Australia’s recapitalized fleet

Byline: Kym Bergmann/ Canberra & Dzirhan Mahadzir / Kuala Lumpur

As a consequence of a number of decisions taken during the last two years, the structure of the RAAF’s airlift fleet looks to be set in stone for some time to come. Military analysts have often commented that in the modern era, one cannot have too much airlift capability – and it could be said that this is even more so in the natural disaster prone Asia-Pacific region. It is clear that many years ago thinking about airlift capability started to move beyond what would be required to support military operations alone and has taken into account humanitarian and disaster relief missions as well.

The recent decisions completing the final shape of the RAAF’s airlift fleet include: increasing the number of C-17s from four to six; retiring older model C-130s early and standardizing on 12 “J” models and finally selecting without the benefit of a tender the C-27J “Spartan” to replace the retired Caribous. This latter decision is the one that has raised the most eyebrows – including from this magazine – because it would appear that Australia has paid a premium of some hundreds of millions of dollars for the dubious pleasure of acquiring these aircraft via the US Foreign Military Sales system. A far more cost effective approach would seem to have been a direct purchase from either Alenia or Alenia’s US partner L-3.

Standardising the C-130 fleet on the “J” model makes sense and there was a slight foreign policy benefit in transferring four C-130Hs to Indonesia. However, the language in Australia about the circumstances caused yet another flash of irritation in Jakarta because of the use of the word “gift”, when Indonesia will be responsible for some refurbishment costs. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble and Indonesia needs all of the C-130s it can possibly acquire. Similarly, acquiring more C-17s is adding greatly to Australia’s strategic airlift capability, even though the purchase of each additional aircraft looked like an ad hoc case of Defence Minister Stephen Smith purchasing some more off-the-shelf military hardware to soak up unspent capital equipment dollars.

The Caribou replacement decision is the strangest of them all. After an abortive attempt in the 1990s to acquire a Battlefield Airlifter, Defence then appeared to sit on their hands for more than a decade and even when the last Caribou stopped flying in 2009 there was no sign of a replacement. Then out of the blue in late 2011 came the news that Australia had requested pricing for 10 C27Js as an FMS case. To the understandable chagrin of Airbus Military – offering the less expensive C295 – it soon emerged that the die had been cast and that Australia strangely was not even going to bother with a tender. For a time Defence Minister Stephen Smith looked to be on shaky ground when he publicly asserted that there had been a competitive evaluation of the two aircraft in circumstances where no tender had been issued – a novel interpretation of what constitutes a competition.

So the transport fleet will comprise C27Js; C-130Js; C-17s – and additionally 5 Multi Role Tanker Transports, King-Air 200s and potentially the VIP aircraft as well.

For strategic airlift, the new player on the block is the A400M – but for the moment the RAAF believes that their existing mix is meeting the needs of the ADF. Even the oldest aircraft – C130Js – have a lot of life remaining in them.

By way of comparison, APDR also looked at the needs of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, which also has substantial transport requirements. Malaysia is the first country in the Asia Pacific region to order the A400M, which it did in 2005 in a contract worth MYR 2.8 billion (USD 929 million) for four aircraft. The initial plan was for deliveries of the first two aircraft in the period 2013-2014. However delays with the A400M program have now seen this delivery being rescheduled to 2015-2016 – though the delay has not been too troubling to the Royal Malaysian Air Force as the entry of the A400M into the RMAF is for the purpose of bolstering the RMAF’s heavy lift capability rather than meeting any urgent and immediate operational requirement.
The decision to purchase the A400M in 2005 was a result of both the need to enhance the RMAF’s fixed wing transport capabilities beyond that currently existing with the C-130 Hercules and C-235 transport fleets in. It was also the intention of the Malaysian government to boost the country’s defence and aerospace manufacturing capabilities via offsets.
By the beginning of the 21st century, it was clearly seen to the Malaysian Armed Forces that a requirement existed for a larger capacity aircraft to supplement the C-130s and CN-235s in RMAF service – particularly with the Malaysian Armed Forces becoming more involved in peacekeeping and contingency operations outside of Malaysia. While the RMAF C-130s could perform out of country operations and had done so numerous times in the past, a larger capacity aircraft could carry out the tasks more efficiently with less aircraft deployed. This is particularly the case given the fact that the C-130 served as the workhorse for the day-to-day transportation operations of the Malaysian Armed Forces.

Coupled with this also was the need for additional airlift capability to readily transport Malaysia’s designated rapid intervention force – the 10th Parachute Brigade – for any intervention operation. On paper, it would make logistical support and fleet maintenance easier by replacing the C-130 entirely with the newer, higher capacity aircraft. However, the scope of the Malaysian Armed Forces and Royal Malaysian Air Forces day-to-day transport operations, particularly in shuttling personnel, equipment and supplies between Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia, meant that usage of a higher capacity aircraft may not be economically effective. This is due to the under utilization of cargo capacity – hence any aircraft purchased would be to supplement and not replace the RMAF’s C-130 fleet.
The decision to choose the A400M to supplement the RMAF’s C-130 fleet was made for a number of factors. Firstly given the A400M is a turboprop aircraft, it was easier for the RMAF to familiarize itself for maintenance and support as the existing RMAF’s transport fleet was made up of turboprops. This is in contrast to the jet engine Boeing C-17, which represented the only alternate choice. In addition, due to the international political climate of the time, there was a reluctance for Malaysia to place too much of a dependence on United States equipment after witnessing the effects of a US embargo on military support for Indonesia. Finally the purchase of the A400M also turned upon the offset work packages offered, which met the Malaysian government’s goal of developing local defence and aviation industries via offsets from defence purchases (a factor absent in Australia’s decision-making processes).

The work package from the A400M purchase by Malaysia was around 230 million Euros and involved Malaysian company Composites Technology Research Malaysia (CTRM) manufacturing parts such as the aircraft’s engine cowlings, control surface panels, landing doors and empennage pieces. CTRM’s selection was due to the fact that with the cancellation of South Africa’s order, Malaysia is currently the only non-European industrial program participant and planned operator of the aircraft. The agreement also provided for additional work for CTRM should further aircraft be ordered from any country beyond the time of the Malaysian purchase – though currently no further orders have materialized.

In the meantime, the RMAF has been making preparations for the A400M’s entry into RMAF service. RMAF Chief General Tan Sri Rodzali Daud outlined to Asia Pacific Defence Reporter the RMAF’s preparations, stating that the A400M would be grouped together under a new squadron, which will be stationed at RMAF Subang in the capital of Kuala Lumpur. RMAF Subang already serves as a base for RMAF C-130s stationed in Peninsular Malaysia and co-located next to the base is the United Nations World Food Program Depot – which serves to support UN HADR operations in the Asian region.

With the RMAF seeing supporting HADR efforts in the region as one of its key priorities, having the A400Ms stationed at Subang also allows the aircraft to instantly and effectively support any UN efforts. General Tan Sri Rodzali also stated that additional infrastructure will be built at Subang to support the aircraft and that the RMAF was working with Airbus Military to identify local industries to work in a joint venture with Airbus Military to provide long term in-country support and maintenance for the A400M.

He added that RMAF pilots would be training in Spain on simulators in preparation for operating the aircraft and said that the RMAF would be learning from the French Air Force, which will be the initial operator of the aircraft. The Chief said that the A400M will play the role of a strategic airlift transport for Malaysia and potentially also will serve as a tanker aircraft for the RMAF’s fighters, replacing the RMAF’s two KC-130 – though he stated that this was still in the planning stage and would depend on the situation during the time the A400M actually enters RMAF service. He added that the A400M would have no problem operating in Malaysia as the RMAF has assessed and determined that a number of the country’s air bases and airports are capable of handling the aircraft.




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