The Royal Australian Air Force’s Leonardo/L-3 C-27J Spartan battlefield airlifter capability operated by 35SQN at Amberley has been added to Defence’s Projects of Interest watch-list after missing several key capability milestones.
As reported by Australian Financial Review political correspondent Andrew Tillett on July 20, RAAF Head of Capability AVM Cath Roberts told the parliamentary public works committee in early July that, “The C-27J program has been challenging and…there have been significant delays in terms of achieving the capability outcomes that were originally determined.”
But AVM Roberts defended the C-27J’s performance in Operation Bushfire Assist over the 2019/2020 summer where three aircraft operated out of RAAF East Sale in Victoria to support evacuation and recovery efforts, and in supporting Australia’s ongoing foreign policy efforts in the southwest Pacific region. “You can see that the C-27J, even without the ability to go into a fully contested environment, still has a significant role in our defence activities,” she told the committee.
The committee oversight comes after the C-27J failed to achieve its planned final operational capability (FOC) in December 2019 – a milestone that had already been delayed by three years from December 2016.
The capability was placed on the projects of interest list in March 2020 (formerly the projects of concern list) pending it being granted its Australian military type-certificate (MTC). Although the MTC was granted in May 2020, the project remains on the watchlist and may stay there until the re-scheduled FOC milestone – now planned for the end of 2020 – is achieved.
Acquired under Project AIR 8000 Phase 2 to replace the DHC-4 Caribou which was retired from RAAF service in 2009, the C-27J was selected under a combined first and second pass in 2012 ahead of the rival Airbus C-295M. Ten aircraft were ordered under a foreign military sales (FMS) deal through L3, the prime contractor for the USAF/US Army Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) requirement of up to 150 aircraft, for which the C-27J had been selected.
The Pentagon cancelled the JCA program in 2013, and subsequently divested itself of the approximately 30 aircraft it had taken delivery of to that point. Even though the advantages of the ADF acquiring a certified aircraft and support system common to a larger fleet through the FMS deal evaporated with the US cancellation, the ADF decided to persist with the C-27J.
The first RAAF C-27J was delivered to Richmond in June 2015, and the final aircraft was delivered in April 2018. Despite an initially successful introduction and achieving its planned initial operational capability (IOC) of four aircraft in December 2016, the aircraft has become increasingly difficult to sustain in RAAF service, with availability rates reportedly dropping below 50 per cent in recent months.
Northrop Grumman Australia was awarded a five year contract as platform steward to sustain the C-27J capability in November 2017. But ADBR understands Northrop Grumman has found it difficult to source line items and other spares from original equipment manufacturer (OEM) Leonardo, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic hit particularly hard in northern Italy where Leonardo is based. ADBR further understands that Defence has put Industry on notice to fix the sustainment issues.
There have also been undefined delays in installing the C-27J’s infra-red countermeasures (IRCM) systems, a key capability requirement when operating in contested environments where small man-portable surface-to-air anti-aircraft (MANPAD) missile systems are common.
The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) 2017–18 Major Projects Report noted that; ‘…the project office is working through a number of capability baseline considerations identified post-establishment of the FMS Case. These baseline issues are associated with the configuration and certification status of the USAF JCA C-27J program, which were not finalised by the USAF at the time of divestiture.’