MELBOURNE — Australia’s airlift capability has steadily evolved in recent years, with the Royal Australian Air Force now operating on a global scale in addition to supporting forces at home.
The first C-130J-30 Hercules by Lockheed Martin was delivered more than a decade ago. Five Boeing C-17s are in service and new A330-based tanker transports are on the way.
Capability will be further enhanced over the next few years with the introduction of the Alenia C-27J Spartan to fill the battlefield airlifter role in 2015, and beyond that, replacement of the VIP fleet.
In January 2006, the Air Force’s Air Lift Group was a largely tactically focused force which, apart from a handful of elderly De Havilland Canada Caribous and Boeing 707s, was centered on the C-130.
At that time, Air Lift Group owned 47 aircraft that could carry 3,775 people and 656 tons of cargo. By January 2016, when the C-27J is in service, it will have one fewer aircraft, but lift capacity will be 4,321 passengers and 950 tons of cargo.
And thanks to the retirement of the Caribous and 707s and the imminent withdrawal of the C-130H Hercules fleet, the average aircraft age will drop from 24 years to just nine. Australia’s Hercules have been constantly deployed to the Middle East for almost a decade, operating first in Iraq and later Afghanistan.
In December 2006, the first C-17A Globemaster III was delivered to Australia. This aircraft transformed the way Air Lift Group does business. The sixth and final aircraft is due to be delivered at the end of October, and these aircraft bear the brunt of deployments to and from the Middle East, as well as humanitarian and disaster relief efforts around the globe.
“The C-17A has been incredibly successful and represents our biggest leap so far, coming out of a C-130-centric business, then transforming into an intercontinental operator working in the hub-and-node style of operations,” said Air Commodore Gary Martin, commander of the Air Lift Group.
“We have a C-17A that transits to the Middle East every other week with up to 98,000 pounds of cargo in the back, taking the required vehicles, food supplies, weapon systems, etc., directly from Australia to Afghanistan in a single flight,” he said. “The aircraft then recovers to the United Arab Emirates and operates a shuttle back into Afghanistan for a few days. It’s definitely become the powerhouse of our global mass transport capability.”
The C-17A has also taken over many of the tactical roles in-theater, including airdropping of supplies using the Joint Precision Air Drop System, with an accuracy of about 10 meters.
“That’s one of the huge changes, the speed and distance that can be covered and the ability to get the load to the person in the foxhole in the dead of night and nobody knows we were there,” Martin said.
The stalwart of the Air Lift Group remains the Hercules, with 12 C-130J-30s and currently four C-130Hs in service. The older aircraft are being withdrawn and will cease flying in December. Four of the original 12 aircraft have been given to Indonesia, and the sale of a further six to the Indonesian Air Force was announced in August.
The C-130J-30 fleet is due for two further incremental software upgrades between 2014 and 2019 and the installation of the Large Aircraft Infra-Red Counter Measures self-protection system.
“That then gives us a highly maneuverable aircraft, well-tested and well-tried, and one which is still able to conduct all the tactical activities we require, both in the region and in the prolonged operations we are undertaking in Afghanistan,” Martin said.
The next aircraft type to be acquired is the C-27J, 10 of which are on order through the Foreign Military Sales program with the United States for delivery beginning in 2015. The 1.4 billion Australian dollar ($1.43 billion) deal has attracted critics, who claimed an open competition was not conducted and questioned the value of purchasing a European aircraft through an FMS deal. The project is the subject of an ongoing review by the Australian National Audit Office.
The Air Force has steadfastly maintained its preference for the aircraft, which will fill the battlefield airlift role vacated by the retirement of the Caribou in 2009.
“The C-27J will fill the niche between [the Chinook helicopter] and Hercules quite nicely, and the contract negotiations between our Transition Team, the Project Office, the USAF and [Italian C-27J builder] Alenia are progressing very well,” Martin said. “We’re in the early stages, but most of the timelines have been established.”
Australia is acquiring five KC-30A multirole tanker transports from Airbus Military, and despite a series of delays to the project, Martin said the aircraft is settling into service well.
“We performed 71 tasks last month [September] with two out of the three aircraft delivered so far and of those, 50 percent were air-to-air refueling missions and we didn’t have a single aircraft turn away from us,” he said. “Considering we’ve only been flying it for one year and we’re not even at initial operating capability [due in December] yet, that’s a great achievement,” he said.
Work with the Advanced Aerial Refueling Boom System has not commenced, however, due to a boom separation incident over the Atlantic Ocean in January 2011. Trials will commence next year.
“This aircraft can look after six fighters from Australia to the mainland United States quite happily,” Martin said. “Its loiter time and fuel-offload capabilities are almost twice that of a KC-10A.”
The final part of the Air Lift Group jigsaw puzzle will be the replacement of its three Bombardier Challengers and two 737-Boeing business jets (BBJs) in the VIP fleet between 2016 and 2019.
“Looking at the Challenger market, there’s probably between 11 and 17 corporate jets out there right now which could fulfill our requirements in a pretty dynamic way,” Martin said. “But when it comes to the BBJ replacement, it’s really between Airbus and Boeing.”
“The Australian Defence Force will soon have the complete package, from strategic airlift capability down to local,” said Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “It will be capable of hub-and-spoke operations anywhere in the world.”