2 November 2022

RAAF to get expanded tactical airlift fleet

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Air Force plane on runway

An RAAF C-130J-30 taxis at Darwin. Photo: ADF.

The Commonwealth Government has announced it plans to buy an expanded fleet of new Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules medium air mobility transport aircraft for the Royal Australian Air Force.

The new aircraft will replace the current fleet of 12 C-130J-30s which have been in service since 1999, and possibly the RAAF’s 10 Leonardo/L3Harris C-27J Spartans, which entered service in 2016.

In a 1 November release, Defence said it “has approached a number of aircraft manufacturers and received information on all available medium air mobility options. The relative merits of each aircraft type have been assessed against Australia’s capability requirements.

“Defence has identified that the new C-130J aircraft represents the only option that meets all of Australia’s capability requirements and assures Defence’s medium air mobility capability without introducing substantial cost, schedule and capability risk. As a result, new C-130J aircraft will be the only option that Defence will progress for government approval under Project AIR 7404 Phase 1 in 2023.”

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Other aircraft reportedly considered or pitched for the RAAF’s requirement include the Airbus A400M and the Embraer C-390 transports.

The 12 current C-130J-30s entered service in 1999 and replaced 12 C-130Es Hercules of 37SQN, which had entered service in 1966. The RAAF also operated 12 C-130As from 1958 to 1978 and 12 C-130Hs from 1978 to 2012.

As an ‘orphan’ operator of the C-27J common to the cancelled USAF/US Army Joint Cargo Aircraft (JCA) program, the 10-strong Spartan fleet has suffered from configuration management, integration and availability issues. So, rather than fulfilling the Battlefield Airlifter role for which it was originally acquired, it has instead been relegated to regional transport, fisheries protection, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) roles in Australia and the Pacific islands region.

An RAAF C-130J-30 taking off

A RAAF C-130J-30 taking off from Lord Howe Island. Photo: ADF.

The announcement follows the 2020 Force Structure Plan FSP which said, “an expanded replacement fleet for the C-130J Hercules aircraft to improve the lift capacity of the ADF in response to growing demand for these assets” would be acquired, with funding of between $8.8 billion and $13.2 billion planned to commence at the end of this decade.

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It is believed up to 24 new extended fuselage C-130J-30s will be acquired for the transport role, and possibly six KC-130J tankers which can provide a hose and drogue air refuelling capability for RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers. The KC-130J also has a secondary strike role in US Marine Corps, with a sophisticated sensor and communications suite, a palletised roll-on roll-off fire control console, and an ability to fire precision-guided missiles from wing racks and a side door-mounted launcher.

A US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notification of State Department approval of the possible sale is believed to be imminent, and the government will likely make the final decision in early 2023 as part of the Defence Strategic Review process.

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