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Exploiting the Niche: The C-27J Spartan Battlefield Airlifter — Brad Drew

Is the Spartan a miniature Hercules or an oversized Caribou? Brad Drew argues the Spartan’s unique combination of capabilities means the answer is neither. Instead, the Spartan provides a niche capability that enhances Australian Defence Force (ADF) capabilities across a range of mission sets.

The C-27J Spartan’s payload, range, and ability to operate onto soft, narrow, and unprepared surfaces  combined to provide a unique battlefield airlift capability for the ADF. As the platform progresses towards its final operating capability, the key challenge for the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Mobility Group (AMG) is defining the scope of this capability. While the C-27J can conduct long range movements of cargo between large airfields, the C-27J’s potential will be optimised by focusing on what makes it unique: its ability to operate onto soft, narrow and unprepared surfaces.

A Royal Australian Air Force C-27J Spartan from No 35 Squadron takes off from Walcha Airport during a training mission in September 2017. [Image Credit: Department of Defence]

A Royal Australian Air Force C-27J Spartan from No 35 Squadron takes off from Walcha Airport during a training mission in September 2017. [Image Credit: Department of Defence]

The Spartan was procured under a Foreign Military Sales agreement between Australia and the United States in 2012 to replace the already retired DHC-4 Caribou. Shortly thereafter, the United States Air Force elected to remove the platform from service, transferring a number of airframes to the United States Coast Guard (USCG) and United States Army Special Operations Command. This left Australia as one of the principal operators of the C-27J, with the RAAF’s ten airframes second only to the USCG (14) and the Italian Air Force (12).

The acquisition effort under Project Air 8000 suffered several  setbacks, including delays in training crews and maintenance as well as a global shortage of spares impacting fleet serviceability. Following this, test and evaluation activities highlighted that the Spartan could not achieve the short field characteristics of the Caribou, nor carry large loads across long distances as efficiently as the C-130. These observations are obvious in hindsight – the C-27J is not a Caribou, nor is it a C-130. As the C-27J capability matured within AMG, the real value of a battlefield airlift asset such as the Spartan began to emerge – the ability to carry moderate loads onto soft, narrow and unprepared surfaces.

The C-27J is the only aircraft in the ADF inventory capable of carrying a larger-than-helicopter sized load onto a soft narrow surface. Put a C-130 in a similar circumstance and it will either damage the landing surface or infringe on lateral clearance requirements due to the larger wingspan and wheelbase. Operating a Caribou or a rotary wing platform onto the same landing area will require a commitment to conduct multiple sorties and significantly reduce the range available both in to and out of the field. The acquisition of the C-27J opens up, for the first time, the ability to land on soft, narrow surfaces such as lake beds, roads and beaches whilst carrying a significant quantity of cargo over a large range.

A comparison of C-27J range and payload against other ADF airlift platforms. The dashed line indicates reduced payload operations for the C-27J that offer an increase in allowable airframe stresses when manoeuvring in a tactical environment. [Author supplied]

A comparison of C-27J range and payload against other ADF airlift platforms. The dashed line indicates reduced payload operations for the C-27J that offer an increase in allowable airframe stresses when manoeuvring in a tactical environment. [Author supplied]

There are a number of areas where the unique characteristics of the C-27J enhance existing ADF capabilities. Australia is a widespread and sparsely populated continent and the C-27J provides greater reach to the military in order to effect Government objectives. The ability of the C-27J to access soft, narrow and unprepared surfaces allows an expansion of the current capability envelope around areas such as domestic counter terrorism, aeromedical evacuation and disaster relief missions.

The ability to infiltrate and exfiltrate troops and equipment onto unprepared and austere surfaces will vastly improve the reach of domestic counter terrorism teams. Infiltration by airborne insertion with paratroopers is limited to the cargo that is able to be attached to the jumper or safely dropped using cargo parachute techniques. Road insertions can take time, particularly given the vast distances that may need to be covered during an operation in Australia. The C-27J is currently the only platform that allows a rapid infiltration of troops and sensitive or large equipment which cannot be airdropped onto a narrow, unprepared surface – such as a road or river bed – without accepting the increased risk of damage to the surface inherent with a C-130.

Visualising terrorist activity in large, populated areas – such as major cities – is discomfortingly easy but there are other possibilities. Consider Banjawarn Station for example: located 350km north of Kalgoorlie, Banjawarn Station was at one time owned by the Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese terrorist group responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway. Authorities believe that Banjawarn Station was used as a testing ground and possible production site for the gas used in that attack. An asset such as the C-27J could conduct a precise infiltration of personnel and equipment into a remote area like Banjawarn Station without the range and cargo limitations of a rotary wing asset, and without the risk to public infrastructure associated with using a C-130.

Providing medical assistance in remote locations is another key challenge for the Australian Government. While Australia can boast a qualified doctor for around every 350 people within the country, this is heavily weighted towards the urban populace. Several initiatives exist to provide remote medical care – such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) – however all of these are constrained by budget and capability.

A remote mass casualty event – such as a large-scale training accident within the Woomera Range Complex – is likely to encounter many logistical difficulties. With an overall size in excess of 122,000km2, the evacuation of multiple casualties from a particular location within the range would traditionally require rotary or vehicular support to deliver patients to an airfield, then a C-130 or other fixed wing aircraft to provide transport to a medical facility. The ability of the C-27J to access unconventional landing surfaces, such as roads and lake beds, offers several advantages. Operating directly to, or nearby, the incident site may remove the requirement for rotary or vehicular transport whilst providing a larger patient capacity than current RFDS aircraft.

The C-27J’s ability to operate on soft, narrow surfaces also enhances Australia’s disaster relief capabilities. In the last ten years Samoa, New Zealand, Japan and the Solomon Islands have all experienced a tsunami while Australia and nearly every regional neighbour have been hit by a major tropical cyclone. When large quantities of water erode the underlying strength of a runway surface, it is difficult to anticipate how many movements an airfield can sustain before damage occurs. This is where the low pavement strength requirements for the C-27J excel; under unknown conditions, the C-27J poses the lowest risk for continued operation of any ADF platform that is able to carry a moderate sized load over a large range.

Finally, by sharing the burden of air mobility across all available platforms – and focusing the right asset on the right missions – the ADF can maximise use of its air lift capability. The C-27J is not a small, twin-engine C-130 and although technically the successor to the DHC-4, it is not a Caribou. The Spartan has a distinct niche – the ability to quickly carry moderate sized loads a long way and operate onto soft, narrow surfaces. Exploiting this niche is the best way for the ADF to capitalise on the potential the Spartan offers.

Squadron Leader Brad ‘Loopy’ Drew is a serving Royal Australian Air Force officer with experience flying the C-27J and the C-130J. He is currently the Executive Officer of No 35 Squadron. Squadron Leader Drew would like to thank Wing Commander Jarrod Pendlebury and Mr Eamon Hamilton for their assistance in producing this post. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.


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