Word from Defence and industry sources is that the long awaited AIR 8000 Phase 2 battlefield Airlifter (BFA) – i.e. the Caribou replacement – may fall victim to the Gillard Government’s stubborn ‘at all costs’ determination to return to a budget surplus next year.
Defence has been trying to replace the Caribou’s fixed wing STOL tactical transport capability for nearly 30 years, going back to project AIR 5190 in the 1980s. It came close in 1999 when the CASA (now Airbus Military) C295 was reportedly selected, before that project was cancelled by the Howard government as a cost savings measure. Ironically, the cost of resurrecting and supporting the drawn down Caribous for an extra decade probably cost as much or more than 10 new C295s!
This time round, the Alenia C-27J – which the C295 beat in 1999 – is the RAAF’s BFA of choice, and a decision was thought to be imminent late last year. But January’s decision by the Pentagon to cancel the US ANG’s C-27J program means any advantages in buying that aircraft through the preferred US government FMS brokered deal is now gone.
It’s generally accepted that – despite its acquisition and operating cost advantages – the C295 won’t be selected as it doesn’t have the capability the ADF wants. So with a direct commercial sale of the C-27J the only other option, observers have suggested that it may just be getting too hard, and that government may instead take the estimated $1.4 billion set aside for the project in the DCP off the table and either defer the project yet again, or cancel it outright.
So what are the alternatives for the ADF?
The DMO’s Head of Helicopter Systems RADM Mark Campbell suggested in a recent interview with AA that some of Army’s CH-47D Chinook fleet – which has just been supplemented with the addition of two ex-US Army machines – may be retained when the seven new CH-47Fs arrive from 2014. It is expected the two Chinooks currently deployed to Afghanistan will likely be stripped and left there when Australian forces withdraw in 2014, leaving five relatively fresh CH-47Ds and a couple of spare drivetrains at Townsville. The 12 Chinooks, from which it is expected a core fleet of 8-10 machines could be drawn – would go some way towards meeting the ADF’s battlefield airlift requirements, albeit at a much higher operating cost per hour and with less range, speed and flexibility.
If, as has been suggested, the ADF still has a requirement to carry Supacats and G-Wagons, then other options include retaining and upgrading some of the remaining eight C-130Hs, although this will not be a popular suggestion within the RAAF, or assigning part of the role to 37SQN’s C-130Js and supplementing that fleet with additional airframes or maybe even bringing some A400Ms or more C-17s in over the top.