A new airlifter for Slovenia?

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(12 glasov)
29 Apr 20
Napisal Aljoša Jarc
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The covid-19 pandemic caught Slovenia and other countries unprepared in many ways. After a few days in the crisis, it was quite clear that the Slovenian Army needs a new airlifter as soon as possible.

Back in January 2008, the Ministry of Defence decided to buy two Casa C295s. Shortly after that, a C295 of the Polish Air Force crashed while approaching to Mirosławiec Air Base in Poland and the order was frozen. The financial crisis then stopped the acquisition. After many years and in the middle of a new crisis the Army still needs those capabilities, but has the same aircraft that were available in 2008. With them you can’t, for example, carry 5 t of equipment or 50 soldiers inside the EU.

After several years of grounding, the Army finally begun to use the Falcon 2000EX, but in march it was undergoing maintenance and was not ready to be used for rescue flights and MedEvac. A member of the Special Forces serving in the EUTM mission in Mali tested positive to covid-19 and was evacuated, with two Italian and one Austrian soldier, by an Embraer 650 Legacy chartered from Valljet. The whole operation was logistically challenging and could be done faster using the temporarily unavailable Falcon. The Turbolet is small, but performed well. It flew twice to Liege to pick up something more than 2 t of masks and other protective equipment, it carried a donation of protective equipment to Skopje, visited Rome Fiumicino to bring back some soldiers that returned from Afghanistan on board an Italian aircraft and performed a rescue flight to bring back to Prague some Czech citizens stranded in Slovenia and return home some Slovenian and Croatian citizens stuck in Czech Republic. Some members of the Special Forces that operated in Mali returned to Europe with an Airbus A321 of the Belgian Air Force, the Let 410 waited for them in Zaventem. In the meantime the flights supported the KFOR mission with regular flights to Priština and Sarajevo (Althea and Joint Enterprise). Another MedEvac was organized from Priština just a few days ago. The plane was, thanks to the technical personnel that is taking care of it, always ready and flew a lot during the last weeks. The Army operates also two Pilatus PC-6 utility aircraft that are mainly used for skydiving and when needed also for firefighting. One of them performed a rescue flight from Kosovo.

Slovenia is one of the members of the SAC program, under which has granted 60 flight hours of the C-17 Globemaster III. The capability was not yet activated to bring medical supplies from China, as they did some other SAC members. The country participates also in the SALIS program, which enables the use of Ukrainian chartered AN-124 aircraft.

A new plane or a second hand donation?

Matej Tonin, the new Minister of Defence, said that the new aircraft could join the Army in three years. This timeline should mean that the Government is willing to purchase a new plane. Tonin mentioned also the possibility of a donation from the allies and another undefined option (leasing?). The budget of the MoD in the previous decade was low and the acquisition of new planes an impossible job. The Government will have to increase the funds for the MoD if the country wants to purchase new aircraft. The eight Bell 412s are getting old and they will need to be replaced in the upcoming years. The Army deserves new equipment with which will continue to operate and successfully fullfil the requirements its expected to, also to benefit and help the entire population.

C295
C295


The most probable scenario in case of a purchase is a new competition between the Airbus C295 and the Leonardo C-27J Spartan. The purchase of a new aircraft is for the State, at least in the short term, the most expensive solution. But it has also advantages, that are not only linked to the fact of owning and operating a totally new modern plane. The offsets could have a beneficial role to the slovenian industry too. This is, although for Slovenia ambitious, still a minor defence contract, so they can not expect too much. Anyway it is still an occasion to transfer know how in the aviation and defence fields to local companies.

C-27J
C-27J

A multiyear acquisition program from the same manufacturer could lower the initial cost, as both Airbus and Leonardo offer helicopters that could replace the Bell 412s (and the Slovenian Police will almost for sure buy another AW169...).

Buying a second hand aircraft of this category could be difficult. The Royal Jordanian Air Force last year put on sale two C295, but it is unclear if they were already sold or are still available. It is also possible that the MoD will opt for a bigger plane, as the C-130 Hercules. There are some unconfirmed rumors that the USA offered two aircraft, that could maybe be former C-130H Hercules of the ANG. Older planes require more maintenance labor per flying hour and in the long term the maintenance is also more expensive.

In any case, any aircraft will represent a major upgrade of capabilities for Slovenia and the Slovenian Army. The Government should not repeat the same errors made after the purchase of the Falcon 2000EX, that was grounded for too many years. Eventually the MoD could also decide for a leasing, but at the moment the possibility of a leasing agreement is low.

C-27J vs C295

As already mentioned above, the biggest contendants in case of a purchase are the Airbus C295 and the Leonardo C-27J Spartan. They simply do not have competitors in their class. Both types have a long tradition: the C295 derives from the Casa CN235, the Spartan from the Aeritalia G222. The CN235 was jointly developed by CASA and the Indonesian IPTN. From the very beginning the plane was designed to be used also from commercial operators, while the G222 was a military only project. Nothing strange if you find the design of the C295 unusual for a military cargo, while you will not have that impression when watching at the Spartan.C-27J

The C295 received a total of 214 orders, of which 177 were already delivered. 175 of them are still flying for 25 countries (Jordan has put on sale their two aircraft previous year) and with the aircraft lessor Stellwagen (in february they received the second plane of twelve). Two C295 were lost in accidents (one in Poland in 2008 and one Algerian that crashed in France in 2012). Leonardo delivered 85 C-27J Spartans to 14 countries and till now there were no fatal incidents with this type of plane.

Mexico is the only country that operates both the C295 and the C-27J. If we take a closer look to the operators we can see that the majority of them uses the C295 as a complement to heavier airlifters, while six countries do not own a bigger transport aircraft, such is the Hercules, in their fleets. Of those six, the Czech Republic and the Ivory Coast have also an A319 or a Boeing 727 for VIP transport that could be also used in case of emergency to perform cargo or evacuation flights. Mali has also a Boeing 737-700 BBJ, while Finland, Vietnam and Ghana do not have bigger aircraft in their fleets.

Casa C295
C295

The C-27J operates in 14 countries, in five of them the Spartan is the heaviest available transport asset (Bolgaria operates also an A319 for VIP transport, the Slovak Government two A319 and two Fokker F100). Kenya, Zambia and Lithuania do not own heavier planes, the latter uses a C-27J also for VIP transport.

The success of sales of the C295 should be attributed also to lowest purchase and operational costs. There is no exact pricing as every country has different requirements of extra equipment, training, maintenance and also offsets. We can take, as example, the purchase announced in december from Czech Republic. They already have in fleet 4 C295 and the additional two ordered will cost 47 million euros each. In january Kenya received the first two of the three Spartans ordered. The third one is now used (with the consense of the buyer) to help the Italian Civil Protection transporting medical equipment between various italian cities. Kenya paid 60 million euros per aircraft.

Casa C295
C295

Both models were upgraded with a modern avionic, new systems and several variants were developed. Both producers developed a gunship version, the C295 has been also transformed in an AEW platform etc. The Spartan has a top cruising speed of 602 km/h, while the C295 is capable of reaching only 482 km/h. As a comparison, the Turbolet can fly up to 380 km/h and the Pilatus PC-9M Hudournik has a maximum speed of 583 km/h. The reason of such a difference of speed between the two competitors are the engines. The C-27J fits two Rolls Royce AE2100-D2A with 4637 hp each, while the C295 is powered with two Pratt&Whitney Canada PW127G with 2919 HP (with APR) each. More power, in this case, means also a higher fuel consumption and a maximum payload of 11,6 t, the C295 instead can carry 9,25 t. Without air refueling the Spartan has a range of approx. 5100 km with a payload of 4,5t (ferry range 5852km), while the range of the C295 with 6t is 3700 km (ferry range 5000 km). The Slovenian army participates in various international missions. The distance from Ljubljana to Kabul is approx. 4700 km (Afghanistan), to Bamako (Mali) 4200 km, to Baghdad (Iraq) 2900 km. The biggest contingent is deployed in Kosovo. Both aircraft are capable to fly there carrying the maximum payload. The C295 has, with 12,7m, the longest cabin in its class (the C-130H Hercules cabin is, for comparison, only 12,2m long). The cargo bay of the Spartan is shorter (8,6m), but the plane has the largest cross section in its class (3,33x2,6m) that enables it to accomodate vehicles like the Hummer, the Iveco LMV or even light helicopters like the Bell 206. All of them are too high to be fitted in the C295. The cabin of the C295 can accomodate up to 71 soldiers/passengers (or 48 paratroops), that is eleven more than the maximum capacity of the C-27J (or 46 paratroops). Both planes are suitable for CASEVAC and MEDEVAC and can be easily configured for that kind of missions. The C295 has a capacity of 24 stretchers and seven medical attendants, the Spartan 36 stretchers and six medical attendants. Both aircraft have remarkable STOL capabilites that allow them to land and take off also from unprepared airstrips. Both can take off in approx. 700 m and land in approx. 400 m (the Spartan has a small advantage, expecially in hot and high conditions, where the extra power of the engines does its job). The C295 does not fit a conventional APU, but uses a propeller brake system on the left engine also known as hotel mode.

C-27J
C-27J

Both manufacturers certified the use of various systems that quickly transform them in an effective aerial firefighting platform. Besides that, some Spartan's users like the Romanian Air Force and the Fuerza Aérea del Perù purchased and used an innovative palletized system that does not need any modifications of the plane. The Caylym Guardian could be dropped using standard CDS load and drop protocols, this allows the airdrop from a higher altitude than from dedicated firefighter aircraft. That increases safety and enables the airdrop also by night, from an altitude of 1000 ft (500 ft during daytime). The Spartan can carry 6000 l of water, retardant or a mix of both, that is the same as the capacity of the Canadair CL-415, the most iconic firefighting aircraft ever built. As the C295 has a longer cargo bay it could theoretically accommodate 8 Guardians (8000 l), but that system has never been tested on the C295 yet.

To make this article more complete, we asked Airbus and Leonardo if they are interested in competing in a possible future open tender of the Slovenian MoD. As of today we did not received an answer from Airbus, while we got a reply from Leonardo. The italian company is interested in the competition and, regarding the urgent requirement of the Slovenian MoD, is willing to deliver the plane(s) as soon as possible, to satisfy the needs of the customer.

Other options

After making a comparison between the two most probable contenders let's take a quick look to the Hercules, that could be donated from the USA and some other similar aircraft that have almost no possibilities to be choosen.

The C-130 Hercules does not need a particular presentation, as it is the airlifter par excellence. Seems that Slovenia hopes in a donation from the USA, in that case the Americans will probably give a C-130H, an older version of the Hercules that has a maximum payload of 19t (the newest C130J-30 Super Hercules is longer and has a maximum payload of 20 t).

C-130 Hercules
C-130H Hercules

The European response to the Hercules is a much bigger airlifter, the Airbus A-400M. The cost of the programme raised during the years and this, of course, reflected also to the unitary price of the plane. Spain, who ordered a total of 27 A-400M decided to postpone the deliveries and sell 13 aircraft. Those Airbuses were proposed in an exchange deal to South Korea. Spain was interested in swapping 30 KAI KT-1 basic trainers and 20 KAI T-50 Golden Eagle advanced supersonic trainers/light fighters with six A-400M. As nothing happened from that, Spain will still try to sell that aircraft in the future, probably with a much lower price. The A-400M has a maximum payload of 37t.

Airbus A400
Airbus A400

The Ukrainian company Antonov finally signed a firm order for the AN-178. Perù will replace their AN-32s with an AN-178. The deal is worth approx. 60 million €. The aircraft is not proven as the other aircraft already mentioned above, as only one prototype was built. It has a maximum payload of 18t and has yet to be tested in action.

On the other hand Ukraine expressed interest in the brazilian Embraer C-390 Millennium, powered with two jet engines and with a maximum payload of 26t. This is also a new project that is already in use with the Brazilian Air Force and could be bought also from Hungary. Portugal signed a deal for five C-390s and will replace their Hercules fleet with them. The contract is worth 827 million euros and comprises also the purchase of a simulator and provides maintenance services for 12 years.

Final thoughts

The final decision about the new aircraft will not be taken yet. I hope that this time will not be like in 2008 when the acquisition was stopped, but we will finally see the delivery of the plane(s). Slovenia and Slovenian's Army need a new aircraft and the fact that they did not have it till now it is not an excuse to remain without the capability also in the future. In case that Slovenia will receive a donation of one or more C-130 Hercules we also have to understand if this could be a real donation or just a cheap purchase of an older plane that will be also too big for most of Army's requirements. In case that they will proceed to buy a new plane it will be smarter to purchase two aircraft and not only one, so at least one will be always available also when the second one will be grounded for maintenance. The purchase is a financially demanding project, but could lead a new cycle of much needed acquisitions to update the capabilities of the armed forces. Postponing the decision will not make the deal cheaper and will damage the MoD, that will remain without an autonomous airlift capability when it will be needed. The autonomy has a price that could be also partially split with other countries. Croatia does not have an airlifter and could be interested in purchasing flight hours from Slovenia. Also Hungary will sometimes need a smaller aircraft if it will puchase the C-390 Millennium and when they will retire the AN-26. Austria flies a fleet of three old C-130K and could occasionally need something smaller too. There is a lot of options to explore, some could be realizable, others not, but all should be taken into consideration. The negotatiors should not forget to make a good offset agreement that will benefit Slovenian companies and economy, bringing precious know how and new businesses. This is also more important given the fact that the entire world will probably be recovering from the pandemic for many years.

Photo credits: Airbus and Leonardo

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