Workhorse Airways

China’s PLAAF has a small number of Xian Y-20 medium mutli-role transport in service. (CMC)

Billed as the unglamorous role of most Air Forces, transports are the aircraft that no nation’s military can do without.

As tension grow in the Asia Pacific region highlighted by China’s threat to Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the focus has been on the acquisition of new fifth generation combat aircraft. There has, however, recently been a surge in replacing outdated transport aircraft fleets albeit that the numbers involved are relatively small.

The China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has for many years relied on a large fleet of the Shaanxi Y-8, a medium size, medium range transport aircraft produced by Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation in China, based on the Soviet-era Antonov An-12.

In 2008, the Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation began the development of a large military transport aircraft, the Y-20, the first flight of which took place in 23 January, 2013. Powered by four 31,000lb trust Shenyang WS-20 turbofan engines, the Y-20 can carry up to 66 tons over a range of 2,800 miles (4,500 kilometres).

The first “non-warfare military operation” for the Y-20 after it was declared operational with the PLAAF in 2016 was as part of the large-scale domestic airlift to deliver medical personnel and supplies to the city of Wuhan, adjudged the epicentre of the massive coronavirus outbreak that emerged in late 2019. Six Y-20s airlifters, along with other transport aircraft such as the Ilyushin Il-76 and Y-8, arrived at Wuhan’s Tianhe International Airport in February 2019, bringing 947 personnel and 47 tons of cargo to the stricken city. With around 35 Y-20 currently in service, some of which have been adapted as aerial tankers, the YU-20s serve alongside the Russian Ilyushin Il-76 as the PLAAF’s primary heavy transports.

The YU-20s have also played an integral role part in the PLAAF’s regular and illegal incursions into Taiwan’s airspace that nearly doubled in 2022, with a surge in fighter jet and bomber sorties as Beijing intensified threats towards the island democracy. In total, China sent 1,727 planes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in 2022, according to daily updates released by Taipei’s defence ministry.

Indigenous Kawasaki C2

The only other country in the region to develop an indigenous jet-powered airlifter, is Japan. The Kawasaki C-2 was developed to replace the Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) fleets of Kawasaki C-1 and Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, announced in December 2001. After a protracted development, the first production C-2s were finally introduced into service with the JASDF in November 2017, by which time there was a requirement for only 14 aircraft. C-2 can carry a payload of 36 tons over a range of 2,800 miles (4,500km). Fourteen C-2s have been delivered to date, some which have been converted to RC-2 electronic intelligence platforms. They serve alongside the JASDF’s fleet of 14 C-130H medium transports.

Kawasaki C-2
The Japan Air Self-Defence Force operates a small number of Kawasaki C-2 medium transports. (David Oliver)

Early versions of the C-130 Hercules remain the mainstay of several other air forces transport fleets including Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand. Others, including Australia, India and New Zealand have ordered the C-130J Super Hercules.

Indian ordered six Super Hercules in 2008 followed by another six in 2011. The Indian Air Force (IAF) also has a larger fleet of obsolete HAL-built HS 748 light transport aircraft which are due to be replaced by the Airbus C295. In September 2021, the Indian Ministry of Defence signed a contract with Airbus associated with TATA for the acquisition of 56 C295MW transport aircraft and related equipment. The first 16 fly-away aircraft are scheduled to be received between September 2023 and August 2025. The first Made in India aircraft is expected a year later. All 56 aircraft will be fitted with indigenous electronic warfare suites of Indian Defence Public Sector Undertakings (DPSUs) from Bharat Electronics and Bharat Dynamics.

The IAF also has a fleet of 105 Russian-built An-32 medium transports which are still in service. The entire fleet has undergoing modernisation and 35 upgraded An-32s have been delivered by the Ukrainian company Ukrspetsexport. The upgrades include modern avionics equipment, new oxygen systems and improved crew seats, but after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, it is unlikely that any more will be delivered and the remaining aircraft may be upgraded in India. With their future uncertain, the plan to also replace them with C295s may be brought forward, but with only a small number ordered to date, this will be a long process.

The IAF’s airlifter fleet of 10 Russian Il-78MDs has been supplemented by 12 Boeing C-17A Globemaster III aircraft. In June 2009, the IAF selected the C-17A for its Very Heavy Lift Transport Aircraft requirement and in January 2010, requested 10 C-17As through the United State’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme. The IAF and Boeing agreed terms for a $4.1 billion order of 10 aircraft in February 2011 with deliveries beginning in June 2013. However, when India exercised its option for six additional aircraft, the C-17A was no longer in production.

In 2009 the IAF chose the Airbus A330 multi-role transport tanker (MRTT) aircraft capable of performing mid-air refuelling to supplement its fleet of six Russian Il-78s. However, an order for six aircraft was cancelled in 2010 due to the high cost.

Australia did order the Airbus A330 MRTT, designated as KC-30A in Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) service. They are powered by two General Electric CF6-80E1A3 engines and configured to carry up to 270 passengers plus 34 tons of cargo. Australia initially arranged to procure four MRTTs in 2005 with an option to obtain a fifth. It was not until June 2011 that the first was handed over to the RAAF. In July 2015, the Australian Ministry of Defence announced the order of two additional KC-30s, to be converted from A330-200s previously operated by the Australian airline Qantas to be delivered in 2018.

Singapore also placed an order for six A330 MRTTs that attained full operational capability in April 2021, and South Korea is taking delivery of four of the tanker/transport aircraft designated KC-330 Cygnus in ROKAF service.

Australia is also the only other Asia Pacific operator of the C-17A, the first of eight of which were delivered in 2008. Other RAAF transport assets include 10 Leonardo C-27J Spartan medium transports and 12 C-130J-30s. In October 2022, the US State Department approved a possible FMS to Australia of an additional 24 C-130J-30 Super Hercules aircraft and related equipment including Rolls Royce AE-2100 turboprop engines, for an estimated cost of $6.35 billion.

The RAAF operates a fleet of Boeing C-17A Globemaster III airlifters, a type also in service with the Indian Air Force. (USAF)

This followed an announcement by the New Zealand government in June 2020 that a fleet of five C-130J-30 Super Hercules would replace the current fleet of C-130H Hercules operated by the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). The C-130J had been selected as the preferred platform in 2019 and the aircraft and a full mission flight simulator are being acquired through the US FMS process. Deliveries are scheduled to commence in 2024, with all five aircraft in country by mid-2025. Among other transport aircraft evaluated by the RNZAF were the Kawasaki C-2 and Embraer C-390 Millennium.

Surprise announcement

A surprise announcement was made In the 2021 UK Defence Review to retire the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) fleet of 14 C-130J-30 C.4 Hercules medium-transport aircraft that support special forces. The aircraft would be prematurely retired in 2023 with no obvious replacement, when many other countries were ordering new fleets of Super Hercules.

Bangladesh had already ordered withdrawn surplus ‘short-bodied’ C-130Js, designated C.5s in RAF service, in two batches of two and three aircraft in 2018 and earlier in 2019, respectively to replace its C-130B Hercules. The contracts were initially revealed via maintenance contracts announced by Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group (ADG).

The first of the five aircraft was rolled out by Marshall ADG during an official ceremony in mid-July 2019. The company carried out comprehensive depth maintenance and important modifications on all the aircraft including capability enhancements such as medical evacuation, avionics upgrades, and the provision of a passenger transport configuration. It also modified the aircraft, including designing, developing, and installing medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) capability to enable the Bangladesh Air Force to carry out tasks within the country and overseas in support of United Nations (UN) missions.

It has been reported that India is one of several countries showing interest in acquiring some of the RAF’s C.4 Hercules when they are finally withdrawn from service later this year (2023).

Indonesias multi-fleets

Indonesia has a large fleet of transport aircraft including 19 early variants of the C-130 Hercules. The first of five Lockheed Martin C-130J-30s ordered for the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) in 2019 conducted its first test flight in November 2022. The aircraft is scheduled for delivery in the first quarter of 2023.

Lockheed C-130J-30 Super Hercules
Indonesia has ordered five Lockheed C-130J-30 Super Hercules – orders have also been placed by Australia and New Zealand. (RAAF)

In January 2017, Indonesia had approved the acquisition of five Airbus A400M Atlas multi-role aircraft worth $2 billion, as part of plans to boost the country’s military capabilities. They were to be acquired in both transport and utility configurations and be operated by the TNI-AU Aviation Squadrons 31 and 32. However, it was not until November 2021 that Airbus confirmed that the Indonesian Ministry of Defense had signed a deal with Airbus for two A400Ms configured for Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) role, with an option, in the form of a letter of intent (LoI), for four additional aircraft. This would be the first A400M sale for more than a decade, when four aircraft entered service with the Royal Malaysian Air Force in 2015.

The only Asia Pacific country to operate the Airbus A400M was Malaysia until Indonesia ordered the multi-role medium transport in 2021. (Airbus)

The TNI-AU operates eight CN235M-110 light transport aircraft while five CN235-220s are in service with the Indonesian Navy as maritime patrol aircraft. The CN235M is built by the state-owned Indonesian aircraft manufacturer PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) which has been awarded a contract by the Ministry of Defense for the supply of two CN235-200 MPAs, worth some $48 million. This will bring the number operated by the Indonesian Navy to seven aircraft. In 2018 PT DI received an order for two CN235M-220 aircraft from the Nepalese Military for $30 million. Other CN235M operators in the region include, Brunei, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand.

A derivative of the CN235 is the Airbus C295 medium tactical transport aircraft, originally developed by the Spanish aerospace company CASA in the 1990s. The twin-turboprop C295 is capable of performing a wide variety of missions including parachute and cargo dropping, electronic signals intelligence (ELINT), MEDEVAC, and maritime patrol. It can carry 71 fully equipped troops or 9 tons of cargo.

A key country for the C295 has been Indonesia where PTDI performs the final assembly of C295s for customers within Indonesia. The TNI-AU operates nine C295Ws while another serves with the Indonesian National Police for personnel and logistics. The Bangladesh Army Aviation Group operates two C295W aircraft, as does the Royal Thai Army. The Vietnam People’s Air Force operates three C295Ms and the Philippine Air Force has two C295Ms and two C295Ws with another on order as part of the PAF’s Medium Lift Aircraft (Phase 2) Acquisition Project. The Royal Brunei Air Force also ordered a C295 to become the eight customer in the Asia Pacific region.

Enter Embraer

Having lost out to the C-130J for the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s contract to replace its Hercules fleet, in September 2022 Embraer signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with various South Korean aerospace companies including ASTG, EMK and Kencoa to produce parts locally to enable its C-390 Millennium transport aircraft to meet the requirements of the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) National Large Transport Aircraft (LTA II) competition. The LTA II programme, officially launched earlier involves a dozen mid-size military transport aircraft to be delivered to the ROKAF starting in 2026 to replace its venerable C-130H Hercules. Bidders have until October 2025 to submit their bids. As the ROKAF already operates four C-130J Super Hercules that were delivered in 2014, Lockheed Martin as well as Airbus are expected to participate in the competition.

Embraer recently successfully completed flight testing of the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS II) certification campaign, which provides the C-390 Millennium with the required capability to perform firefighting missions. The C-390 Millennium and its aerial refuelling configuration, the KC-390, are being promoted to Asian Pacific countries by Embraer as the new generation of multi-mission military transport delivering mobility and cargo capacity, rapid re-configuration, high availability, enhanced comfort, as well as optimal management of reduced operational costs throughout its lifecycle, all on a single platform.

by David Oliver