The RAAF is planning to spend at least $9 billion on a fleet of turboprop transport aircraft and refuses to detail how many will be purchased, the time of their delivery – or even the reasons why the decision has been made.
Australia received the first batch of 12 current generation C-130Js in 1999 – and as all aircraft eventually wear out it’s understandable that at some point they should be replaced. However, the information blackout raises the eternal question: what is Defense trying to hide this time?
One explanation for the secrecy surrounding Project AIR 7404 Phase 1 is that the RAAF is trying to lock in a decision before the Defence Strategic Review is finalised.
The C-130 Hercules is an excellent family of propeller-driven transport aircraft, being rugged and reliable.
Developed by the USAF, the first flight was in 1954, with Australia an early purchaser placing an order in 1959, and more than 2000 have been built.
Various models have been in continuous service with the RAAF ever since and have provided important support to combat operations – also humanitarian and disaster relief missions – both internationally and in Australia.
Despite this impressive record of success – at various times they have been operated by 70 countries – they are not the only kid on the block.
Realising that there was a need for a heavy tactical turboprop transport aircraft – jets are usually put in the strategic transport category – Europe started thinking about replacing several different types of aircraft in the 1980s. This led to the development of the A400M, which had its first flight in 2009.
The A400M is a larger, more modern four-engine turboprop able to carry twice the payload of a C-130J twice as far. It has excellent handling characteristics, including short take-off and landing on unprepared airstrips.
As a program it is in its relative infancy, having been ordered by 10 nations, most recently by Indonesia.
Like many new aircraft, it has faced delays and cost overruns, particularly since it includes features such as contra-rotating propellers and advanced electronics. It is certainly more expensive, though by how much is a matter of conjecture depending on factors such as the size of the order.
As a very rough guide, for three C-130Js it might be possible to buy two newer and more capable A400Ms.
The UK Royal Air Force is so impressed with their A400M fleet that two years ago they decided to retire their C-130Js ahead of schedule.
The question is: why has a modern, competent, highly effective air force decided to get rid of their C-130Js while Australia has gone in the opposite direction? The answer is we don’t know because Defence is so obsessed with secrecy that it won’t reveal its reasons.
According to information that the Pentagon has to provide to Congress, Australia has made a request for 24 new C-130Js that – along with a great deal of support equipment, secure radios, electronic warfare self-protection and so on – will cost Australian taxpayers the eye-watering figure of $US6.35bn ($9.19bn).
Because we have no idea of the delivery schedule – along with everything else – it is possible that the figure will be spread out over a large number of years. In trying to get to the bottom of this, Defence fobs off inquiries with non-specific answers such as:
“Defence 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.”
In the unlikely event that any serious assessments have actually occurred, they are likely to have been by junior officers mindful of their prospects for promotion.
The only professional way of receiving the high-quality data needed for a $9bn acquisition is not a search on Wikipedia but instead to go through a rigorous process of defining operational requirements – and then formatting a request for tender (RFT) document that is released to industry.
The result of that process might be the selection of the C-130J – or it could be the A400M. It might even be the Embraer KC-390, which is an innovative twin-jet military transport aircraft from Brazil midway between the performance of the first two.
While evaluations by Defence are not without controversy, at least then the public can be assured that their money is being spent on the right equipment for the correct reasons.
One can fully understand the need for a level of secrecy about the performance of combat aircraft, knowing that adversaries are constantly searching for even the slightest edge that they can turn to their advantage.
But refusing to supply any useful information about a $9bn transport aircraft purchase looks like a cover-up of a decision taken without sound justification.
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