat of circumstances a decade ago, there appear to be only two aircraft in production that are able to meet the general requirements of the RAAF. These are the C-27J from Alenia and the C-295 from Airbus Military. Both aircraft have been purchased by a number of other countries either replacing their Caribous or increasing their tactical transport fleets and both are in production. The C-27J shares the same core engines and some systems of the much larger C-130J and is the more robust of the two contenders. The C-295 is the less expensive to acquire, almost certainly the cheapest to support and is widely believed to have “won” the previous Australian evaluation before the competition was cancelled prior to the announcement of a preferred bidder.
More than 11 years later, APDR can finally reveal the truth about this earlier attempt to replace the Caribous. The evaluation of the C-295 and the predecessor of the C-27J – known as the G222 – was terminated by Defence before the project team had completed the assessment of the two aircraft. The methodology being applied apparently had a number of flaws and the situation was not helped by the seeming inability of Army to specify what they wanted – a problem that might continue today. This became apparent coincidentally at a time when the Department was looking for large savings and so it satisfied several agendas for the process to be indefinitely suspended prior to a source selection recommendation. Having said that, the C-295 was considerably less expensive and might have gone on to be selected, but that was no certainty.
Viewed from a distance, the aircraft have some similarities and it comes as no surprise that the manufacturers emphasise those aspects of performance which they believe are to their comparative advantage. Alenia argue that the C-27J is a military aircraft, with features such as better cockpit visibility, a strongly reinforced cargo floor and more powerful engines. Airbus Military point out that their cargo bay is longer and that the C-295 is extremely reliable, even in very tough operating environments such as Afghanistan and Africa. The aircraft have competing configurations when it comes to the pallet dimensions able to fit in the fuselage, ease of loading, numbers of troops able to be carried and with what weight of equipment - and so forth.
Both aircraft are in service with NATO members: the C-295 with Spain, Poland and two others; the C-27J with Italy, United States and two others. The aircraft have gone head-to-head in a number of tactical transport competitions during the last decade with the C-295 slightly ahead in total orders, helped by the lower cost of ownership. Either aircraft can carry a considerably larger payload than the Caribou and they can fly much further and faster than the type they are meant to be replacing.
Despite having extensive prior knowledge of the two contenders and despite RAAF’s desire to acquire this type of aircraft and despite this capability being endorsed in the 2009 Defence White Paper it will still take up to another 12 months before the Department goes to Government for First Pass approval. Assuming that the project is endorsed, Defence sources believe the process should then be fairly straightforward – namely selecting an aircraft in production and ordering 10 of them with minimal changes. The intention is to have them in service around the middle of the decade, which is reasonably brisk by current Australian standards.
Where to from here?
The acquisition strategy has not yet been decided and some believe there might be a good case for a sole-source acquisition. The RAAF is known to have some enthusiasm for the C-27J because of its commonality with the C-130J already in the inventory and especially because it is in service with the US Air Force – making it potentially easier to support if deployed alongside US forces. The true extent of the commonality is debated, but the mere use of the word generates a Pavlovian drool response within sections of Defence. However, there will certainly be considerable commercial benefits to be gained from a competition, with potential savings of millions of dollars – or even tens of millions – so benefiting Defence, the taxpayer and meeting the objectives of the Strategic Reform Programme.
Even a sole-source acquisition strategy for the C-27J would not be without complications because choices still need to be made. One option would be for a simple direct purchase from the aircraft’s manufacturer Alenia. However, the currently fashionable bureaucratically indolent - and much costlier - trend is to buy everything possible from the US Foreign Military Sales system. This would require the aircraft to be built by Alenia in Italy, then transferred to their mandatory US partner L-3, who might or might not add something to it, and who would pass the aircraft to the US Air Force which finally – via FMS – would deliver the aircraft to the RAAF.
In response to a direct question regarding this matter, Defence would only say:
“While the Alenia C-27J Spartan is one option under consideration for AIR 8000 Phase 2 – Battlefield Airlift – Caribou Replacement, no recommendation has been made on the capability solution. AIR 8000 Phase 2 is planned to be considered by Government at First Pass in 2012.”
According to the updated Defence Capability Plan, the acquisition of ten of either aircraft will cost around $1.5 billion dollars. The question from the Government of the day will be: why are these aircraft needed in 2015 – or whenever - when the ADF has been getting by without them for so long? Defence risks being hoisted on its own petard of delay and might miss out completely. If the Department hopes to contrive a sole source outcome by suddenly coming up with an urgent requirement after years of inactivity they are likely to be disappointed.
Senior Departmental staff tell APDR that more study is required. If the RAAF genuinely wants and needs a tactical fixed-wing battlefield airlift capability then they need to get a move on.