When then Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon announced the early retirement of the RAAFs 14-strong Caribou battlefield airlift fleet in March last year, some observers wondered whether the capability would ever be adequately replaced.
The use of an ‘interim type in the shape of the King Air 350, a platform that can hardly have the prefixes ‘tactical’ or ‘battlefield’ attached to it; a replacement programme that was moved to the right by two or three years in the latest Defence Capability Plan and a looming cash-flow crisis within Defence during the second half of the decade may well prove the sceptics right.
The Caribou was in service for an incredible 45 years and, though not survivable on the modern battlefield and both expensive and difficult to maintain, the capability it offered in terms of operations into short and unprepared airstrips remains unmatched.
It is sobering to consider that for 35 of its 45 years in service it had been the subject of replacement studies. Before the latest project (AIR 8000 Phase 2) at least two other serious attempts were made to find a new battlefield airlifter and now, almost 12 months after the Caribou finally retired a further decision is at least three years away.
Eight Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350s have been acquired to keep No.38 Squadron at Townsville in the airlift business; three of these were surrendered by Army (which left that service devoid of fixed wing transport and surveillance capability) along with their aircrews, and a further five new-built aircraft have been leased from Hawker Pacific. The last aircraft was handed over at a ceremony in Townsville in July.
The King Airs do not have a cargo door or strengthened floor, so their primary mission is liaison, flying personnel around the north of Australia in shirt-sleeved comfort. Whilst welcome as a means of keeping No.38 Squadron active, tactical flying skills will be lost and there is a danger that the ‘interim’ solution will become a long-term one.
In defence of the King Air, the Officer In Charge of DMO’s B300 (King Air 350) Interim Light Transport Team (OIC B300 ILT-TT) Wing Commander Stewart Dowrie has said that it will act as a stepping stone to the future battlefield airlifter. “From an operational perspective, the King Air is more than twice as fast and is capable of flying more than double the range of the Caribou. It also has a pressurised cabin, which allows it to cruise at altitudes of up to 35,000 feet. Moving people across vast distances such as northern Australia and throughout south-east Asia and the South Pacific is exactly what the aircraft is designed for. These are aspects that the Air 8000 Phase 2 aircraft will share, but for which the Caribou does not”.
In response to Asia Pacific Defence Reporter questions about the effectiveness of the King Air, WGCDR Dowrie said, “It would be unfair to criticise the King Air for its weaknesses, as many of the roles which it will not perform as a Caribou successor can be managed in the short term by other Australian Defence Force types. The Air 8000 Phase 2 aircraft will merge the best aspects of the Caribou and the King Air while coming equipped with all the necessary systems to make it a true combat airlift aircraft. The King Air project is all about how we get from here to there in the most cost-effective and efficient manner”.
PROJECT AIR 8000
In its entirety, AIR 8000 aims to provide an overarching airlift policy which takes into consideration other major Defence programmes such as AIR 9000 (the rotary wing roadmap), AIR 5402 Multi-Role Tanker Transport, and a range of minor programmes.
It will oversee airlift capability that ranges from the strategic and inter-theatre lift capability of the Boeing C-17A Globemaster IIIs and Airbus Military KC-30A MRTTs, through the theatre airlift Lockheed Martin C-130H and C-130J-30 Hercules fleets, down to intra-theatre lift envisioned by the Phase Two platform, whilst Army rotary wing lift into consideration.
As can be seen, most of the pieces of the AIR 8000 jigsaw puzzle have fallen into place, with just Phase Two and a C-130H replacement (Phase One) still to be delivered.
With the introduction of the C-17 into service, the ageing C-130H Hercules fleet began drawing down and four have already been withdrawn from use and stored at Richmond. The remainder have been consolidated into an enlarged 37 Squadron, which operates the C-130J-30. Prior to the DCP, the Defence White Paper flagged the acquisition of two further C-130J-30s, to allow for C-130H retirement.
In some ways this is a puzzling move, as the new aircraft will not have the same cargo loading system as the existing fleet. The system selected by the RAAF is no longer offered by Lockheed Martin and most, if not all, other C-130J customers have chosen the alternative - a sort of airlift version of VHS versus Beta. This means Defence will either have to modify its existing fleet, or tolerate two lots of spares holdings.
The DCP now states that a Year of Decision will not occur until the 2011to 2013 timeframe with an IOC of between 2013 and 2015. By that time, the existing C-130J-30 fleet will be approaching 15 years old and been in operational use in Iraq or Afghanistan for much of that time.
According to the DCP, AIR 8000 Phase Two will seek a Military Off The Shelf light tactical fixed wing airlift capability, to be sourced either directly from an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) or through a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme.
In part it says, “Phase Two is intended to enhance the ADFs intra-theatre and regional airlift capability. 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”.
The preceding White Paper estimated that 10 aircraft would be needed to fulfil the requirement and the two shortlisted competitors from the last Caribou Replacement programme (AIR 5190 Light Tactical Airlift Capability) are again the two contenders. As noted, the DCP anticipates First Pass approval between now and the end of 2011, with a Year of Decision following two or three years after that. Initial Operating Capability is set at around 2015, six years after the Caribou retired.
The two competitors are Airbus Military (formerly EADS-CASA) with the C-295M and Alenia Aeronautica with the C-27J Spartan. Both can lay claim to victory (of sorts) in the previous rounds and competitions, and both have been frustrated by the process.
The Airbus Military C-295M is a growth development of the earlier CN235-300, developed jointly between Spain and Indonesia. It is the transport version of a family that includes Maritime Patrol and Surveillance versions.
Airbus Military say that’ more than’ 85 aircraft have been ordered, of which ‘more than’ 60 have been delivered (actual figures at the end of June were 85 and 63 respectively). Announced customers of all versions to date include Algeria (6), Brazil (12), Chile (3), Czech Republic (4), Finland (3), Jordan (2), Mexico (7), Poland (12), Portugal (12) and Spain (13). As well as Australia, the aircraft is competing in a Canadian competition to replace that country’s CC-115 Buffalo fleet. To date, the C-295M has seen operational service in Afghanistan with the Polish Air Force.
Airbus Military was reportedly declared the winner of the previous AIR 5190 programme before a review of ADF airlift requirements in the wake of East Timor operations terminated it the early part of the last decade.
Though smaller than the competing C-27J, the C-295M comes with a reported price advantage and brochure figures suggest it can carry a 9.25 tonne payload over 1300 km. In the past, there has been a perception that the aircraft is not a ‘real’ battlefield airlifter (possibly due to its airliner-style cabin windows), but its service in Afghanistan and recent operations in Chad and Haiti has done much to dispel this myth.
Derived from the earlier G.222, the C-27J was designed by an Alenia/Lockheed Martin consortium, known as Lockheed Martin Alenia Tactical Transport Systems (LMATTS), to be compatible with the larger C-130J Hercules.
Though LMATTS dissolved in 2006, its legacy is the commonality shared with the C-130J, including engines, flight deck layout and the ability to carry Hercules-sized pallets without having to break them down. As such, it is larger but more expensive than its Airbus rival.
Orders to date have come from Italy (12 ordered, 12 delivered), Greece (12/10), Lithuania (3/3), Bulgaria (5/2), Romania (7/2), Morocco (4/1) and the United States (21/4). The United States has a requirement for 78 aircraft as part of its Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) programme, which sees aircraft split between the US Army and Air Force. C-27Js have been used operationally in Afghanistan by both Italy and Lithuania.
According to brochure figures, the C-27J can lift a 10 tonne payload over 1850 km.
During the 2007 Avalon Airshow, media reports were suggesting that the C-27J would be Sole-Source selected as the AIR 8000 Phase Two winner by the then Howard Government. This did not occur, and a change of Government later in the year saw everything thrown back into the melting pot.
Given the pressures Defence faces over the next decade, one can only hope that the AIR 8000 Phase Two competition is run as advertised and the winner takes its place as the successor to the Caribou. This will then restore Australia’s battlefield airlift capability and allow the ‘interim’ King Air to move on to other tasks.