The Royal Australian Air Force's air transport capability is midway through a massive transformation that is revolutionising how it conducts operations.

Following the retirement of the DHC-4 Caribou in 2009 and Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules in 2011, the oldest type in the RAAF’s transport fleet is the Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Super Hercules, 12 of which entered service in 1999 and are operated by 37 Squadron at RAAF Richmond near Sydney.

The C-130J has been extensively upgraded in recent years with new electronic warfare and advanced communications systems, and the amalgamation of planned Block 7 and Block 8.1 upgrades. Also planned is the acquisition of a high-fidelity fuselage trainer, the addition of MIDS/Link-16 and SATCOM communications to enable dynamic re-tasking, new airdrop load validation work and the addition of a high-speed airdrop ramp, as well as the introduction of a revised flight training program to produce seat-agile combat-efficient crews sooner.

Two RAAF C-130J-30s remain deployed to the United Arab Emirates in support of ongoing Australian Defence Force operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and the wider region.

Soon to arrive in Australia will be the first two of 10 new Alenia Aermacchi/L-3 COM C-27J Spartan battlefield airlifters. The RAAF’s C-27J is the same as the now-retired US Air National Guard/US Army-specified Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) configuration. The aircraft starts life as a “green” C-27J at Alenia Aermacchi in Italy before ferrying to L-3 COM at Waco in Texas for the installation of cockpit and cargo hold ballistic protection matting, an electronic warfare self-protection system, and a comprehensive communications suite.

With the divestment of the JCA by the Air National Guard, L-3 last year established its own training centre at Waco using civilian staff and utilises a full flight simulator and cargo hold trainer located at Arlington in Texas. RAAF C-27J engineering staff commenced training on the C-27J in December, while aircrew began in January. The aircraft will be operated by 35 Squadron initially at Richmond, before moving north to RAAF Amberley near Brisbane in 2018.

Initial operational capability for the C-27J is planned for December 2016, with final operational capability to follow a year later. Scheduled to coincide with FOC is the addition of a dynamic re-tasking communications capability, while there is also reported to be interest within the ADF in the palletised gunship capabilities currently being developed by Alenia Aermacchi for the MC-27J Praetorian.

In the meantime, the RAAF’s current fleet of six Boeing C-17A Globemaster IIIs operated by 36 Squadron at Amberley will soon be augmented with two to four more examples. Funding for two additional aircraft has already been approved for delivery in the next 12 months, while two more C-17s will be considered as part of the Australian government’s current Force Structure Review and 2015 Defence White Paper (FSR/DWP) process.

The C-17 has provided a major leap in Australia’s ability to respond to military and humanitarian missions at a strategic level. Compared with a C-130, a C-17 can be employed twice as fast while carrying up to four times the amount of cargo. With Southeast Asia a full day’s flight away from Australia for a C-130, by comparison a C-17 can be in the Middle East or Eastern Europe in the same time. Upgrades currently planned include a secure beyond-line-of-sight communications suite, as well as a dynamic retasking communications capability.

The Airbus Military KC-30A (A330 MRTT) has seen its operational debut in recent months, with the deployment of an aircraft from 33 Squadron, also based at Amberley, to the UAE to provide air refuelling support to coalition hose-and-drogue-equipped aircraft. Australia was the lead customer for the MRTT and the aircraft’s introduction was a difficult and prolonged one due to developmental issues with the advanced refuelling boom system (ARBS) and other systems.

But ongoing development work by Airbus using one of the RAAF’s five aircraft as a testbed has resulted in new software and hardware for the ARBS and other systems that are expected to be incorporated into the RAAF’s fleet and cleared for operational use from mid-2015. Initial boom trials will be conducted using KC-30 receivers, but will then be followed by an intensive clearance campaign in the lead-up to initial trials with RAAF F-35As in the US later this year.

In the meantime, the upgraded Cobham 905E wingtip hose-and-drogue pods will soon be cleared for the full refuelling envelope after the conclusion of a successful test program last November, while the KC-30A will also be equipped with MIDS/Link-16 for improved voiceless situational awareness.

There has been no additional information since former defence minister David Johnston suggested in August 2014 that government was considering the acquisition of an additional KC-30, although this is anticipated as part of the FSR/DWP process around the middle of the year, possibly with a VIP interior fitted.

Source: Flight International