SP Guide Publications puts forth a well compiled articulation of issues, pursuits and accomplishments of the Indian Army, over the years

— General Manoj Pande, Indian Army Chief

I am confident that SP Guide Publications would continue to inform, inspire and influence.

— Admiral R. Hari Kumar, Indian Navy Chief

My compliments to SP Guide Publications for informative and credible reportage on contemporary aerospace issues over the past six decades.

— Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, Indian Air Force Chief

Air Transporters - Room for Manoeuvre

Issue: 06-2009By Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. Bhatia

Airlift or action—the very design of the military transport aircraft lends itself to multi-role capability

“I put the sweat of my life into this thing. I’ve my reputation all rolled up into it and I’ve stated several times that if it is a failure, I’ll probably leave this country and never come back. And I mean it.”
—Howard Hughes
at the Senate Hearing in 1947 on airworthiness of the H-4 Hercules flying boat, then the biggest aircraft in the world designed to carry up to 750 fully-equipped troops across the Atlantic to a maximum range of 4,800 km

None of the al Qaeda belligerents would have known in their dying moments as to what had smashed into their vehicle with the force of an arty shell, rending men and machine into smithereens. The attack came in the dead of night in a remote corner of Afghanistan as part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. Admittedly, the weapons of destruction were arty shells, but these were fired neither by ground artillery units nor by armed unmanned aerial vehicles or even fighters, but airborne howitzers—to be precise, the US military air transporter C-130 Hercules.

Originally assigned to airlift troops and cargo, the carrier had been heavily modified for the airborne artillery role. Developed in two variants, AC-130H Spectre and AC-130U Spooky, used solely by the US Air Force (USAF), the Hercules gunships incorporate side-firing weapons integrated with sophisticated sensors, navigation and fire control systems.

Wonder Workhorse
From the word go, the very design of the military transport aircraft lent itself to multi-role capability. The cavernous hold of the aircraft could be easily modified to do multifarious air transportation tasks, such as carrying men and material or air dropping paratroops and all kinds of cargo. These aircraft have also been used for casualty evacuation, as command posts and even in the role of makeshift bombers.

Military transport aircraft are generally clubbed into three categories: strategic, tactical and strategic/tactical airlifters. Strategic airlift involves cargo aircraft to transport material, weaponry or personnel over long inter-theatre or inter-continental distances. Strategic airlifters include Lockheed’s C-141 and C-5 Galaxy and Antonov’s An-124 Ruslan and An-225 Mriya behemoths. On the other hand, tactical airlifters—like the C-130 Hercules and Transall C-160, and their lighter siblings, the C-27 Spartan and An-32—move supplies within a given theatre of operations. Yet another breed of aircraft perform a mix of strategic and tactical roles. The US marvel C-17 Globemaster III and the Russian IL-76 fall in this category (see table).

Strategic airlifters
With a sizeable fleet of C-5 Galaxy aircraft, the US has by far the greatest strategic airlift capacity of any nation in the world. Incidentally, the Galaxy is so huge that the volume of unusable space in its tail assembly (aft of the ramp) is larger than a C-130’s entire cargo space. The Soviets also produced some massive strategic airlifters, notably the An-124 Ruslan, which at 150 tonnes carrying capacity could even outperform the US Galaxy in terms of payload capability. But the biggest and most formidable aircraft ever designed in this category was the six-engined monster An-225 Mriya (Dream) built by the Antonov Design Bureau. It was designed to carry piggyback the Soviet ‘Buran’ space shuttle (very similar to the US space shuttle) from the factory to Baikanour space station. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and cancellation of the Buran space programme, the lone fully built An-225 was resurrected in its new avatar as part of Antonov Airlines fleet for airlifting outsized and heavy loads such as locomotives, generators and bulldozers. The venture has been so successful that the second airframe has been pulled out of the mothballed storage and being built up to join the company’s fleet by 2010.

Strategic/tactical airlifters
With the much awaited EADS’ A400M and Antonov’s An-70 turboprops still under development, the currently operational platforms under this category belong to the turbojets variety namely, the US Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and the comparatively older Ilyushin IL-76 from Russian Federation. Out of the two, C-17 with its better load carrying capacity and its ability to provide rapid airlift of troops and cargo to main as well as forward operating bases anywhere in the world gives it a much truer strategic/tactical airlift capability. The C-17 has not only been able to comprehensively replace the C-141 Starlifter of the USAF but has also proved to be more than capable of sharing the tasks normally performed by the C-5 Galaxy fleet. It has the ability to rapidly deploy a combat unit to a battle area and sustain it with ongoing supplies. The C-17’s multirole performance includes tactical airlift, medical evacuation and airdrop missions. Apart from the USAF which is the main C-17 operator it is also operated by the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. It is also being acquired by the NATO, Qatar and UAE whilst the Indian Air Force has reportedly evinced interest in it.

Tactical multi-role medium airlifters
At present, Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules appears to be the only aircraft that can truly claim to be a tactical and multi-role medium airlifter. With over 40 models and variants, in service with more than 50 nations, the C-130 is the only military aircraft to remain in continuous production for more than 50 years with its original customer. A thoroughbred with unparalleled versatility, the C-130 has been used with great success in innumerable conventional and non-conventional roles.

Capable of take offs and landings from unprepared runways, the C-130 was originally designed as a troop carrier and cargo transport aircraft. But the versatile airframe found uses in a variety of other roles, including as a gunship for airborne assault, search and rescue, scientific research support, weather reconnaissance, aerial refuelling, maritime patrol and aerial firefighting. The C-130 holds the record for the largest and heaviest aircraft to land on an aircraft carrier. While the C-130 is involved in cargo and resupply operations on a daily basis, it has been a part of some notable offensive operations. The combat versions include the AC-130 gunships and MC-130 Combat Talon which carries and deploys the largest conventional bombs in the world such as the BLU-82 ‘Daisy Cutter’ and its successor, the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast. Little wonder then that the C-130 which first flew as a prototype on August 23, 1954 was also performing 55 years later at the recently concluded Paris Air Show in its latest avatar, the C-130J Super Hercules.

Tactical light medium airlifters
Aircraft with around 10-tonne payload capacity would normally fall in the category of light medium airlifters. The Alenia C-27J Spartan, a derivative of the company’s G.222, with a maximum payload of 11.5 tonnes would be a good example of this category of aircraft. It has the engines and systems of the latest C-130J Super Hercules and was selected against stiff competition from Raytheon and EADS North America’s C-295 as the Joint Cargo Aircraft for the US military. Many other nations have also placed orders for the C-27 aircraft in differing numbers.