Air 8000

The search for a successor to Australia’s geriatric de Havilland DHC-4 Caribou fleet, which started way back in the 1970s, has stalled a number of times in recent years but with annual support costs for the fleet now reaching A$35 million continuing operation of the type is no longer feasible.

1st Sep 2009


The search for a successor to Australia’s geriatric de Havilland DHC-4 Caribou fleet, which started way back in the 1970s, has stalled a number of times in recent years but with annual support costs for the fleet now reaching A$35 million continuing operation of the type is no longer feasible.

The Caribou has had a long and distinguished career with the Royal Australian Air Force [RAAF].  The RAAF took delivery of 29 Caribous between 1964 and 1971.  Today, ten of the type remain in service with No. 38 Squadron at RAAF Base Townsville in Queensland.

The Australian Government announced the type’s retirement in February this year.  The original plan was for the aircraft to continue operating until 2013, but corrosion, fatigue, obsolescence issues and the existence of asbestos parts on the aircraft meant they were becoming increasingly difficult and costly to maintain.  Announcing the Caribou’s retirement, then defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon said the RAAF was struggling to achieve four to five serviceable aircraft at any one time.

At that time, 13 Caribous were in operation, but the fleet is now down to ten, with aircraft being retired as they come up for major servicing.  In July, Australian Aerospace saw the Caribou leave its deeper maintenance workshop at Brisbane Airport for the last time.  Australian Aerospace and its predecessor organisations have provided deeper maintenance and through-life support, including engineering and logistics, for the Caribous since they entered service with the RAAF. 

In late November, two aircraft – A4-140 and 152 – will be flown to the RAAF Museum at RAAF Base Point Cook in Victoria and the Australian War Memorial, where they will remain as exhibits.  The rest of the fleet will be withdrawn from service by 31 December, says the Department of Defence.

In the meantime, the remaining operational Caribous remain active, with recent missions including training deployments to Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.  Most recently, in August, the Caribou was used in search missions following the crash of the Airlines PNG Twin Otter at Kokoda in Papua New Guinea.  Its 45 years of operational service have seen it deployed on active service in Vietnam, undertaking humanitarian relief in Kashmir and supporting peacekeeping operations in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

The type has also been active in recent exercises, including Exercise Talisman Saber in July in Queensland and Exercise Croix du Sud in New Caledonia last year.  The aircraft also provided defence assistance to the civil community at Ingham in far North Queensland during the floods at the beginning of this year and deployed to Papua New Guinea in November 2007 as part of Operation PNG Assist.
But the Caribou’s days are now numbered, with Australia’s Defence White Paper, released in May, confirming that Australia’s air transport capability would be boosted through the acquisition of two more Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft and up to ten light tactical fixed-wing aircraft to replace the Caribou, complementing four Boeing C-17s and 12 C-130Js already in service.  Extra lift capability will be provided by the five EADS KC-30A multi-role tanker transport aircraft.  “The government will ensure that these new light tactical fixed-wing aircraft will have significantly greater range, speed and payload than the retiring Caribou transports,” says the White Paper. 

The Defence Capability Plan [DCP] 2009 details the timeline for the Caribou replacement project – Air 8000 Phase Two Battlefield Airlift.  Government second pass consideration is scheduled for financial year 2012/2013 to 2014/2015, followed by initial operational capability between 2014 and 2016, and full operating capability to follow approximately two years later. 
“Phase two is intended to enhance the ADF’s intra-theatre and regional airlift capability,” says the DCP.  It adds: “This capability will focus on the provision of an intra-theatre airlift solution with some inter-theatre application.  This capability will be able to operate from a wide range of rudimentary airstrips with useful payload, range and in-theatre survivability.  Phase two may also provide appropriate training support, which could include the provision of a full flight simulator.  Notably, the capability will require careful consideration of the interaction between rotary-wing assets and light/medium fixed-wing platforms in the tactical environment and the total airlift fleet mix.”

The project acquisition cost is level one, with a complexity level of very high and costs greater than A$1,500 million. 

The last formal competition to replace the Caribou was in the 1990s under Air 5190.  That project was cancelled in 2000 due to “…higher priority Defence capability requirements”, says Defence.  At that time CASA (now Airbus Military) and Lockheed Martin Alenia Tactical Transport Systems (Alenia Aeronautica) were short-listed to supply between 12 and 18 C-295s and C-27J Spartans, respectively, with the C-295M believed to be the favoured candidate.   Since then Lockheed Martin have been replaced by L-3 on the Spartan team, and may become the prime contractor should the C-27J be purchased via the US Foreign Military Sales process.

But the twin-engined, high-wing Caribou will be a hard act to follow, recognised as one of the most capable short-haul transport aircraft in the world.  It might be slow and noisy, but it is highly versatile and capable of short take-offs and landings on unprepared runways thanks to full-span double-slotted Fowler flaps and fully reversible propellers.  The piston-engined aircraft features GPS satellite navigation and night-vision equipment, allowing it to operate in any weather, day or night, although it is not pressurised.  It has a cruise speed of 280km/h, a range of 2,000km, a maximum weight of 15,400kg, has a two-person crew and is capable of carrying 32 man troop.  It can accommodate four tonne of cargo, two four wheel drives or light artillery pieces, 32 equipped troops seated or 22 stretcher patients plus medical attendants.  It has been deployed on airborne operations, air logistic support missions, aeromedical evacuation and search and survivor assistance.
Alenia Aeronautica’s C-27J Spartan and Airbus Military’s C-295M are widely tipped to be the only serious contenders this time round.  Defence says it is “…examining a range of aircraft options for government consideration that may meet the parameters of a new battlefield airlifter and has not restricted the investigation to the two contenders listed [C-27J and C295M],” adding nothing beyond that.  Specific requirements, in terms of range, speed, size and payload, have yet to be released.  “These requirements will be included in documentation released to industry as part of the solicitation process,” Defence adds.

The contenders are working on their sales pitch in readiness for the competition process.  Alenia Aeronautica (with L3) says it is offering Australia the “…best-selling twin turboprop tactical airlift in its category,” as well as local training and logistics support, in the form of its C-27J Spartan.  The twin-engine turboprop tactical transport aircraft features state-of-the-art technology, avionics, propulsion and systems, says the manufacturer.  The aircraft provides high performance, cost-effectiveness, extreme operating flexibility and it is the only aircraft in its class offering interoperability with heavier airlifters, it claims.

Alenia Aeronautica says the C-27J is the only true medium military airlifter available today, with superior performance in speed, range, payload, load compartment volume and cross section.  It is powered by Rolls-Royce AE2100-D2, delivering a range with 22,046lbs of payload of 1,000nm or 2,300nm with a 13,227lbs payload and a maximum cruise speed of 31ktas at a maximum takeoff weight of 67,241lbs.  The avionics system architecture is redundant, developed with an autonomous support concept providing an accurate, direct, day and night, all-weather mission accomplishment rate with a low flight crew workload, according to the manufacturer.

An added bonus is a high rate of commonality with the C-130J, which Australia already operates.  The C-27J has a 2.6m high and 3.33m wide cross section and floor strength of 4,900kg/m.  The manufacturer says the C-27J is the only medium tactical airlifter that has the same capability as the C-130J, able to carry NATO standard 463l HCU-6/E pallets, each loaded with up to 4,700kg and up to 2.2m high.  The C-27J is designed to transport fighter and transport aircraft engines, including the C-130, on normal engine dollies without the need for special equipment.
The C-27J has already been ordered by defence forces throughout the world, including Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Morocco, Romania, Slovakia and the United States, with an orderbook of 121 aircraft.  Greece has a contract for 12 C-27s, the first of which entered service in September 2005.  Meanwhile, Italy is close to completing acceptance of its 12 C-27s, with its aircraft recently used in operational theatres to support Italian troops deployed in Afghanistan.  Bulgaria has received two of its five aircraft on order.  Bulgaria’s aircraft feature an electronic warfare defensive system and a fuel tank explosion protection system, which greatly enhances the aircraft’s survivability, says the manufacturer.

Lithuania’s first of three C-27Js was delivered in December 2006 and was the first C-27J extensively used to support troops in an operational theatre in Afghanistan.  Romania has seven aircraft on order, while Morocco – the first non-NATO customer – ordered four aircraft last September.

In the United States, the C-27J is the Joint Cargo Aircraft [JCA] for the US Air Force and Army.  In that role, the C-27J is required to be multi-role and interoperable, able to perform a range of missions including logistical re-supply, medical evacuation, troop transport, airdrop operations, humanitarian assistance and missions in support of homeland security.  The United States has ordered 78 aircraft, with the first two delivered to the Army in September and December last year.

Selection of the C-27J by the United States could influence Australia’s decision-making, Alenia believes.  “The ADF [Australian Defence Force] needs and wants a battlefield airlifter, a capability that can be put in harm’s way and used to augment C-130 operations.  The ADF also requires as much commonality as possible with the rest of the ADF airlift fleet, allies and coalition partners.  The C-27J was selected by the US for the JCA programme and it is our understanding that the ADF requirements are not dissimilar.  With more performance, range and lifting capability than the C-295, the C-27J provides the best capability to meet the specific needs of the ADF.  The ADF’s own analysis has found that a larger fleet of C-295s would be required to provide and airlift capability and capacity comparable to that offered by the C-27J,” says Alenia.

The fact that the aircraft is a proven capability is also in its favour, says Alenia Aeronautica, with the C-27J serving in Afghanistan with the Italian and Lithuanian air forces and the United States set to deploy its C-27Js to Afghanistan next year.

Australia has responded favourably to the C-27J in the past, says Alenia: “In 2007, the ADF responded to an unsolicited offer from Alenia and found that the C-27J could meet the needs of the ADF for regional and battlefield airlift.  The needs of the ADF have not changed since 2007 and the recently released White Paper and DCP confirm that the ADF wishes to replace the retiring Caribou capability with a fleet comprised of a more capable tactical airlift platform.”

Alenia Aeronautica is confident that the C-27J meets Australia’s brief.  “The DCP clearly states, and our discussions with the ADF have led us to understand, that the Caribou’s replacement must provide a broader contribution to the ADF airlift capability.  The ADF requires a combination of short field performance, range, speed, battle-worthiness and commonality and interoperability with the other ADF airlift platforms and those of Australia’s coalition partners.  We believe that the C-27J can meet all of these requirements,” says the manufacturer.

Alenia says it is working to develop various acquisition options to help the ADF acquire the capability as soon as possible.  Its bid will comprise a total support package, involving a team of local defence industry organisations and SMEs, to provide maintenance, logistics, through life support and training services.

Airbus Military believes its C-295M is a strong contender for the Caribou replacement due to the aircraft’s capabilities and affordability, coupled with Australian industry and support packages which parent, EADS has already established in Australia.

The Caribou cannot be directly replaced, as such, due to its exceptional take-off and landing performance, says Fabrice Rochereau, chief executive officer of EADS Australia Pacific. 
With first pass approval and a possible tender not expected until financial year 2010/2011, Rocherau says industry will have to wait for draft documents before having a clearer view on Australia’s requirements.  “However, we are already sure that, apart from field performances at maximum takeoff weight, the C-295M will bring greater capability than the Caribou in terms of payload – up 133.4 per cent – along with range (up 148 per cent), speed (a 38.3 per cent improvement), cabin volume (up 93.4 per cent), troop and stretcher capacity – up 121.9 per cent and 9.1 per cent – as well as better availability,” says.  In addition, the C-295M features the same external dimensions as the Caribou, allowing the RAAF to maintain existing facilities.

EADS believes the C-295M is the ideal replacement for the Caribou.  The two aircraft are of comparable size, but the C-295M brings much greater capability.  In contrast, Rochereau says the C-27J is considerably heavier than the C-295M, at 31.8 tons compared with 23.2 tons, but it has only 24 per cent more payload, at 11.5 tons versus 9.25 tons for the C-295M.  Due to the C-295M’s longer cabin, it can load up to five 108 x 88 pallets or up to 75 troops, compared with the C-27J’s three pallet or 68 troop capacity, he points out.  Rochereau concedes that the C-27J has better speed, maximum payload and range performance than the C-295M, but that comes with higher purchasing and operating costs, a bigger aircraft footprint, requiring larger hangar space, and poorer payload efficiency – payload versus maximum takeoff weight.

“Moreover, we reckon that even if the C-27J is embedded in a foreign military sales procurement, it will still be up to 20 per cent more expensive to purchase and operate than the C-295M.  This is even more underpinned by the fact that the US JCA programme has seen the quantities of C-27J dramatically reduced from 200 to 38,” he adds.

Unlike its competitors, Rochereau says EADS has established a “…highly capable and mature industrial footprint in Australia” with Australian Aerospace.  The Queensland-based company already provides support to the RAAF’s Caribou fleet, as well as the C-130J Hercules and the Lockheed Martin AP-3C Orion.  “Therefore the relationship with the user is already mature and of very high quality which will considerably ease the transition to a C-295M fleet support,” he says.  Rochereau adds: “Consistent with our long term Australian strategy, which has up to now generated the creation of more than 725 skilled jobs and the injection of more than A$1.2 billion into the aerospace industry since 2001, the EADS group will maximise the Australian content of the support system for propulsion, airframe, systems and avionics.  We see these activities as long term sustainable, as they will be fed not only by the RAAF fleet but also by commercial operations as the C-295M is equipped with avionics, engines and propellers which are commercial- and military-off-the-shelf.  This is compared to a potential FMS case which has regularly demonstrated to be of no advantage for Australian industry, for example the C-17 and Super Hornet.”

However, EADS recognizes that it has strong competition in the form of the C-27J.  Rochereau says: “Our perception is that the end user has a strong preference for the C-27J as it is a bigger aircraft, but we believe that the efficiency and affordability of the C-295M and the associated Australian industry and support packages should be favourably appreciated.”

Since the earlier Air 5190 competition, the C-295M has gained maturity and has become a combat-proven aircraft following operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.
Some 72 C-295Ms have been ordered by ten customers – Algeria, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Czech Republic, Finland, Jordan, Poland, Portugal and Spain – with 57 of these already delivered.  Spain and Poland are currently operating the type in Afghanistan and Iraq.  But the aircraft’s heritage goes back to the CN-235, of which 250 aircraft are in operation in 25 countries around the world.  The combined C-295M/CN-235 worldwide fleet has logged more than one million flying hours, demonstrating the maturity of the aircraft, says Rochereau.

Other possibilities are emerging, depending on the RAAF’s final requirements.  For example, at the large end of the scale, a new possibility could be the Embraer KC-390 military transport aircraft, although that would not meet the RAAF’s aims of fleet commonality and rationalisation and it is a new, unproven type.  The KC-390 programme was launched in April with a commitment from the Brazilian air force that will result in aircraft entering service in 2015.  The Brazilian manufacturer has been studying such an aircraft development for the last two years.  The KC-390 will have a cargo bay equipped with an aft ramp, as well as allowing configuration for medical evacuation missions.

If it’s STOL performance the RAAF is after, Canadian company Viking Air could provide a solution.  In 2005, Viking Air purchased from Bombardier the rights for out of production de Havilland aircraft, including the Caribou.  Viking Air has already relaunched production of the DHC-6 Twin Otter, now the Series 400 Twin Otter with new engines and avionics, and is looking at returning the DHC-5 Buffalo to production.  The new generation Buffalo would feature new engines, the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150A turboprops, as well as new propellers and Honeywell Primus Apex avionics.  The revised Buffalo could be in production within four years. 

Until a Caribou replacement is selected, the Beechcraft King Air 350 will take on the light transport role.  Caribous will be replaced by up to eight King Air 350s in No. 38 Squadron service, flying solely as an interim light transport, says Defence.  Three of the King Airs are being transferred to No. 38 Squadron from the Army, with the other five being new aircraft to come from the manufacturer’s Wichita, Kansas, United States assembly-line, and leased through local Beechcraft distributor Hawker Pacific.  Deliveries of the new aircraft are scheduled for early next year.  Defence has 10-year leases for its current King Air fleet, with options for extension beyond that.

The Caribou’s remaining tasks, which cannot be performed by the King Air, will be distributed amongst remaining ADF platforms, Defence adds. 

The King Air offers benefits over the Caribou, notes Defence.  It is more than twice as fast and capable of flying more than double the range of the Caribou.  It also has a pressurised cabin, allowing it to cruise at altitudes up to 35,000ft.  The King Air’s glass cockpit and modern avionics mean that it will be an ideal bridging step for pilots to progress to larger and more complex glass cockpit aircraft, such as the C-130J, Boeing Wedgetail, C-17A Globemaster and KC-30A, says Defence. 

But Wing Commander Stewart Dowrie, leader of the Air Lift Group King Air Transition Team, notes that neither the King Air nor its predecessor the Caribou are capable of delivering the sort of combat airlift needed for more complex and wider-ranging requirements of operations today. 

APDR at a glance