This article originally appeared in the April edition of SA Flyer and FlightCom magazine. It is republished here with minor edits.
This week I’m exploring some of the potential options for the SAAF’s strategic transport needs and I’m assuming, for the sake of the article, that the Defence Review will be fully adopted and the SANDF is given the funding it needs to acquire these aircraft. They will, after all, cost a large amount of money both to acquire and operate.
So consider it a what-if, to explore the options for a best-case funding situation.
I have also intentionally left out types like the C-130J, KC-390, C-27J, C-295 and similar from consideration here because those are light to medium tactical airlifters and were the focus of my previous post.
The list of requirements for any new heavy transport aircraft is a dizzying array of competing needs from all arms of service, each one as important as the next. It’s not a decision the Air Force can take alone, on top of its own considerations it has to include the requirements of the Army, Military Health Service, Navy, Special Forces and Joint Operations. To this must be added the maintenance, technical, basing and crewing requirements without which the aircraft would be unusable.
For instance, the medics need an aircraft whose cargo hold fits their existing airborne medical equipment, oxygen ports throughout the hold, litters and connection points all compatible with their existing equipment. The Special Forces need aircraft that can support parachute operations at all levels, carry all their vehicles while allowing for rapid ingress and egress during airfield assaults, be able to parachute their fast boats and vehicles and perform tactical low-level night missions. The Army wants aircraft that can carry vehicles all the way from the Gecko up to armoured fighting vehicles like the Ratel, Badger and Rooikat and the Leguan armoured bridge layer, that can be used for regular paratrooping operations and can deploy as many troops and as much equipment as far as possible, amongst a host of other requirements. The Navy needs aircraft capable of transporting the Maritime Reaction Squadron’s personnel, boats and forward HQ, and which can perform a secondary maritime search and rescue role. And finally, Joint Ops needs aircraft capable of both regular resupplies of deployed droops as well as emergency evacuation or reinforcement missions and it would like aircraft capable of transporting Oryx and Rooivalk helicopters with minimal disassembly so that it takes 4 hours in field conditions and not 24 hours in a workshop to get them into action on the other side.
What’s more, this is just a small sample of the many requirements that the project team will have to factor into any decision and it’s why it can take so long to acquire new transport aircraft.
Of course it’s not only about the type of aircraft acquired, but how many to get. This results in a delicate balancing act, trying to find the optimum level between the capability of the aircraft being bought and how many the budget will allow. For some missions the number of possible sorties is more important than outright load carrying capability, something that’s true for most SANDF resupply flights, but when the need is to move a heavy armoured vehicle then nothing other than a large airframe will do.
Nor is it always best to just buy different types for each need, as each new type adds a huge amount of cost due to its requirements for its own Organisation, People, Process and Data (OPPD) structure with its own staff, facilities, documentation, processes, etc.
Then there are the secondary requirements, such as the SANDF’s need for aerial tankers and maritime patrol aircraft. It’s likely that aircraft which can perform either of these roles in addition to their primary transport tasks or which have significant commonality with aircraft that can will score higher in the evaluations.
Second-hand Il–76 acquisition
The SANDF has been looking at the possibility of acquiring at least three Ilyushin Il–76s, likely second-hand, to help meet its need for strategic transport aircraft. The requirement is being driven by the SANDF’s Joint Operations Division because of the critical delays experienced during the reinforcement of the South African troops deployed in the Central African Republic after the Battle of Bangui. When the SANDF needed its cargo charter operators the most, to rapidly deploy men and materiel to Bangui, most were either unavailable, refused to fly into a dangerous area or arrived far later than specified.
This made the SANDF realise that it needed to have its own strategic airlift capability, owned and operated by the South African Air Force, to be able to ensure reliable transport for emergency reinforcements in a crisis. But the only aircraft available at very short notice that could fulfil the role are second-hand Il–76s.
I believe the urgency that drove the SANDF to look at second-hand Il–76s has diminished somewhat with the defeat of M23 in the DRC and the concurrent reduction in the threat facing the SANDF troops deployed with the UN’s Force Intervention Brigade there. It’s no longer necessary to acquire strategic transport aircraft immediately, though there will inevitably be a gap before any newly-built aircraft could be brought into service. For this reason there may be some merit in leasing, not buying, two or three second-hand Il–76s along with an outsourced maintenance contract for a few years.
What’s more, leasing the aircraft would leave the door open to acquire a new type that better fit the SANDF’s many requirements.
Shared SADC aircraft pool
Some manufacturers, like Boeing, have suggested that South Africa look into establishing a shared Southern African Development Community (SADC) transport aircraft pool along the same lines as NATO’s Shared Airlift Capacity (SAC) as a way to share costs.
While this is an attractive idea, I don’t believe it will work well for military transport aircraft just yet. The SADC military structures remain too distinct with too little integration and there isn’t enough political agreement on contentious issues for the aircraft to be used as freely and widely as they would need to be.
Nonetheless, it’s a good idea and I believe SADC should work towards creating the necessary structures for future acquisitions.
These are the types I have chosen to evaluate as options:
The C–17A is the aircraft that logisticians dream about. It’s great as a point-to-point airlifter with excellent range and a massive payload capability and when needed it can perform tactical airlifter missions too. It’s downside is that it’s expensive, both to acquire and to operate, and that it’s too heavy for many of the fields the SANDF may require it to fly into. It could not undertake regular flights to Goma International Airport, as an example, yet that’s the delivery point for supplies to the SANDF forces in the Eastern DRC.
Moreover the aircraft’s cost means that even with a larger budget the SAAF could only acquire a small number, certainly not enough to perform all of its heavy transport needs. The type is a big capability enhancer but it needs to be supplemented by other types in order to meet the SANDF’s needs.
After a troubled development process with numerous delays the A400M programme appears to be back on track with production deliveries to the French and Turkish air forces. The French Air Force has already used its A400Ms operationally in Mali and has expressed satisfaction with the aircraft’s performance.
And while the acquisition cost is high the projected operating cost is reasonable for an aircraft of its size, with the SAAF estimating it would need approximately R300 million annually for a fleet of eight aircraft. The advantage the type has here is that while the SAAF was part of the A400M programme it had already investigated all the infrastructure, maintenance and funding the aircraft would need, making it more of a known quantity than its competitors.
Moreover it can carry nearly every vehicle in the SANDF, including its armoured fighting vehicles, and transport the Oryx and Rooivalk with minimal dismantling, while operating into unprepared strips and small airports like Goma.
Finally, it comes pre-fitted with all the necessary plumbing for the aerial tanker role, requiring only the fitting of hoses, internal tanks and drogues, a task that takes a couple of hours.
In my view it was a mistake for South Africa to cancel its A400M order.
On paper, the An–70 is a superb aircraft. Its excellent load capacity and range would be a good match for the SAAF’s needs and at less than half the cost of the A400M, with a larger cargo box and 10 tons more carrying capacity, it would appear that Antonov has pulled off quite an engineering feat. The test will be if Antonov can keep the weight and cost in limit as it nears full-scale production.
Nonetheless, as impressive as the An–70 appears it clearly is not a viable option. Not only is the project woefully behind schedule, thanks to some technical challenges and political disputes between Russia and Ukraine, but the aircraft’s future seems to be in serious doubt as a result of the stand-off between both countries over Crimea and the eastern Ukraine. Were the South African Air Force to acquire the type it would be taking on unacceptable development risk and would have no guarantees on first deliveries.
In my view that removes the An–70 from consideration entirely. The risk is just too high.
Built to meet Japan’s unique set of requirements for a Lockheed-Martin C–130 and Kawasaki C–1 replacement, the C–2 appears to be very closely matched to the Airbus Military A400M in its capabilities and its price seems reasonable.
But there’s significant doubt that Japan will permit export of the aircraft for full military use, owing to restrictions in the Japanese constitution on military exports, though the appointment of a Japanese military attaché to South Africa may indicate a change in policy. Even if they did it may be costly to adapt the aircraft to local needs and maintain it. I would view it as an outside challenger at best.
The Il–76 has phenomenal load carrying capacity, being the only aircraft on this list that comes anywhere close to the C–17A, but it is let down by the small dimensions of its cargo box.
Unlike the A400M and C–17A, for instance, which can carry a Rooivalk helicopter with minimal dismantling, the Il–76 requires that a Rooivalk be broken down substantially and fitted into a cradle before it can be carried. This dramatically increases the time it takes on the other side to bring the aircraft into action, something which could cost lives in an emergency situation.
Further, the Il–76 is not designed as a tactical airlifter, capable of low-level tactical ingress into combat zones, airfield assaults and the like. Combined with the fact that the SAAF will need to adopt an unfamiliar logistics system if it acquires it I view an Il–76MD–90 acquisition as being unlikely.
I’ve left out some other potential options, such a the C–5 and Y–20, because they’re either too costly, unavailable or too early in their development for specific figures to be available or for a delivery to happen soon.
Strategic aircraft options
Note that figures are based on what information is publicly available
|Range with 20 ton Payload
|Est. Unit Cost
|77 519 kg
|11 000 km est.
|37 000 kg
|6 390 km
|47 000 kg
|6 600 km
|37 000 kg
|Unknown, 4 000 – 5 000 km est.
|60 000 kg
|4 300 km
Of all the aircraft here, only the A400M comes closest to ticking all of the SANDF’s requirements boxes. That it can also perform the aerial tanker role across the typical performance envelope of the Gripen and Hawk is an added and important bonus.
Yet for point-to-point carrying of heavy cargo nothing beats the C–17A, which is why in an ideal scenario the SANDF should acquire two or three C–17As and fill the rest of the strategic airlift requirement with A400Ms. Unfortunately this is unlikely, but the A400M should still be sufficient for all but the rarest and most extreme SANDF needs.
With thanks to the posters at the Unofficial SAAF Forum (saairforce.co.za/forum), whose fascinating and informative discussion sparked this article
Update 2014-10-07: The original version of this article stated the estimated annual operating cost of 8 A400Ms as R1 billion. I’ve since been informed that the actual figure is closer to R300 million. The figure has been updated accordingly.