This article originally appeared in the May edition of SA Flyer and FlightCom magazine. It has received minor edits to bring it up to date.
In my last post I described the South African Air Force’s (SAAF) ongoing airlift crisis. This is the first of two posts examining potential options and will focus on the tactical airlift choices to replace the obsolete C–47TPs and the C–212s in SAAF service in the light tactical role and the C–130BZs in the medium tactical role.
Perhaps even more so than with their larger counterparts, lighter tactical aircraft are required to fulfil a huge and diverse set of requirements from all arms of service. The SAAF cannot only consider its own needs, it has to consider those of the Army, Military Health Service, Navy, Special Forces and Joint Operations as well. The medics need an aircraft whose cargo hold fits their existing airborne medical equipment, has oxygen ports throughout the hold with 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 Hornet rapid-reaction 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 Mamba armoured vehicles, standard military cargo, and can be used for regular paratrooping operations 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 has its own capacity and sortie-rate needs.
On top of all this the project team will have to take the limited budget into consideration, as even if the Defence Review brings some much-needed extra funding the SAAF has to plan for a future where technically skilled personnel will remain in short supply and operational funding will always need to be carefully spent. So aircraft that require less maintenance and fewer ground crew may be preferred even over others with greater capability in certain areas.
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.
Nor is it always best to just buy different types for each need, as each new type adds a huge amount of cost because it needs its own Organisation, People, Process and Data (OPPD) structure with its own staff, facilities, documentation and processes.
Finally, the SAAF’s decisions on strategic airlift have a critical impact on what aircraft are best for the light to medium tactical role.
Lockheed-Martin’s C–130J Super Hercules is a marvel, having breathed new life into a sixty year old design and kept it viable for decades to come. No other type can match it for the sheer number and breadth of different variants, with the aircraft available as a Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), as a weather reconnaissance aircraft, as a gunship, as an aerial refueller, as a dedicated search and rescue aircraft and as an electronic warfare platform. C–130s have flown into virtually every airfield of significance on earth, have flown from carriers, from ice and snow in Antarctica and the Arctic and in the hottest environments on earth. Those in the SAAF who work on and fly its fleet of C–130BZs often insist that the only aircraft that can preplace a Herk is another Herk.
Yet the C–130J is not an automatic choice for the SAAF and its acquisition would depend heavily on which direction the SAAF takes for its strategic aircraft needs. With four engines and a 19-ton payload the C–130J sits near the top of the medium tactical airlift range and it has to be assumed that if the SAAF acquired an airlifter capable of the heavy tactical role, such as the A400M, it would remove much of the need to buy an aircraft the size of the C–130J. In that case it would be better to combine the A400M or similar with a larger number of C–295s or C–27Js.
Though even if that occurs, there would still be value in acquiring a smaller number of C–130Js for more specialist missions. For instance, a few SC–130Js could be acquired to meet the long-range maritime patrol requirement and as the maritime patrol mission packs are roll-on-roll-off pallets the aircraft could be used for cargo transport or paratrooping when necessary. An SC-130J or similar would also be able to fulfil the all-important long-range search and rescue role.
The C–27J is a sprightly performer which has proven popular with the air forces that use it and is reported to be favoured by the South African Special Forces Brigade for its versatility and performance. Its large cargo box would fit most of the SANDF’s light vehicles and equipment, it can carry more cargo than the C–295 and its adoption by the US’s Special Operations Command provides serious validation for the type’s performance.
It lacks either a maritime patrol or aerial refueling variant, which may count against it in any evaluation, depending on whether or not the SAAF could source those capabilities affordably elsewhere. In short, while it’s clearly the better performer over the C–295, it may be outdone by its lack of proven non-airlifter variants.
The C–295’s biggest advantage is the sheer number of available variants of the aircraft, ranging from proven MPA versions through to Airborne Early Warning (AEW) and gunship versions all using the same basic airframe. This may give the aircraft the edge in the SAAF’s considerations, as if the SAAF acquires the C–295 for Project Metsi, the MPA requirement, it would be a big logistics saving to use the same basic type for light transport.
On the downside, the C–295 has a smaller cargo box than most of the other aircraft here, making it a tight squeeze to fit the Army’s vehicles.
The KC–390 is a relative newcomer from Brazil that’s looking ever more competitive as the development process advances. Designed explicity to compete with the C–130J, the KC–390 has a significantly better cruise speed, higher payload and the added advantage of being designed and fitted from the start for a secondary aerial refuelling role.
Acquiring the KC–390 would be a good political move, enhancing the already-good defence industrial links between South Africa and Brazil that have culminated in the joint development of the A-Darter air-to-air missile.
The downside of the aircraft is its use of turbofan engines, which are slightly more susceptible to damage from debris on rough ad hoc runways and which limit its ability to operate from the types of short and unprepared airfields that the other aircraft in this comparison could handle.
The Y–9 (运–9 or Yún–9) is a recent entrant from China into the medium tactical airlifter market, offering around 20 tons of payload and a modern glass cockpit. The aircraft was developed with some assistance from Ukraine’s Antonov Aeronautical Scientific-Technical Complex (ASTC) and is believed to have had its maiden flight in 2006, though the number of deliveries is difficult to conclusively verify.
While intriguing, the Y–9 shares many of the downsides of the larger airlifters in this list, like the C–130J and KC–390, while having none of the upsides. It’s not capable of aerial refuelling, does not have proven maritime patrol and other variants, is still unproven and does not have any non-Chinese orders that could validate the design.
The An–74 is an upgrade of the venerable An–72 and, like its predecessor, makes use of the Coandã effect from its two large overwing-mounted turbofan engines to cleverly increase the available lift and increase the wing’s efficiency.
However, with a payload of only 7.5 tons the An–74 is just too small for the SAAF’s needs, especially as it cannot afford to acquire a large enough fleet of the type for the limited payload to matter less. This would severely handicap the type’s chances, even before considering the added cost for the SAAF in transitioning to a non-NATO logistics system for a single type.
I did not include the UAC/HAL Il–214 or Tupolev Tu–330 as both are still too early in their development to give a truly accurate acquisition cost and in-service date and because the SAAF’s needs call for a more urgent delivery than would be possible with either of those types.
Tactical aircraft options
Note that figures are based on what information is publicly available
|Aircraft||Manufacturer||Load Capacity||Range||Cruise Speed||Est. Unit Cost|
|C–130J||Lockheed-Martin||18 955 kg||5 250 km||643 km/h||$80 million|
|C–27J||Alenia||11 500 kg||4 260 km||583 km/h||$53 million|
|C–295||Airbus Military||9 250 kg||5 500 km||576 km/h||$30 million|
|KC–390||Embraer||23 600 kg||5 400 km||850 km/h||$50 million|
|Y–9||Shaanxi||20 000 kg||4 300 km||650 km/h||$30 million est.|
|An–74||Antonov||7 500 kg||4 300 km||600 km/h||+- $20 million|
Trying to recommend what aircraft should be chosen is impossible without knowing in which direction the SAAF is leaning for its strategic airlift choice, but were I in the project team and I had knowledge that the SAAF would definitely acquire a larger type like the A400M I would be leaning toward getting as many C–27Js or C–295s as the budget would allow. To this I’d add between 4 and 6 SC–130Js for the long-range maritime patrol, search and rescue and specialist airlifter role.