Taking the battlefield airlifter
out of the battle?
Defence has announced the role of the RAAF’s fleet of 10 Leonardo C-27J Spartan airlifters will be “redefined” to focus on humanitarian disaster relief (HADR), crisis response, and regional engagements.
Acquired in 2012 through Project AIR 8000 Phase 2 to replace the De Havilland DHC-4 Caribou in the battlefield airlifter role, the C-27J – operated by 35SQN based at Amberley – has endured a protracted introduction into RAAF service. Built by Alenia/Leonardo in Italy and missionised by L3 at Waco in Texas, the first aircraft entered service in 2015, and the last in 2018.
Despite improvements in payload/range over the piston-engined Caribou, C-27J aircraft availability has suffered due to spares shortages and configuration management issues. But in recent months aircraft availability has reportedly improved, and the aircraft has proved itself by supporting the 2019/20 bushfire relief effort, and by supporting aid and HADR missions in the Indo-Pacific region.
“The Spartan demonstrated its specific capabilities during the 2019/20 Australian bushfire crisis by safely evacuating 2,400 fire-affected community members and resupplying remote communities that were inaccessible by larger aircraft, which included moving 300,000 kilograms of cargo,” Chief of Air Force AIRMSHL Mel Hupfeld said in a release.
“The Spartan conducted these missions at a range that exceeded the ability of Defence helicopters because of its flexibility and the inherent operational characteristics of a light tactical fixed-wing aircraft.”
Comment: With the use of the word “redefined” in the release, it is unclear whether the C-27J will retain the battlefield airlifter mission it was acquired to fulfil, or whether this will be relinquished in favour of the HADR and regional engagement role.
As has been proven in the recent Talisman Saber exercises, the Spartan is still capable of supporting missions into austere airfields, albeit in permissive environments, while the expansion of the Army’s CH-47F Chinook fleet to 14 aircraft from next year will also partially address any shortfall.
It remains to be seen whether the ADF’s battlefield airlifter requirements will be satisfied with this force mix, or whether an alternate platform will be considered.