Military aircraft census: Airlift Burden

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Air forces are facing unprecedented demand to provide transport services to support missions ranging from frontline combat operations to disaster relief efforts

Within the past month UK Royal Air Force transports have been operating an air bridge to Afghanistan to open the way for a deployment of 5,000 British troops to the central Asian country. As a land-locked nation surrounded by politically unstable states and almost impassable mountainous terrain, airlift is the only way to move troops and equipment to Afghanistan. With more than 15,000 peacekeeping troops from the UK and other NATO nations expected to be kept on duty in Afghanistan for the next three years, sustaining the force by air is perhaps the number one priority of the alliance’s air forces.

c-17 strategic transports w445
© USAF

The US Air Force is set to have a fleet of C-17 strategic transports capped at 180 aircraft

This task has resulted in increased interest in enhancing and expanding the airlift capabilities of NATO countries, particularly in new member states, which are finding their Warsaw Pact-era transport fleets are not up to job of operating in demanding and dangerous environments such as Afghanistan.

Transport orders

Over the past year Poland has received its last EADS Casa C-295s and purchased second­hand Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules, while Romania is also looking to expand its C-130 fleet. Bulgaria late last month signed a delayed deal for an initial five Alenia/Lockheed Martin C-27Js, plus three options.

For established NATO members, renewing their fleets of ageing transports is also a key priority. The seven alliance air forces that are procuring the Airbus Military A400M airlifter are confident of great things from the aircraft, which they expect to not only replace many of their C-130s and Transall C160s, but to add new capabilities such as air-to-air refuelling.

Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain are all moving to enhance their tactical airlift capabilities with new orders for C-27Js and C-295s. The high cost of heavy airlift, however, is proving to be more of a challenge for the majority of NATO air forces, which are moving to establish a long-term leasing arrangement with eastern European charter companies that specialise in outsized cargo work.

The UK is the only current operator outside the USA of the Boeing C-17, with its lease arrangement for four aircraft to be translated into an outright purchase of these plus a fifth aircraft. Australia also early this month announced its intention to buy up to four C-17s, while Canada’s new government is expected to accelerate its efforts to replace its armed forces’ C-130s with A400Ms, C-17s or C-130Js.

Owning and operating heavylift is an expensive business and even the US Department of Defense is struggling to sustain the US Air Force’s existing fleet of C-17s and Lockheed C-5 Galaxys. The recently released Quadrennial Defense Review and fiscal year 2007 budget request seek to cap the number of C-17s to be purchased at 180 aircraft. At the same time, the USAF’s last Lockheed C-141 Starlifters have been withdrawn from service. Although attempts to kill off C-130J production last year were blocked in Congress, it is uncertain whether more of the aircraft will be contracted beyond a current multi-year deal with Lockheed.

The USAF plans to continue upgrading its fleet of 500 C-130E/Hs under Boeing’s delay-hit Avionics Modernisation Programme (AMP), although airworthiness issues with some of the older Fs may result in this number being pared down.

One growth area for airlifters in the US military is expected to be the combined US Army/Air Force requirement for a Joint Cargo Aircraft intra-theatre transport, which could eventually see up to 220 C-27J-, C-295- or EADS Casa CN-235-class aircraft purchased. The coming together of army and air force requirements has delayed the project, but army leaders remain convinced that buying tactical transports is a good way of taking the strain off the service’s overworked Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopters. The army’s Shorts C-23 Sherpa fleet has already proved its worth in Afghanistan and Iraq while moving small amounts of cargo and passengers between bases, reducing their vulnerability to roadside improvised explosive devices.

Around the world the C-130 remains the airlifter of choice for dozens of air forces, but the veteran aircraft, which has now passed its half century, is proving increasingly expensive to operate and maintain. For many small Hercules operators, the cost of AMP-type renewal activity is far more attractive than buying new aircraft such as the replacement C-130J, and Israel, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Turkey are all moving in this direction.

Additional capability

Where money for new aircraft can be found, Hercules operators are proving keen to get additional capability for their money. Malaysia and South Africa have already signed to buy the A400M, and Chile could also sign a deal for three of the European aircraft next month.

China’s order for additional Ilyushin Il-76s last year was a major boost for Russia’s industry and the sale is likely to spur efforts to improve the aircraft, including through the integration of new engines and avionics. The veteran airlifter comes at an attractive price for countries that do not want to be reliant on the USA for their strategic airlift capabilities.

For Ukraine’s aircraft industry, deteriorating relations with Moscow represent bad news for Antonov’s An-70 project, which is dependent on Russia’s provision of joint development and production funds. It is unlikely that Kiev alone will be able to continue work on the aircraft if Moscow pulls the plug on its involvement. Antonov, meanwhile, is working hard with India to launch a series of upgrades and sustainment efforts for its twin-engine An-32s – a project which if successful could prove attractive to other users of the type.

The next year is likely to see airlift operations around the world continue at the current hectic pace, including to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The US and European air forces are also likely to continue supporting African Union and UN peacekeeping operations in Sudan with air mobility assets. Further natural disasters such as the Pakistan earthquake and Hurricane Katrina will undoubtedly result in the world’s air forces calling on their airlift assets to again lead the response.

While finance ministries will continue to complain at the high cost of large transport aircraft, air force chiefs are adamant that nations cannot afford to be without these invaluable assets.

TIM RIPLEY / LONDON

Military aircraft census 2005 is published in the print edition of Flight International, 14-20 March 2006