Looking for lift: Flight's new-look military aircraft review

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In our first new-look military aircraft review, we assess the platforms available to services round the world in the vibrant transport and tanker sector

The last year has seen frantic activity in the strategic airlift sector, with Australia and Canada moving to snap up aircraft from what could be the end of the production line for the most coveted military transport around: Boeing's C-17. Other nations unable to buy the type outright combined their resources to propose a NATO-operated pool of up to four aircraft. Yet more alliance and Partnership for Peace states signed an interim deal to gain access to Antonov An-124s to meet their operational need to move outsized loads.

But it is not just at the largest scale that air forces are looking to refresh their transport fleets. Nine customers for the Airbus Military A400M are waiting to see whether the type will take off as planned in January 2008, or suffer the same scheduling woes as its commercial stablemate, the ultra-large Airbus A380. Despite earlier threats to terminate production, the US military is continuing its commitment to buy Lockheed Martin's new-generation C-130J, while Canada looks set to become the fifth export customer to sign for the type.

Further down the scale, light tactical transport leaders Alenia Aeronautica and EADS Casa continue to trade blows with steady sales of C-27J Spartans and CN-235s/C-295s, respectively, with the manufacturers now fighting their biggest contest to date over a massive order to equip the US Air Force and Army.

With militaries increasingly being called on to participate in peacekeeping and/or combat missions thousands of miles away from their home territories, the airlift sector is likely to remain vibrant for many years to come, accompanied by demand for new in-flight refuelling aircraft.

An epic battle is raging between transatlantic rivals Airbus and Boeing to win the highest prize in the air-to-air refuelling market - supplying the USAF. The companies have so far shared limited spoils in new tanker-transport contests, with orders secured for five Airbus A330-based systems from Australia and eight Boeing 767s from Italy and Japan, but other nations are awaiting the outcome of the USAF's pivotal KC-X contest later this year.

Elsewhere, growing regional powers China and India are acquiring Ilyushin Il-78 tankers from Russia, and other nations with smaller procurement budgets are looking to multirole types such as the A400M to gain entry to the previously exclusive tanker owners club.

Fleet and orders information sourced from Flight's MiliCAS database.

AIRBUS

Headquartered in Getafe near Madrid, EADS' Military Transport Aircraft division heads the European company's efforts in the airlift sector, which include three models of light tactical aircraft and a multirole tanker-transport (MRTT) derivative of the Airbus A330 widebody, plus involvement in the Airbus Military A400M project.

EADS Casa is using a company-owned A310 to perform flight tests with a self-funded air refuelling boom system (ARBS) that sits at the heart of a Northrop Grumman/EADS North America-led offer to supply A330-200-based KC-30 tanker-transports to the US Air Force.

The boom will also equip five KC-30Bs for the Royal Australian Air Force, with the service's first platform now undergoing the integration of its ARBS and hose-and-drogue wing refuelling pods in Getafe.

A key milestone in the development of the ARBS was passed on 30 January, when the sysem's fly-by-wire boom underwent numerous full extensions and retractions during the modified A310 testbed's twelfth flight.

An EADS UK-led project to supply the A330 to the UK Royal Air Force is believed to be close to reaching contract resolution, although UK Defence Procurement Minister Lord Drayson recently cautioned that the Ministry of Defence could withdraw planned business from EADS if the Airbus owner decides to take away future wing assembly work from Broughton in north Wales.

It is unclear whether the estimated £13 billion ($25.5 billion) Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) project could fall victim to this stance. Expected to comprise a core frontline fleet of nine aircraft and five more to be held at short-notice readiness, FSTA will be delivered under a private finance initiative deal. Earlier plans called for some of the A330s to be acquired secondhand, but it is unclear whether this still forms part of the AirTanker consortium's proposal. The FSTA fleet will carry underwing hose-and-drogue refuelling pods, but not the ARBS.

EADS hopes to secure additional orders for the A330 MRTT from potential customers including France, NATO and the United Arab Emirates.

AIRBUS MILITARY

Europe's A400M tactical transport has yet to have its first flight, but Airbus Military has already succeeded in securing two export customers for it: Malaysia (four) and South Africa (eight). Once combined with its seven-nation launch order for 180 aircraft, these commitments place the A400M's orderbook at 192 aircraft: just one behind Boeing's sales of the C-17. The UK is the only nation currently committed to operating both types, although their manufacturers describe them as complementary.

Run under the same principle as an Airbus commercial development, the A400M is on a tight schedule to make its planned flight debut in January 2008. Airbus recently revealed that an internal audit had identified a risk of a three-month delay to the project due to "significant programme challenges", including completion of the final assembly line in Seville, Spain, and unspecified mission systems work.

The first A400M main fuselage is being assembled in Bremen, Germany, before its delivery to Seville over the coming months. Marshall Aerospace of the UK is also awaiting delivery of a Europrop International TP400-D6 turboprop engine to integrate with a Lockheed Martin C-130 testbed, with flight testing due to begin around mid-year.

The A400M will be capable of carrying a 37t payload and could be re-roled with tanker equipment within 2h, according to Airbus Military. Three nations - France, Germany and Spain - in late 2005 ordered tanker kit sufficient to equip up to 40 of their combined 137 aircraft.

Production of the A400M is expected to peak at 30 a year, with current orders to cover build activities until 2021. The first will be delivered in 2009, 50 by 2011, and more than 100 by 2013. Export customers are being offered the aircraft for acceptance from 2010, when South Africa will receive its first example.

Airbus Military has identified a possible demand for 208 more aircraft in the A400M class in 33 countries. The company also perceives a potential need within the US armed forces to field a platform such as the A400M a prospect which could be bolstered if Washington opts to halt production of the C-17.

ALENIA AERONAUTICA

Finmeccanica company Alenia Aeronautica heads the production of the C-27J Spartan light transport now on offer to meet the US Air Force/Army Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) requirement - an order that could reach 145 aircraft to be delivered from late this decade.

The Italian air force is launch customer for the C-27J and formally accepted its first of 12 production examples into service at Pisa airbase last month. First examples of the type have also now been delivered to Greece and Lithuania, while Bulgaria has signed for five.

Romania late last year selected the type for a seven-aircraft requirement, but a storm of protest from opposition parties and eliminated bidder EADS Casa appear to have succeeded in derailing the purchase. However, describing a legal appeal as concerning only procedural problems during the preparation of the tender, Alenia remains confident of closing the Romanian sale.

Facing competition from the Raytheon/EADS Casa-promoted C-295 to deliver the JCA requirement, the C-27J is on offer by Alenia as part of the Global Military Aircraft Systems consortium, which also comprises Boeing and L-3 Integrated Systems.

Alenia lists other potential buyers of the type as Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The twin-turboprop C-27J was developed from Alenia's legacy G222 transport with Lockheed Martin, and shares common systems such as Rolls-Royce AE2100 engines with the US manufacturer's larger C-130J Hercules. Italy is so far the only nation to taste the benefits of this development, having now taken delivery of both platform types. Its last C-27Js will be delivered next year.

ANTONOV

Ukraine's Antonov design bureau has striven to maintain its status as a dominant power in the military transport sector following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but continues to encounter mixed fortunes.

The company still markets the An-38 light transport, which has a maximum take-off weight of 9.5t, including a 2.5t payload, but has been eclipsed by the success of the M-28 Skytruck variant sold by Poland's PZL Mielec.

Conceived as an eastern European counterpart to Airbus Military's A400M, the Antonov-led An-70's prospects are looking bleak, with the Russian air force having repeatedly voiced dissatisfaction with the design and its innovative propfan engines. An earlier agreement to supply the type to the Czech Republic as part of a Russian debt repayment has also failed to advance.

The short take-off and landing An-74 twin-turbofan is believed to be under consideration to meet the transport needs of the Venezuelan armed forces, following the cancellation last year of the Chavez administration's planned purchase of C-295 transports and CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft from Europe's EADS Casa.

The An-124 provides part of the logistics backbone for many military operations, and is to meet the interim needs of NATO and Partnership for Peace nations under a Strategic Airlift Interim Solution deal signed early last year.

The partner nations will gain pooled access of at least 2,000 flight hours a year on up to six An-124s operated by Volga-Dnepr Airlines and ANTK Antonov from Leipzig in Germany.

Antonov also promotes military derivatives of its commercial An-140 twin-turboprop, with a so-called IrAn-140 possibly in production for the Iranian armed forces.

BOEING

With the threatened suspension of production following the completion of 180 aircraft for the US Air Force in the background, several nations have emerged within the past year to study a last-minute acquisition of the C-17. These included Australia and Canada - both of which have now signed four-aircraft deals, following an earlier UK commitment to purchase five - and a multinational approach led by NATO.

The Royal Australian Air Force conducted the first operational mission with its first C-17 in late January, when it was used to carry equipment and spare parts to support six General Dynamics F-111 strike aircraft participating in Exercise Red Flag at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Canada signed a C$3.4 billion ($2.87 billion) deal for four aircraft early this month and the first will be delivered to Trenton airbase, Ontario in September 2007.

NATO has expressed interest in acquiring three or four aircraft to support an initiative backed by 13 signatory nations. If fielded - possibly to support coalition operations from late this year - the aircraft will be home based at Ramstein in Germany. The final aircraft would arrive in 2009, when the last C-17s could be delivered from Boeing's Long Beach line in California. The alliance had hoped to advance the deal for its proposed Strategic Airlift Capability late last year, but this schedule has slipped.

Boeing currently produces 15 C-17s a year, and has delivered more than 150 aircraft to the USAF. The service's fleet leader has amassed over 11,000 flight hours against an expected life of 30 years, or 30,000 operating hours. The company hopes the USAF will opt to continue acquiring up to 300 C-17s, possibly including enhanced B models.

After considering priming to offer types that reportedly included the Chinese Xian MA-60, Boeing chose to participate in the US Air Force/Army Joint Cargo Aircraft competition as part of the Alenia Aeronautica/L-3 Integrated Systems Global Military Aircraft Systems team, offering the C-27J Spartan.

The company also continues to build small numbers of commercial derivative platforms, such as 737s in US Navy service as C-40As.

Much of Boeing's current attention is focused on winning the first part of a planned three-stage fleet recapitalisation programme to replace the USAF's Boeing KC-135 tankers. The company hopes that its earlier offer of the KC-767 tanker-transport already in production for Italy and Japan will be sufficient to win the forthcoming KC-X contest, a decision on which is expected in September. Boeing has high hopes that the air force will repeat its previous selection of the KC-767A to replace its 179 oldest KC-135s, despite an earlier 100-aircraft lease deal having been scrapped in the wake of a scandal related to the company's employment of former USAF procurement executive Darleen Druyun.

Flight testing of the KC-767 using Italy's first aircraft is continuing at Edwards AFB in California, following the first dry contacts made with a USAF Boeing B-52 bomber last month. Japan's first of four KC-767Js, meanwhile, flew for the first time last December following the installation of its refuelling boom. Both nations will, however, experience delivery delays following earlier buffet problems encountered during testing with the type's underwing refuelling pods.

If rival bidders Northrop Grumman and EADS North America have their way, Boeing might yet have to ditch the KC-767 in favour of a KC-777 proposal intended to trump the Airbus A330-based KC-30. The company has released fresh performance data on the KC-777 concept, which it says will carry a maximum fuel load of over 158,000kg (350,000lb) and deliver 200% more fuel than a KC-135 at an operating range of 1,850km (1,000nm).

EADS CASA

EADS Casa's venerable C-212 has continued to attract buyers notably in the recent form of Brazil, which has ordered 50 C-212-400s to replace its aged Embraer C-95 Bandeirantes. The company beat rival offers from Let Aircraft Industries of the Czech Republic and Poland's PZL Mielec to secure the estimated $325 million deal, which also includes local production. First deliveries are expected this year, with initial production to run until 2015.

But it is the CN-235 and stretched C-295 that have given the European transport specialist more widespread success in recent years, securing numerous contracts. Both types were offered to meet the 145-platform US Air Force/Army Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) requirement, and the C-295 is now in a final battle with Alenia Aeronautica's C-27J Spartan to secure a sale. If successful, the Raytheon-led Team JCA offer would build US C-295s in Mobile, Alabama.

The C-295 is also facing its traditional rival in a Canadian contest to supply new aircraft for search-and-rescue tasks, with a decision expected this year.

EADS Casa is teamed with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman on the US Coast Guard's Deepwater fleet recapitalisation programme, under which it is delivering CN-235s modified to the service's HC-144A configuration. The first arrived in the USA last month ahead of an equipment process expected to last several months before formal handover to the USCG later this year.

Formerly known as IPTN, Indonesian Aerospace continues to produce limited numbers of CN-235s and C-212s under licence for the Indonesian armed forces.

Spain late last year signed an order to acquire an additional C-295 for its air force, but the company suffered a blow when a planned sale of C-295 transports and CN-235 maritime patrol aircraft to Venezuela was abandoned following objections from Washington over the transfer of US content.

Other potential customers for the C-295 include Australia and the United Arab Emirates. A Swiss selection for two of the type has failed to advance to a production order, due to political opposition to the proposed overseas deployment of the nation's troops. The company also offers the CN-235/C-295 equipped with in-flight refuelling equipment, although no known sales have been made.

EADS Casa is also responsible for developing a new air refuelling boom system to equip five Airbus A330-based KC-30Bs for the Royal Australian Air Force and to support the Northrop/EADS North America KC-30 proposal to the meet the US Air Force's KC-X tanker requirement.

EMBRAER

Flight International revealed late last year that Brazilian manufacturer Embraer's future projects are believed to include the development of a turbofan-powered transport similar in size to Lockheed Martin's C-130 Hercules. Company officials decline to confirm the existence of this military project, but key suppliers including engine manufacturers hint that some activity has taken place.

Brazil last year selected EADS Casa's C-212 to meet its light transport needs, but its air force's eventual need to replace more than 20 C-130s could provide sufficient incentive for Embraer to pursue such a market opportunity, which would significantly diversify the company's military product range.

HINDUSTAN AERONAUTICS

Indian media reports last month suggested that Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) and Russia's Irkut had signed a $700 million joint venture agreement to develop a 60t multirole transport aircraft with Ilyushin. The aircraft would be built at HAL's Kanpur site for Indian service.

First shown in model form at the Aero India show in Bangalore six years ago, project launch is still reliant on the receipt of state funding from both nations and a signal of interest from their respective armed forces. This is uncertain, due to Russian interest in the Ilyushin Il-112V and Indian consideration of a major life-extension effort to its air force fleet of 116 Antonov An-32s. New Delhi is also considering the purchase of foreign designs such as the Lockheed Martin C-130J to meet its future tactical transport needs.

ILYUSHIN

Russia's Ilyushin design bureau is responsible for the versatile Il-76 in military service and also widely operated by commercial freight suppliers that are often called to support coalition operations in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq. The Il-76 has also spawned a tanker derivative dubbed the Il-78.

Russia's Rosoboronexport arms agency has signed a $1.5 billion deal with China to supply 34 Il-76MD transports and four Il-78 tankers, but production of the aircraft has been moved from the Tashkent-based Chkalov aircraft plant to the Ulyanovsk Aviastar factory.

This is likely to result in delayed deliveries to China's air force. India has already received seven Il-78s and hopes to acquire additional examples to support its frontline fighter fleet.

The Russian air force plans to upgrade 50 of its Il-76MDs to the new MF standard through the integration of new engines. Three of its aircraft have been modified so far at the Voronezh aircraft manufacturing enterprise.

Looking to the future, the Il-112V is expected to replace the Russian air force's Antonov An-12s and An-26s, with the first prototype to be assembled this year and the type to fly for the first time in 2008. The Il-112V will be capable of carrying a 6-7t payload, and will be powered by two Klimov Bogatyr turboprops.

Ilyushin is also one of three partners involved in the proposed Indian-Russian multirole transport aircraft initiative, along with Irkut and Hindustan Aeronautics.

KAWASAKI HEAVY INDUSTRIES

Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries is leading the development of the C-X transport, which is to replace the Japan Air Self-Defence Force's current 27 Kawasaki C-1s. The first aircraft had been scheduled to complete final assembly early next month and to make its first flight in mid-year, but this schedule has been delayed.

An air force evaluation of the C-X is due to run between fiscal years 2009 and 2011, with structural and fatigue testing also to conclude at the same time.

The C-X is to share a high level of design and component commonality with the P-X maritime patrol aircraft also being developed by Kawasaki for the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force. The joint projects are being conducted using state funding worth ¥340 billion ($2.83 billion).

The C-X will be powered by General Electric CF6-80C2 turbofan engines and up to 44 transports could be produced to replace the C-1. The transport could also be developed for use as a commercial freighter.

LET AIRCRAFT INDUSTRIES

The Czech Republic's Let Aircraft Industries continues to promote the Let L-410 light transport to potential export customers, but last year lost out to EADS Casa's C-212-400 in a Brazilian contest for at least 50 aircraft. More than 50 L-410s remain in service with 11 armed services, primarily in eastern Europe and north Africa.

LOCKHEED MARTIN

Lockheed Martin delivered its 2,300th production example of the C-130 Hercules last November, with the type having been in continual build since the mid-1950s. Deliveries since the late 1990s have been made in the new-generation C-130J transport and KC-130J tanker standard, with the US military also having acquired variants for electronic warfare and hurricane hunting purposes.

Other nations to have ordered the C-130J are Australia, Denmark, Italy and the UK, with Canada also close to signing an estimated C$5 billion ($4.23 billion) deal to acquire 17 of the Rolls-Royce AE2100-powered aircraft. Lockheed's current export users last year signed a combined $110 million contract to enhance the operational capabilities of their fleets, with this process to draw on the Block 6.1 configuration developed for the USA.

The C-130J was rejected from consideration to meet the US Air Force/Army Joint Cargo Aircraft requirement, but the USAF has shown its support for the type by placing follow-on orders to come into effect after a current multi-year deal expires.

The US Marine Corps is the only current customer for the KC-130J, although the Italian air force is to receive in-flight refuelling equipment for some its C-130Js under a project revealed late last year.

PZL MIELEC

Poland's PZL Mielec has for many years promoted an M-28 Skytruck development of Ukraine's Antonov An-38 twin turboprop, and has succeeded in selling several aircraft to the Polish armed forces and export customers including Vietnam. The company's most recent success came in the form of combined orders to supply the Indonesian navy with 10 aircraft: seven maritime patrol aircraft and three transports. With a maximum take-off weight of 7.5t, including a 2.3t payload, the M-28 is powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-65Bs. The type received US type certification in early 2005. Sikorsky signed an agreement last December to assume 100% ownership of the previously state-owned company, which will now support the US manufacturer's production of the International Black Hawk utility helicopter.

The M-28 was under consideration last year to meet a Brazilian requirement for at least 50 light transports, but lost to EADS Casa's C-212-400.

SHAANXI

China's Shaanxi Aircraft expects to conduct the first flight of its Y-9 transport in 2007, following a delay of several months caused by last-minute design alterations. Representing an improvement over Shaanxi's legacy Y-8, which first flew in 1974, the stretched Y-9 will be powered by four Wojiang WJ-6 turboprop engines and is to have a reported maximum payload capacity of 20t. The Y-9 will have an operating range of up to 5,800km (3,130nm), according to its Chinese designers.

XIAN

China's Xian continues to promote military versions of its MA-60 regional twin-turboprop to potential export customers, including a maritime patrol variant dubbed the Fearless Albatross. Boeing is believed to have considered the MA-60 during an assessment of operational platforms able to meet the combined US Air Force/Army Joint Cargo Aircraft requirement, but abandoned any plans of a tie-up after opting against bidding as a prime contractor.