Tactical transport typically involves moving stores, personnel, equipment and vehicles from an established airhead to a forward operating location and is usually characterised by a combination of short ranges, outsize payloads, defensive aids, low level flight profiles and the use of unprepared or austere landing locations.
They might also be used for air drop delivery of the same payloads.
Modern tactical transport aircraft blur the distinction between tactical and strategic by virtue of long range for example.
Airdrop logistics has seen resurgence in the last few years as its low cost, low risk and increasing accuracy has combined to make it a very attractive proposition although of course it is only one way.
The main staple of tactical transport in the Western world has been the C130 Hercules, in service for over 50 years it truly is an incredible aircraft and it is supplemented in US and UK service with the C17, another remarkable, but expensive aircraft.
Without going into the tortuous history of the Airbus Military A400 it will replace in UK service the various versions of the Hercules.
The existing C130 fleet (both J and K) will ultimately be replaced by 22 A400’s, down from the original requirement of 25. The seventh C17 has only recently been delivered and will allow the first 4 aircraft to be upgraded in the USA to the same standard as the others, reducing the cost of maintaining two ‘fleets’ of C17’s
The move to a single type, the A400, for all tactical transport and air delivery will dramatically reduce operating costs when compared to the multiple types of K and J models currently in service but there is no doubt the numbers of A400 will be much lower than the Hercules.
I have included the C17 in the tactical lift section because it can do the job but might also be considered a mostly strategic aircraft; indeed it is more often than not called a strategic airlifter.
The C17 fleet is working hard and allows large volume and weight payloads to be transported directly into Afghanistan from the UK for example, supports many humanitarian missions and can also deliver payloads into austere locations. The ability of the C17 to land and take off from unprepared locations is not in question but the maintenance penalty is significant so is rarely done even by the USAF and I am not sure it has ever been done by the RAF.
Operation in these austere conditions is dependent on a number of factors such as load, altitude, runway length, surface load bearing factors (California Bearing Ratio), operating restrictions and whether one wishes to use the surface again. A USAF operation into Camp Rhino was only able to support a small number of landings before heavy engineering plant (bought in by C17) was required to repair the surface for example.
It is a neat trick but it might be compared to taking a Range Rover off road, yes it can be done and done well, but is it something you would do by choice?
When the RAF were operating the C17 as part of a lease, all operations into such locations were prohibited by the terms and conditions.
11. However, under the terms of the lease the full capabilities of the C-17 will not be available and the aircraft can only be used as a strategic long-range transport, albeit with the ability to land on short runways. The C-17s will be restricted in operational use and their capability for para-drop, airdrop, rough field, low-level operations and air to air refuelling will not be used.
The real party piece of the C17 is its ability to carry heavy and outsize loads so it is perfect for armoured vehicles, helicopters and engineering plant.
This is a video of a USAF C17 transporting an M1 main battle tank to Afghanistan, check out the securing chains!
Apart from the C5 and Antonovs the C17 has no equal in this regard but in many situations it is simply too much aircraft and given its high cost of purchase and operating this means it is often an inefficient method of transporting pallets. If you look at many pictures of C17’s on operations they are not overly full and transporting fresh air costs a lot of money.
In particular, the cost of transporting personnel from the Middle East to Afghanistan in the hub and spoke arrangement is extremely high, given the maximum personnel capacity is 103 this represents a particularly low density cargo for the aircraft although fuel burn will of course be reduced.
The runway at Bastion has been continually improved, quoting from my favourite magazine, concrete monthly;
A small team of British Army Royal Engineers is getting close to the end of an ambitious 10-month project to build a second runway at the Task Force Helmand Task Force’s logistics hub, Camp Bastion, in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
The new 7,710-foot-long runway, due to be completed in December, will enable the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) C-17A Globemaster aircraft to fly direct to Camp Bastion from the United Kingdom, greatly increasing the speed of the onward distribution of freight and supplies throughout the province. The C-17A Globemaster is the latest addition to the RAF’s fleet of transport aircraft and is capable of rapid, strategic delivery of troops and all types of cargo to main or forward operating bases anywhere in the world.
The new runway will replace the temporary gravel landing zone constructed by the 39th Engineer Regiment in March this year. Currently C-17A aircraft can only land at Kandahar Airfield because of the gravel runway at Camp Bastion, so Hercules C-130 aircraft are used to ferry freight between Kandahar to Camp Bastion. The Hercules C-130 aircraft will also benefit from the new runway as they will be able to carry more weight on landing – be it troops or supplies.
October 2007 Issue
So we can deduce from this that the RAF likes concrete for its C17’s and this allowed a second Air Line of Communication (ALoC) to be established. From 2008 Operation MERGE was initiated to improve the facilities again, in order to support the USMC deployment to Helmand, notably the Camp Leatherneck 1, 2 and 3 phases. As part of this operation and in order to operate the largest of aircraft like the AN-124 , C5 Galaxy and commercial aircraft like 747’s the runway at Bastion has been supplemented with a new build. This new 11,500ft runway will run parallel to the one mentioned above, which will now operate as a taxiway. When completed the new runway may also enable direct flights usingTristar’s rather than them flying into Kandahar, 25 odd times per month.
The ability of Bastion take the C17 has been crucial to aeromedical evacuations, direct back to the UK, in one go, from hospital to hospital with minimal disruption. The C17’s speed, range and large hold which can accommodate the various palletised high dependency systems and their attendant medical personnel make it almost a perfect aircraft for this role.
Some interesting background on AE and CCAT can be read in the RAMC Journal here
The C17 is without a doubt a brilliant aircraft but it is very expensive to operate and because of various factors we have often been left with no alternative, consequently one has to wonder if we are, through necessity, over using them, incurring excess fuel and maintenance cost and using up valuable airframe life.
It sounds rather callous to question the operating costs of the C17 when used for the aeromedical evacuation role but when viewed holistically and without emotion, if we can reduce the cost of a given task we can maintain or enhance capabilities in other areas.
Despite the obvious utility of using a large aircraft that allows various palletised intensive care facilities and medical personnel to be carried it is arguably not the best option, it is the best option (range, speed and space) we have at the minute but this is where the FSTA should be used in the future if at all possible. Because the version we will be getting is the passenger not cargo version, the same palletised systems on display in the video above will not be able to be reused on the main deck.
The expansion of the C17 fleet will eventually allow the first 4 aircraft to be upgraded to the latest Block 17 configuration which provides enhanced radar and on board inert gas generator to improve survivability. It is hoped that this work will commence in 2011.
What about cost?
As we all know, pinning down the cost of individual items of military equipment if fraught with difficulties but piecing together various snippets;
The cost of leasing the 4 C17’s under the Short Term Strategic Airlift programme we had to cover delays in the A400 and obvious need was in excess of £700m. Reflecting the nature of the lease, that it was a gap-filler until A400 arrived, the requirements only listed a payload of 32tonnes for example. Competing bids were received from Air Foyle and IBP with the Antonov AN124 and Airbus with a mix of A300 freighters and the distinctive Beluga.
As an aside, the Beluga is a very interesting aircraft, its European design and manufacture would not come with the ‘spares’ issues of the AN124 and its ridiculously large cargo box dimensions (7.1×7.1×31.7m) would allow it to transport a Chinook without the very time consuming transmission strip down needed when they go C-17 Class. One was chartered to transport 2 NH-90 and a Tiger helicopter to Australia but a maximum payload of 47 tonnes and complete lack of austere location capability means the C17 is ultimately a better all rounder.
Anyway, back to reality.
The recuperated costs of the 3 out of the 4 recent Hercules losses have been used to part fund 2 C17’s, beyond the 4 we purchased at the end of their lease period. Some indication of comparative capacities and costs can be obtained from the arrangements in place between European nations as administered by the Movements Control Centre Europe which trades 1 C17 flying hour for 7 Hercules hours.
Boeing supports the RAF’s C-17s through the C-17 Globemaster III Sustainment Partnership, a performance-based logistics programme, at RAF Brize Norton, the RAF’s main operating base for strategic air transport and air-to-air refueling. The arrangement provides the RAF with the benefits of complete “virtual fleet” access and an extensive support network. The virtual fleet concept enables C-17 customers, especially those with smaller numbers of aircraft, to benefit from worldwide parts availability and economies of scale when purchasing materials.
In 2008 the estimated UK cost of participation in the GSP was $225 million for six aircraft and in 2010 the seven aircraft resulted in an estimated cost of $390 million. It is not indicated how long the GSP runs for.
Purchase cost depends very much on the optional extras and how many you are buying. The ‘all option included’ price for 10 to India was reported at $.5.8 billion, Australia’s 4 at $2 billion and Kuwait’s 1 at $690 million.
It should therefore be clear that the oft mooted $200m or £125m price for a C17 is way off the mark. A closer figure would be around $580 million or £360 million for an aircraft in a usable condition, fully supported.
Because of the obvious political aspect of the A400 programme it seems to polarise opinion.
There is no doubt it has had a troubled past with specification that has been compromised to get it into service, a bad case of over promising/under delivering on costs and timescales from Airbus Military, the usual suspects (mainly Germany) prevaricating leading to delays and trying not only to develop a cutting edge aircraft but the most powerful turboprop engine in the world all at the same time.
There is equally no doubt the A400 has politics wrapped all around it, the desire to strengthen a European defence identity and maintain European sovereign capabilities in large military aircraft production.
With all these problems is it any wonder the launch nations have had to compromise on specifications and numbers to get the project to completion?
Despite all the numerous problems we have to try and look at the aircraft and its specification in isolation, forget the political and industrial baggage and ask ourselves if it is worth having.
The requirement for the A400 is officially defined as;
A400M is planned to provide tactical and strategic mobility to all three Services. The required capabilities include: operations from airfields and semi-prepared rough landing areas in extreme climates and all weather conditions by day and night; carrying a variety of equipment including vehicles and troops over extended ranges; air dropping paratroops and equipment; and being unloaded with the minimum of ground handling equipment. The 1998 Strategic Defence Review confirmed a requirement for an airlift capability to move large single items such as attack helicopters and some Royal Engineers’ equipment and concluded that this would be met, in the latter part of the first decade of the 21st Century, by Future Transport Aircraft. The A400M was selected to meet this requirement.
After much uncertainty, the revised contract is expected to be finalised towards the end of 2011.
From the latest National Audit Office Major Projects Report the A400 will cost the MoD £3.231 billion for 22 aircraft and associated items, some £487million more than expected and over 5 years later than expected when it comes into service in 2015.
The programme cost is therefore, a very rough £148 million each.
The NAO also assesses each project against the 8 Defence Lines of Development and it has assessed the A400 to be at risk in Equipment, Logistics and Infrastructure. However, all 8 of the key Performance Measures are forecast to be met.
The A400 is often compared to the C17 when in fact it is a replacement for the Transall and Hercules, the reason it is compared to the C17 is because its cost is more than double the Hercules and approaching the C17. The oft presented argument is because the A400 is approaching the cost of the C17 why not just buy more C17’s and even more Hercules, the sum of these would be greater than the sum of the C17 and A400. This is a powerful argument and worthy of serious consideration but it misses a crucial point, the Hercules has been overtaken by the reality of larger vehicles and engineering plant so no matter how cheap it is or how many you can combine for a large total payload if your single (realistically) tactical airlifter cannot lift the majority of your kit the rest doesn’t matter a jot.
To that, many people counter with an argument that tactical aircraft is not about moving vehicles or plant but more to do with pallets and people. Again, a fair point but by going down this road we condemn the forces to relying on a very small number of C17’s to move vehicles by air and I do not think this is a desirable state for any number of reasons.
This is a couple of rather optimistic videos but good anyway.
The inconvenient fact that supporters of more Hercules cannot discount is the trend in vehicle and engineering plant size and weight, especially size, in increasing.
- WMIK becomes Jackal
- 4 tonner becomes SV
- Foden Recovery becomes SV Recovery
- CET becomes Terrier
- Scimitar becomes FRES Scout
- Saxon becomes FRES UV
- CVR(T) becomes FRES SV
- Viking becomes Bronco
The IED has arrived on the scene and the physical design mitigation measures have resulted in higher and wider vehicles. The IED is not going away either, in any spectrum of conflict it will always be a threat and vehicle designers and armed forces the world over realise this. The fundamental core role of strategic air transport is to deliver and sustain land forces, if by concentrating our resources on legacy aircraft like the C130 we deny ourselves the ability to discharge that fundamental role in any meaningful way.
Even if you look at shifting some Land Rovers, a single A400 can move 6 plus trailers, 3 times a C130J. Getting back to pallets and people, the A400 can carry 9 and 54 personnel at the same time; the C130J can do 5 pallets with no room at the side for personnel. The A400 can go faster and higher and this really comes into its own on a prolonged supply movement as turnaround time becomes a factor. Its speed and altitude will allow the A400 to share airspace with civilian airline traffic. It is plumbed for air refuelling, has much better sustained soft field performance than a C130, has innovative cargo handling and maintenance capabilities and go can much further.
Is it too big compared to the C130 making it useless for some tactical air strips, you can’t get all those improvements above without getting bigger, but look at the dimensions. If we take the standard C130J (not stretch) as a base, the A400 is about 10 ft wider wingspan and 45 foot longer but if you compare it to the stretch J it goes down to 30 foot. So although physically bigger it is designed to have a much smaller ground pressure than a C130.
The fundamental truth is this, plant and vehicles are getter bigger and the C130 cargo box isn’t
By keeping the C130 and not moving on, we are tacitly accepting that more and more of the types of equipment that used to go in the back of a Hercules now need’s to go via C17.
This would be fair enough if we had loads of C17’s which were cheap to operate, low maintenance and able to repeatedly operate from austere locations, but it cannot.
If you really want a dull read, pop over to this link and look at the requirements for austere site operation of the C17. The issue is not about one off landings but repeated landing on anything other than tarmac or compacted gravel without destroying the aircraft in the process or rendering the surface unfit. From the document, the C17 can do about 15 cycles into a location with a CBR of 6 with a payload of 20tonnes and enough fuel for a short return flight, before the runway needs serious repair. The A400 on the other hand, is designed to do roughly 40 cycles at the same weight, do the math as they say over the pond.
LM and Boeing talking about the C130XL and C17B respectively i.e. meeting the spec of the A400 and the US is also running a number of programmes (Advanced Theatre Transport, Advanced Mobility Concept and Advanced Joint Air Cargo System) to address the growing gap in their tactical lift fleet. The US has plenty of C17’s so the gap is not in desperately urgent need of closing but there is a gap nevertheless. The USAF recently asked industry to start thinking about a C130 replacement, even if they don’t actually know what they are looking for.
The A400 has been designed with a cargo box width the same as the C17 and other aspects of its design have been very carefully thought through, they were not picked out of a hat.
Let’s make no mistake; the A400 is not out of the woods yet and the amount of specification creep has yet to be confirmed, that said, there is growth potential in the airframe, engines and flight control software and there are very few military equipments that spring forth from the manufacturer as the finished article so I am relatively sanguine about these issues.
We might also whisper the fact that European air forces will collectively have a very effective airlift capability, sshh.
The plan is therefore to withdraw the C130K’s, operate the C130J’s and A400’s as the A400 comes into service and then withdraw the C130J’s in 2022 so the RAF will have a 3 type Air Transport fleet, the A330, C17 and A400.
The RAF currently operates both the C130K and the all digital cockpit C130J, for which the RAF was the launch customer. Within these two basic types are a number of variants and capability increments.
The 22 A400’s will replace the 35 C130’s currently in service. It must be said that out of that number only 26 are in the forward fleet and 18 fit for purpose but even deploying the ‘Hoon defence’ of if something is better you don’t need as many, that is a serious reduction and makes little provision for attrition.
By way of explanation the forward fleet comprises aircraft which are serviceable or short-term unserviceable. Fit for purpose aircraft include only serviceable aircraft available to the front-line commands for operational and training purposes
It’s simply not enough if we are to maintain an enduring expeditionary presence, UK/FI commitments, contingent capability for tactical airlift/air dropping and training.
More information from the A400 site here
Something Smaller than an A400
A problem with the A400 is the very simple fact we will only be getting 22 and a shared with the French support/training system. This last aspect hasn’t been formally announced but that is the direction of travel.
The second issue is very similar to the one that often besets the C17; it is too much aircraft for many situations. The large cargo compartment will mean that for a lot of the time the A400 will be transporting people, pallets and lots of fresh air.
Now this may seem like a contradictory argument to the one for the A400 but bear with me.
Whilst the A400 makes a lot of sense when shifting heavy and voluminous loads in the build-up phase but a pallet or two, a couple of dozen personnel, a piece of engineering plant or a vital spare part it is clearly too large.
These are typical intra theatre loads where even the C130 is often too large.
In the build-up phase the majority of flights will be carrying vehicles, plant and equipment. As an operation progresses into sustainment, personnel transfers and pallets will be the norm.
The third issue of concern with the A330/C17/A400 mix is the quantities. The A400 is a tactical airlifter, it is designed to slum it in the rough stuff; the RAF has lost 4 C130 in operations in the last few years. An equivalent number of losses would represent nearly 15% of the A400 fleet and this calculation assumes all 22 are actually available and fit for deployment, which we know will not be the case. This will lead to a tendency towards risk reduction and operations should not be overly constrained by such concerns.
Against all my ruthless commonality and standardisation instincts I think there is a need for a utilitarian, cheap to operate, very short take off/landing and modestly sized tactical airlifter, a transit van of an aircraft for time/mission sensitive loads. In some circumstances this aircraft might also supplement the Chinook and Merlin force which whilst obviously useful are very expensive to operate.
The ideal payload bracket would be as that of the Chinook, about 10 tonnes but with higher volume for low density cargo.
There are a few options in this bracket, the EADS C235 and Alenia C27J Spartan being the obvious ones. Although the C235 would be a good choice the C27J is a ‘proper’ tactical airlifter with a long heritage and superior performance. The US Air National Guard will be operating 38 Spartans, the Joint Cargo Aircraft.
The C27J Spartan is an updated version of the G222 and has some commonality with the C130J. Of course the RAF C130J’s will be going out of service but one wonders if some aspects of the C130J logistics and training capability might be reused in some way.
At its most basic, the C27J is a cut down C130J, its performance is impressive, 600kph, 3000km range (8 tonnes), take off distance at max weight 580m, landing distance at max weight 340m and a maximum payload of 11.1 tonnes in the logistic mission (less in the assault role)
The cargo hold can carry up to 60 personnel, 46 paratroopers, 3 463L pallets, 36 stretchers or 6 airdrop bundles. Its cargo box width allows light vehicles to be carried like the Land Rover, Ocelot, Jackal and Viking for example, although these would be the exception, pallets and personnel being the rule.
Other missions for the C27J would be maintenance of parachute drop capabilities, which has proven difficult in recent times due to a lack of airframes and special-forces support.
Although now put on hold the US had intended to use the C27J as a basis for the AC-27J Stinger II gunship variant, an interesting proposition that would deliver a serious capability upgrade for UK forces.
Dropping down into the bargain basement there is a wide variety of aircraft choices but their loading flexibility and payload are arguably too limiting although their ultra low operating costs are certainly attractive.
Is there room for a fourth airlift aircraft, normally I would say no way, but given operating cost of the Chinook and the scarcity of the A400 I am more and more convinced.
As above, it is very difficult to gauge an in service price but the US sale would indicate about £30million each including logistics, simulators, training etc, comparing favourably with the Hercules, A400 and C17
Although I have split the tactical and strategic transport posts in many regards they are closely linked and the dividing lines a grey shade of grey. Although the C17 and A400 have utility in both strategic and tactical roles the need to use them thus will be heavily impacted by the strategic capability on offer from the FSTA aircraft. Delivering mixed loads of pallets, containers and personnel into a non austere location will generally be cheaper and when combined with the airborne refuelling capability will make the FSTA a particularly low cost means of delivery direct to an airhead.
The first option to consider is therefore a repeat of the suggestion in the previous post, namely a change of aircraft from the passenger to the much more flexible cargo version of the A330 MRTT for the FSTA programme. This will reduce the need to use C17’s and A400’s in the strategic role, moving personnel, pallets and lots of fresh air over long distances, thus preserving the precious commodity that is A400 and C17 airframe hours. Utilisation rates and therefore operating costs for all aircraft, should improve as a result of having this flexibility.
The second option is to consider is the maintenance and logistics system that supports the main tactical transport aircraft. For far too long we have accepted/swept under the carpet the low availability rates of aircraft that is a result of insufficient spares and maintenance personnel being provided. These are usually predicated on a demand that is not based on enduring and demanding operations and this has to change. Although it is a few years old this link will show just how often aircraft are cannibalised for spares.
Thirdly, we don’t/won’t have enough C17’s and A400’s
As funding, hopefully, improves towards Future Force 2020 then we should consider increasing the orders for both. Boeing seems to be forever closing the C17 production line ‘very soon’ but there is no doubt it will happen at some point. Increasing orders for the A400 might be seen by some as rewarding failure, it is late and we are only getting 22 for the inflated price of 25 after all but I think the A400 will mature into a very effective aircraft and in a decade or so we will saying;
How many is ‘some more’?
We have to base this on a baseline of an enduring operation at Brigade strength plus the extra commitments for training, contingent operations and special-forces support. The RAPID aspect of the Future Rapid Effects System (FRES) is often ridiculed because no matter what our insistence on air portability we do not have the ability to lift a brigade rapidly.
This ridicule is unwarranted, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the aspiration to airlift a medium weight brigade, in fact it is a sound concept. Early deployment of a rapid intervention force may often negate the need for larger forces later and as long as we do not base our entire force planning on the premise that rapid intervention will achieve results in every circumstance then it is still something we should pursue.
The whole point of having rapidly deployable forces is to react to circumstances; if we cannot lift 16 Air Assault Brigade into any theatre within a reasonable time frame then there becomes little point in having them as a distinct formation. The same could also be said of the Royal Marines, if we do not have the ability to land them from the sea in a reasonable time frame then they become much less valuable. On a side note, the recent rumours of the RAF wanting to take operational command of the Parachute Regiment are an interesting thought. The Royal Navy has the Royal Marines and fought tooth and nail to keep them, arguing that theatre entry from the sea needs specialist command, could the same be said of forces whose raison d’être is to effect theatre entry from the air? I will leave this argument for a later post but it is food for thought, argue for the RN and RM, then flip the coin and see it from an air perspective and tell me what is different.
As a minimum therefore, we should have the ability to airlift a Brigade force in a reasonable time frame, even if it is not a ‘medium weight’ force.
How many extra, 50 of course but back in the real world!
Without detailed planning assumptions at hand I think an extra 2 or 3 would provide a useful enhancement, if we could find the funding before those nice gentlemen from Seattle make good on their ever present threat to cease production.
When carrying vehicles, the constraining factor is often weight and volume; this is where the cavernous dimensions of the cargo area and basic lift capacity come into play. For really large and super heavy loads there is always a chartered Antonov or a ‘borrow’ of a USAF C5 Galaxy but these are definitely the exception.
Fourth, the argument for a small tactical airlifter like the C27J is strong and a small force of 10-12 would be sufficient for special-forces support and intra theatre transport for a deployed brigade on an enduring operation.
Fifth, air despatch, or the chucking of kit out of the door, is enjoying a renaissance as the combination of threats, risks, economics and the availability of accurate air drop systems have converged. We should continue to invest in systems and training to enhance this capability.
Finally, the ability to rapidly create and maintain a suitable airhead is vital to expeditionary operations. The specialist airfield construction capability within UK forces is currently relatively low capacity and this needs to change.
In an ideal post 2022 world, the RAF’s tactical airlift fleet would comprise 8 or 9 C17’s (all at the same Block), 25 A400’s and 10 or 12 C27J’s, all backed up with the FSTA cargo variant aircraft.
To summarise then;
- The move to a 3 type transport fleet of A330, C17 and A400 is sensible with some caveats, the commonality benefits are obvious, especially when looking at the Hercules fleets within a fleet problem we have now
- The FSTA A330’s needs to be the cargo variant, no question, this will reduce dependence on the C17 and A400
- A couple of extra C17’s and possibly the original number of A400’s would contribute to the goal of being able to lift 16AAB into theatre in a reasonable time frame, we have to be sensible, we will never be able to do it in one go unless the tooth fairy delivers but more airlift is never a poor option
- We should continue to invest in training infrastructure, support and logistics to maximise the availability rates of our diminishing number of aircraft
- The argument for a small airlifter is worth serious investigation to provide a sensible tiered capability and allow the aircraft to be used in their most appropriate roles, minimising poor utilisation and supplementing the rotary fleet
## Other posts in this series ##