A review of airlifter developments and programmes from the bigger players
Behind all ambitious military undertakings – from ancient times until today – planners have sought to know the shape, nature and scope of logistics solutions, both for the initial push and for sustained efforts. In the modern environment this almost invariably means airlift – particularly for the initial effort. This has thus become a core capability, required to conduct the relevant endeavours – such as rapid deployment of personnel and/or key systems – in the distant corners of our planet. While the US operates a considerable strategic airlfit fleet, and the UK and several NATO allies are stepping up, even against considerable budgetary odds, other nations still lack any substantial airlift assets. Admittedly, the long-awaited A400M offers a shining beacon on the horizon, but European NATO allies and EU nations still suffer from a capability gap in strategic airlift. Since Nature abhors a vacuum, several manufacturers are coming forward with potential solutions.
According to various market researchers, including TEAL Group, the global military transport aircraft market is anticipated to display single digit but consistent growth in the period to 2024, reaching a value of some $25 billion.
Future operational requirements for the world’s major operators will continue to focus on short take- off and landing from semi-prepared runways and in high-altitude operational theatres. These requirements – more or less the same for all – will be joined by the desire for low maintenance and operational costs (which includes the hunt for the most fuel-efficient engines) and increased use of multi-role tanker/transport capabilities to lower logistics and inventory costs. In the upgrade arena, the focus will continue to be on life extension, improved avionics and glass cockpits, with an increasing emphasis on active self-protection systems. One of the most pacifist air arms in existence – the Austrian Air Force – did just that recently with three elderly ex-RAF C-130Ks.
Alongside the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific region is the region most in need of replacing its ageing transport fleet – some of the aircraft have been in operation for over 50 years – with China and India likely leading the regional race: both countries figure on the current list of the world’s top five defence spenders.
India has new-build C-17s and ten new C-130Js (although one has crashed already) but has a dire need to replace at least part of the fleet of venerable HS748s. It is considering an offer to upgrade them made by Tata Advanced Systems in collaboration with Airbus Defence & Space, but may also replace part of it with new C-295Ms. China, on the other hand, has spent years designing and developing its own indigenous heavy military transport, the Xi’an Y-20. At Zhuhai 2018 it was confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force had already received five, but the service is thinking big and MT understands up to 100 aircraft may be procured. The C-17 lookalike will certainly one day be exported – when a Chinese engine is finally able to replace the Il-76’s D-30s – with a probable ‘Silk Road‘ pricetag.
Japan also has its own well-established airlifter house and has presented the Kawasaki C-2 twin-engine strategic transport at Dubai, Farnborough and Avalon. The company has delivered eight of them to the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force, which will eventually operate 20 of them. Flying higher and faster than most other types, the C-2 also has features that are uniquefor a military transport, including a cargo compartment even higher than that of the C-17, two lavatories and a number of common components with the four-engined P-1 maritime patrol aircraft.
The aircraft may be too expensive a solution for New Zealand, however. That nation intends to replace its C-130Js over the next few years with the Embraer KC-390. This aircraft is aimed at the market segment filled by the Lockheed Martin C-130 HERCULES, which still held the largest share of the global military transport market in 2018 at 21%, or 878 active aircraft. Embraer claims the lowest life-cycle cost in the market for the KC-390, as well as top speeds that surpass its turboprop rival. Three aircraft are in the air, with 27 firm orders on the books from the Brazilian AF (first delivery this year) and 38 covered under letters of intent from Argentinia (12), Chile (6), Colombia (12), the Czech Republic (2) and Portugal (12, with six from SKYTECH-Aviation Services).
It is interesting to note that both the UK and New Zealand are already retiring the latest version of the HERCULES, while Lockheed Martin continues to record orders for new-build aircraft. Royal Air Force (RAF) crews told MONCh in July last year that the aircraft have been so intensively used that they ‚wore out‘ a decade earlier than anticipated. Two have been completely overhauled by Marshall of Cambridge and are now operated by the Royal Bahraini Air Force.
Joint development and indigenous manufacturing is seen as the chosen path in some markets. A good example is Taniqa of Saudi Arabia, which has partnered with Antonov to develop the An-132D and plans to build the aircraft in Saudi Arabia from 2020.
Ageing American Assets
The C-130J has also been subject to intensive use in US service. On 3 March the US Air Force (USAF) disclosed it has awarded Lockheed Martin a sole-source contract to replace the centre wing section on an undisclosed number of C-130J/C-130J-30, which comprise some 214 of the 430 HERCULES the service currently operates. Of these, 113 are C-130J-30s, the most likely targets of the wing replacement programme.
USAF Air Mobility Command operates 222 Boeing C-17 GLOBEMASTER IIIs, for which production ended in 2015. Although there was talk of cutting two HERCULES squadrons from the airlfit inventory and replacing them with three C-17 squadrons as recently as 2018, the manner in which an expensive relaunch of the Long Beach production line could be achieved remains unclear. The USAF began retiring some of the oldest C-17s in 2012, so it may be possible for these to be taken out of mothballs and refurbished.
Another proven platform in the USAF inventory is the C-5M GALAXY, the M indicating an upgrade for 52 aircraft that only ended in August last year after a 17-year Reliability, Enhancement and Re-engining Programme (RERP). programme. This extends the lifespan of the service‘s largest airlifter into the 2040s. In 2018, however, the Pentagon launched a congressionally-mandated study to determine the number of military transport aircraft required for supporting future in-country and global military operations.
Delays Leading to Opportunities
Between 2009-2010 the problem-plagued A400M programme faced development delays and cost overruns – even cancellation – but the customer nations maintained support for the project. The prolonged and painful experience, however, forced major European nations such as France and Germany toward stopgap procurement from the US, with 10 C-130Js selected for a combined rapid transport cell based in Normandy. Meanwhile, in 2018, Airbus efforts to renegotiate the delivery schedule and timeline for completion of the aircraft’s self defence capabilities took “longer than expected,“ and progress towards the objectives set in the February 2018 Declaration of Intent (DoI) is “a bit slower than planned,“ according to the company’s nine-month financial release. The DoI was agreed with the European Defence Agency, OCCAR and the partner nations of Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemburg, Spain, Turkey and the UK. At the time of writing, about 70 of the 174 examples of the largest tuboprop in the West on order have been delivered under the stretched schedule. Belgium, which signed for its seven A400Ms in 2001, will not see any of them until 2020-2023.
Conversations overheard at Aero India earlier this year indicated significant disadvantages for the Eurofighter TYPHOON in local thinking, largely because of German involvement. There is apparently a serious concern that Germany might cut off support if India took TYPHOONs into combat – an eventuality reinforced by the recent air clash with Pakistan. A similar disadvantage might accrue to the A400M, where Indian sceptics point to Berlin’s blocking potential interest in the aircraft from Saudi Arabia. The commercial line-up for the A400M is muklti-national: fuselages built in Germany and Turkey, wings in the UK, cockpits in France, empennage in Germany (again) and components such as leading edges and landing-gear doors in Belgium, before everything converges on Spain for final assembly. Engine components come from eight nations to Germany for assmbly and test and the manufacturing process for a single aircraft takes some 24 months.
However the ATLAS, as the A400M is known to the RAF, is already proving its worth in logistics and disaster relief missions around the world. It has even attracted some unexpected customers, with Malaysia buying four in 2005 (delivered in 2017) and Indonesia approving procurement of five in early 2017. In February this year, Seoul confirmed a proposal to exchange an indeterminate number of T-50 GOLDEN EAGLE and KT-1 WOONGBI trainer aircraft for A400Ms.
And From Beyond the Caucasus
According to the Ilyushin design bureau, the Russian Ministry of Defence (MoD) was due to receive the first Il-76MD-90A by early April. United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) plans to launch an automated assembly line with eight robots at Aviastar-SP in Ulyanovsk to accelerate production of this latest version of the CANDID-series heavy transport, with its inherent modifications, by this summer. It is significantly modernised, featuring a fully-digital flight control system, new avionics and PS-90A-76 engines with improved fuel efficiency. Flight tests are expected to be completed by 2021, while Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov earlier revealed plans to procure over 100 by 2030, to be used in military transport and aerial tanker (Il-78) configurations.
In a category below the CANDID, Ilyushin’s light transport, the Il-112V, actually the first large Russian military aircraft designed from first principles in the post-Soviet era, successfully completed its 45 min maiden flight on 30 March. The high-wing, T-tail, twin turboprop was built using advanced digital technology and is equipped with cutting-edge sub-systems, entirely domestically produced. The new mid-size plane is designed to transport weapons, military equipment, cargo and personnel with a maximum payload of up to 5t, and – if funded – will replace hundreds of obsolete An-24/26 CURL series aircraft. Many nations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia continue to fly the type – against all the odds…
Cold War Flashback
Popular belief, to judge from some of our media, has it that we – the West – are in a new Cold War with Russia and that Europe has to improve it’s “robust capabilities,“ since the US has become unreliable. Although much of the discussion giving rise to that supposition is ill-informed, it is worth examining some facts and statistics. For urgent heavy lift requirements – deploying ground-based air defence systems, for example – there are just three C-17s and four or six Antonovs in Europe. That’s it. Tiny Qatar, for excample, has aquired eight C-17s. Europe – 370 times as large – still has significant capability shortfalls and substantial gaps between aspiration and reality.
If we really are in a new Cold War, the ill-informed pundits might do well to refect on the scale of requirements Europe had in the original one. During Exercise Reforger (Return of Forces to Germany) in 1978, US C-5As and C-141s, with much less fuel-efficient engines – but back then nobody cared, flew 13,000 soldiers across the Atlantic. Two divisions from Louisiana and Colorado, an aviation battalion of helicopters from Kentucky, artillery from Oklahoma and a HAWK battery from Texas: all within 96 hours, some infantry regiments within 24 hours. It remains to be seen if any projected fleet of European aircraft would ever be able to meet strategic airlift goals of comparable dimensions. And the biggest question of all remains unanswered: when? Any future fleet of European airlifters should – at an absolute minimum – enable the rapid deployment of NATO Response Force troops and EU battlegroups. Everything else is a politico/industrial perpetuation of irresponsibility – absolutely not reflecting the economic and financial potential of the involved nations.