The art of the possible – building a survivable tanker

The United States Air Force (USAF) has been historically content to adapt airliners for use as air-to-air refuelling tankers . Why is it now pushing for a ‘Survivable Tanker’ for its KC-Z program, and what does it mean?


A ‘Survivable Tanker’ design concept for KC-Z. (Lockheed Martin)

The military applications of air-to-air refuelling were first considered during the 1920s and 30s, but it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the newly formed USAF – and specifically, Strategic Air Command – embarked upon the role as we recognise it today. From 1948, Boeing B-29 bombers were converted into aerial refuelling tankers, using the primitive looped-hose method before settling on the flying boom refuelling system that’s still practiced after 70 years. The USAF’s Tactical Air Command also applied the British practice of using the hose-and-drogue – which transferred fuel more slowly, but was less invasive to install – on converted B-50 bombers in the early 1950s, giving rise to a system that has likewise become widely adopted.

The early motivation behind air-to-air refuelling was twofold. Firstly, it allowed aircraft to undetake long range ferry flights to frontline airfields in a much shorter period, speeding the USAF’s ability to respond to crises around the globe. Secondly, aerial refuelling allowed aircraft designers to prioritise aircraft performance over fuel load. The high fuel load of the Convair B-36 Peacemaker allowed it to conduct long range missions unaided, but at the cost of slow speed and a lower operating altitude. Boeing’s B-47 Stratojet bomber on the other hand was optimised for speed and altitude performance, making it more difficult to intercept en route to target. Achieving this performance required in-flight refuellings in order for it to reach enemy territory.


Thirsty work – refuelling the B-47 Stratojet. (USAF)

Oddly enough, some of the design principles of the late 1940s and early 1950s remain current today. The USAF still acquires long-range platforms, but with an understanding that their reach, responsiveness, and loiter time can be further improved by air-to-air refuelling. Much of this has been accomplished with dedicated tanker aircraft built from existing airliner designs. Beginning with the KC-97 (based on the Boeing 377), the USAF went on to acquire the approximately 800 KC-135 Stratotankers (based on the Boeing 367-80 – forebear to the Boeing 707 jet transport) between 1955 and 1965. Today, some 600 KC-135s remain in service, along with approximately 60 KC-10A Extenders (based on the DC-10 airliner) acquired in the 1980s.

Tankers have been critical to the conduct of almost every major air combat campaign conducted by the USAF dating back to the Vietnam War. For such a linchpin capability however, it is odd that there has been no successful foray into a tanker aircraft that is optimised solely for the task of air-t0-air refuelling. Airliners have made popular choices for adaptation into tanker platforms, as they have been a cheap and available option. The airliner’s traditional strengths – long range and large fuel loads – translate well to tanker aircraft, and their cargo and passenger capacity also makes them useful airlifters when deploying and sustaining expeditionary operations.


Grandfather to the modern tanker – a USAF KC-97G (right) refuels a B-47E bomber. (USAF)

Future design requirements for the USAF’s tanker aircraft may be influenced by the shifting nature of how they are employed on operations, emerging and extant threats within a modern battlespace, and the USAF’s future operating requirements.

The KC-X Transition

For the time being, the USAF’s current tanker acquisition program – KC-X – maintains the status quo of applying a converted airliner design into the role of air-to-air refueller. Boeing’s KC-46A Pegasus, a derivative of the 767 airliner, is undergoing test and trials and will begin replacing KC-135s in operational service from mid-2017. The USAF is acquiring 179 KC-46As under KC-X, requiring follow-on acquisition programs to replace the entire legacy tanker fleet of KC-135s and KC-10s.


Coming to airspace near you – the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus refuels an F-16C. (Boeing)

The KC-X transition presents some unique challenges for the USAF. Dating back to its inception in 2002, the program has a long and tortured history, so much so that Allied air forces such as Australia and the United Kingdom were both able to select, introduce and operationally release a modern tanker aircraft over the same period (in this case, the Airbus Defence and Space A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport). Both countries admittedly acquired significantly smaller fleets than that required by the USAF, however Australia and the United Kingdom are now in a position to appreciate and develop how modern tankers can be operated in a battlespace. For its part, the USAF will soon begin operating a modern tanker, but must balance this against a fleet of legacy aircraft for this generation – and potentially the next generation to come.

In all likelihood, the lengthy process of replacing KC-135s and KC-10s means the USAF will have to retrofit many of the new systems being brought about by the KC-46A, especially if legacy tankers continue serving until the 2040 timeframe. The USAF has conducted trials with Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasure (LAIRCM) systems on its KC-135, and is also considering whether to apply systems such as Link-16 and Beyond Line-of-Sight Communications.


A LAIRCM system is visible here, just aft of the wing, on the underside of a KC-135 during a 2011 trial (USAF)

Once it arrives in widespread service however, KC-46A will hopefully inform the USAF of the requirements of the tanker programs that will replace the remainder of the legacy tanker fleet – titled KC-Y and KC-Z. It’s up for debate as to whether KC-Y will be a competition for an existing airliner-based tanker, or a sole source acquisition of more KC-46As (or indeed, a modified variant of the Pegasus). The KC-Y acquisition will take place over the course of the mid-2020s, whilst KC-Z – a potentially cleansheet design, one not converted from an existing aircraft – will come into service in the mid-2030s. The USAF can expect its 179th KC-46A to roll off the production line in 2030, by which time its understanding of how tankers are utilised within a battlespace will have grown significantly.

Shifting Role

Modern tanker contemporaries are demonstrating the benefits of aircraft that are ‘smarter’ and more flexible in their employment. One example can be found with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) – a derivative of Airbus’ A330-200 airliner – deployed in the Middle East. Much like its USAF counterparts, the KC-30A flies racetrack patterns within the battlespace, which keep it away from busy airspace and allow receiver aircraft to rendezvous at a pre-arranged space if they require fuel. Using the Link-16 network, the KC-30A crew can also find receivers, determine their fuel state, and bring the fuel to them if so required. The additional situational awareness provided by Link-16 translates to the tanker crew allowing greater persistence in air operations for strike aircraft. By bringing fuel across the battlespace, the tanker can allow strike aircraft to remain in proximity to ground units that they are providing close air support to.

Operation OKRA

More time over targets – RAAF F/A-18A Hornets over Iraq (RAAF)

More upgrades for tankers are close on the horizon, with some revolutionary potential for how these aircraft operate. In March 2017, the RAAF announced a deal with Airbus Defence & Space to develop a number of upgrades for the KC-30A, the first being Automatic Air-to-Air Refuelling (A3R) – essentially making the process of boom refuelling autonomous. Whilst the RAAF KC-30As will continue to carry a human crew, the process of refuelling could be made quicker and safer (especially considering the risk of refuelling booms damaging the surface coating of stealth aircraft). The success of A3R raises the real prospect that tanker aircraft designed post-2030 will fly ‘optionally manned’ missions, releasing them from the limitation of onboard crew endurance limitations. Such tankers could remain ‘on station’ for significantly greater periods, especially if they themselves can be refuelled in a battlespace by another tanker.

Other upgrades for tanker aircraft will become apparent in the next decade, as manufacturers seek to capitalise on the significant ‘real estate’ possessed by these platforms within a battlespace. Far from being just a gas station in the sky, future tankers could also be used to supplement specialist roles, being used as a communications relay for surface and air combatants, and act as a ‘flying server’ that combines multiple sources of information within a battlespace, and disseminates product across multiple networks and to many receivers. Technology that once necessitated a dedicated platform – whether it be communications, electronic warfare, or intelligence-gathering in nature – might also be incorporated as a ‘plug-and-play’ system for a tanker, carried on board as the mission demands.


Connected to the future – a RAAF KC-30A (right) refuels a USAF F-35A (USAF)

Surviving a Battlespace

For KC-Z, the USAF wants to adapt many advances found in modern tankers with one key distinction – the aircraft also needs to be ‘survivable’. Modern tankers are fitted with a host of self-protection systems that allow them to operate in a low threat environment, including electronic warfare and awareness systems, LAIRCM, and countermeasure dispensers. But their airliner heritage betrays their survivability against medium- and high-end threats from radar systems and combat aircraft. Achieving the desired survivability for KC-Z requires a cleansheet design with performance, reduced radar cross-section, or new self-defence systems that provide adequate protection in a contested battlespace.

Why hasn’t the USAF required Survivable Tankers before? There’s a handful of explanations. Firstly, legacy tankers have traditionally provided fuel at the doorstep of an enemy’s Integrated Air Defence System (IADS), the collective network of ground-based radars, missile and artillery units, and fighter aircraft. The area of influence of a modern IADS is increasing, and stealthy aircraft may get close enough to launch long-range air-to-air missiles against friendly tankers. In such a scenario, an unprotected tanker would have to provide fuel at much further ranges from a battlespace, requiring strike aircraft to rely on their own fuel to accomplish their mission. A Survivable Tanker would not present such a liability.


“Where you are going, I cannot follow”. An artist illustration of the KC-46A refuelling a B-2A Spirit (Boeing).

Beyond this, a Survivable Tanker that could operate in a contested battlespace presents opportunities that simply never existed before. Taking modern operations in Iraq and Syria for example, the RAAF’s KC-30A will accompany F/A-18 Hornet strike aircraft from their base in the Middle East to strike Daesh targets. The KC-30A will top up the Hornet’s tanks during the sortie (as well as other Coalition receivers), providing flexibility and loiter-times to provide responsiveness to dynamic missions, increasing the quality of support they provide to ground commanders. Accompanying strike aircraft allows the tanker to effectively act as an extra set of fuel tanks during the course of a nine-hour mission.

These missions are being conducted in a permissive airspace, however. If the KC-30A were supporting F-35As in a contested environment, for example, the tanker would have to ‘leave’ the strike at the doorstep of an enemy IADS. A Survivable Tanker such as the KC-Z could potentially continue through an IADS threshold, remaining close enough to continue providing fuel and increasing the loiter time of strike aircraft. Whilst strike aircraft have been operated by the USAF for some 30 years, the ability to make them a persistent asset in a battlespace is a powerful tool for air commanders, and the introduction of the F-35A and B-21A will only provide them with more assets to carry the element of surprise.

What Challenges Exist

Designing a Survivable Tanker will likely require KC-Z to possess a small radar cross-section, although not necessarily be ‘stealthy’ to the same extent of an aircraft such as the B-2A Spirit. It may also possess self-defence systems similar to those employed by current tankers, or develop these systems further, with Lockheed Martin suggesting lasers that can shoot down incoming missiles. In discussing KC-Z survivability requirements, the USAF has also spoken about ‘signature management’, suggesting a means of manipulating how the aircraft may be perceived or detected in a threat environment – although details of how this would be achieved are scant.

A cleansheet KC-Z design might deliver other strengths not enjoyed by other tankers. By not adapting an existing airliner, KC-Z can be further optimised for fuel load, efficiency, and low-observable design, and forego cargo and passenger carrying capacity. The airlift capacity of existing tankers is exceedingly useful  when deploying forces abroad (especially for smaller Air Forces that may lack the strategic airlift depth of the USAF). But during dedicated tanking missions, that capacity is un-utilised space, incurring a performance penalty as the aircraft commits to its primary role.

Boeing and Lockheed Martin have already begun pitching their proposals for KC-Z, and it’s a safe assumption that Northrop Grumman will consider bidding, given its experience with low-observable designs. Design solutions may include flying wings, stealthy transports, and the use of Blended-Wing Bodies. Ironically enough, the design of KC-Z may go on to influence the design of future generations of airlifters and airliners, rather than the other way around.


The Boeing X-48, a remotely-operated flying model intended to test blended-wing body designs (Boeing)

Building a Survivable Tanker presents the risk of promising the USAF their cake and eating it too, however. Low-observable design is by no means a simple science, but air-to-air refuelling practices – especially established methods such as a flying boom, or hose-and-drogue pods – present unique challenges, even before they’re mated with a new aircraft. Existing modern tankers capitalise on the known aerodynamic performance of airliners, and even then present complications. For example, efforts to adapt existing refuelling systems into the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 have been frustrated, leading to delays and re-designs.

Applying these refuelling systems into a cleansheet design- even one purpose-built as a tanker – could prove still problematic, especially if the KC-Z’s survivability is contingent on the aircraft having a reduced radar cross-section. Refuelling booms and hose-and-drogue refuelling pods require a delicate aerodynamic balance in order to be effectively used. In all likelihood, KC-Z will have a reduced radar cross section from frontal aspects, but compromise its ‘rear quarter’ so that it can be optimised for its tanking systems. Whilst hose-and-drogue refuelling pods can be internalised, the refuelling boom – which measures up to 17 metres – has to be mounted securely to be of any value.

When deployed, these refuelling systems must prioritise their aerodynamic performance – it’s unlikely these systems can be built to be ‘stealthy’. That design liability becomes important when the USAF considers how such a platform can be operated within a battlespace.


Uniquely shaped, but not ‘stealthy’ – the KC-46A boom (USAF)

Applying air-to-air refuelling within a contested battlespace is likely to be a challenge unto itself. Much of the USAF’s operational experience with fielding tankers has been built around the aircraft flying in environments where their safety from surface or air threats is largely assured (or the risk that they will be shot down is simply accepted). Introducing KC-Z into a contested battlespace is new ground that will likely require the USAF to model its application through the extensive use of simulations. It may even have to take an existing aircraft with a similar radar cross section, and use it as a ‘proxy’ for mission rehearsals and testing. During a refuelling period, receiver aircraft are often not performing their primary role, which has implications for air and surface assets within the battlespace.

The Shape Of Things To Come

If the USAF follows through on KC-Z, the potential impact on air-to-air refuelling is staggering. The USAF will be uniquely placed to deliver sustained air power effects within a contested airspace. Allied air forces will likely rely on the USAF KC-Z fleet to likewise operate within a contested battlespace, lest they field their own Survivable Tanker. The tanker market will see a fork in the road between Survivable Tankers, and those similar to current tanker aircraft – able to perform a strategic airlift role, as well as air-to-air refuelling in permissive environments.

There can be no understating the importance of air-to-air refuelling for the future of the USAF – and the evidence is in the organisation’s past. The global reach and persistence throughout the USAF’s history has been accomplished through tanking. For that status quo to continue, new aircraft – whether they be adapted airliners under KC-X and KC-Y, or a cleansheet KC-Z design – must be a priority. The alternative is that the USAF continue operating an ageing tanker fleet that can’t maintain pace with modern tanker operations. This will limit the USAF’s range and duration on operations, taking it into a downward spiral that will also affect Allied partners.

How KC-Z opens up this future exactly is, right now, anyone’s guess. The USAF’s Air Mobility Command is not slated to release further information about its future tanker requirements until mid-2017.


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Rogue One, Shuttles, and Testy Engineers

It’s been three months since Rogue One hit cinemas, and there’s another two-month wait until we’re able to watch it on our preferred home entertainment medium (I’m requesting a 5:4 ratio VHS copy with bad tracking and television commercials from 1993).


Rated ‘AO’ (Lucasfilm)

With its release, we can look forward to a whole host of new blog pieces about how the Star Wars universe ‘works’, and how it might be a reflection of our own world. What I enjoyed about Rogue One is that the Good Guys were hardly united, and the Bad Guys were riven with their own petty spats. For a movie about a giant planet-destroying superweapon, the rivalries were weirdly close to home.

On that note, I wrote about the issues of sustaining a certain Imperial Shuttle on the Angry Staff Officer Blog shortly after Rogue One was released. Doubtless I’ll write more once I’ve had a chance to watch, re-watch, live tweet, drunken tweet, and digest the film in the comfort of my own home. But for now, enjoy the trials and tribulations of the Empire’s middle management class!

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The Plan-B Option

Op Fiji Assist 16

HMAS Canberra during Operation Fiji Assist (Royal Australian Navy).

The next time you see one of the Canberra-Class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), do me a favour – put your hand up so that you can’t see the ship’s ski-ramp, mounted on top of the bow.

With your hand still up, now look at the remainder of the ship, and consider the potential for developing 27,000 tonnes of Royal Australian Navy ship without an F-35B.



Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II during sea trials (US Marine Corps)


When looking at the Royal Australian Navy’s two LHDs, air power circles often speculate on what could be – a return to Australia having a carrier-based fixed-wing strike capability, something gone since the decommissioning of HMAS Melbourne in 1983. The F-35B debate returned over the recent Christmas and New Year period with the Williams Foundation’s Central Blue Blog posting this piece arguing the flexibility benefits for Australia acquiring F-35Bs, pointing to the operational flexibility it offers and successful sea trials for the type with the United States Marine Corps. Central Blue followed it up with this post on the same topic, arguing an LHD could project strike aircraft missions for Operation Okra in the Middle East with greater effect, instead of the current solution of using land-based F/A-18s – something which requires the consent and support of a Host Nations.

I respect that some people have strong, well-informed opinions forged on this topic. Such views are often backed up by years of academic and firsthand experience in the field. The trouble is, it’s a debate that prioritises some facts and ignores others; the capability is fiscally and strategically never going to happen for Australia; and it’s preventing us from having a reasoned discussion about the potential of these ships.


HMAS Adelaide (Defence) 

Let’s take the Operation Okra case. From information on the Defence website, the presently-deployed Australian Hornets fly sorties of over seven hours to the skies of Iraq and Syria, partly on account of long transit times from their land bases. What’s more, they need a Host Nation agreement to provide a land base. A Canberra-Class LHD in the Gulf could launch F-35Bs much closer to the frontline, allowing them more time over the target, and without the sensitivities that Host Nations may attract.

The argument is flawed. Carrier aviation is an inherently expensive capability to support, regardless of where it is based, and yet still requires air-to-air refuelling to sustain a presence over the Middle East. Australia’s own land-based KC-30A routinely refuels French Navy Rafales and American Hornets and Super Hornets. What’s more, the cooperation of Host Nations is critical to Operation Okra, whether an LHD was deployed in theatre or not. Beyond the Hornets and KC-30A, the Operation Okra air power contribution includes an E-7A Wedgetail providing airspace surveillance, a Combined Air Operations Centre, and Air Battlespace Managers. Supporting this are C-130J Hercules and C-17A Globemaster providing logistics support for Australian Defence Force units deployed throughout the Middle East. The total Australian contribution in theatre would not be possible without Host Nation support.

Adding an LHD to the mix would raise the logistics and personnel overhead above the air power effect that is already being achieved for a period of six months – remembering that ships need to be rotated through sustained deployments.


Bombed up – a United States Marine Corps F-35B during sea trials (United States Navy)

Moving out of the current operations in the Middle East, we can only speculate about the environments in which we might need such a capability. In order to meet these scenarios, the ADF must embark on a number of programs. The 2016 Defence White Paper stressed the importance of Australia’s maritime environment within the Indo-Pacific. The trouble is, Australia’s strategic forecast between now and 2035 makes no stated requirement for embarking fixed-wing carrier-based strike aircraft, and there’s a lot of capabilities that it does state as a priority. Prominently featured are an increased submarine fleet, greater maritime surveillance capability, and a priority on upgrading airfield infrastructure on our coast. All of these capabilities carry fiscal, personnel and planning commitments that largely preclude any consideration for equipping the LHDs with F-35Bs.

Whilst future Governments and Defence leaders reserve the right to change our nation’s strategic planning trajectory in future White Papers, the evidence is that the appetite to do so just doesn’t exist – or the budget, for that matter. The capability does not come cheaply with the F-35B being more expensive than the F-35A variant, even before you take it to sea. The LHDs would require significant works to operate STOVL aircraft in any effective fashion, and doing so would  take them away from their primary purpose – providing an amphibious and sealift support capability for the Australian Army.

HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide aren’t just floating real estate – they’re a major part of how Defence plans to deploy on operations in future. Bringing Army into the amphibious space has required no small shift in capability and doctrine (laid out in Plan Beersheba) to capitalise on the full potential of the LHDs. Its emphasis on amphibious operations is now being demonstrated and rehearsed annually via Defence exercises. Equipping these ships with F-35Bs, arguing that the strategic priorities and planning of the type’s current operators (the United States and United Kingdom) represents a misreading of the scope and capability of our vessels.


2RAR Australian Army personnely during a May 2016 exercise (Defence)

Debating the point that LHDs should be optimised for F-35B operations is like making the case for Army to give up space at a barracks (or move out entirely) so that you can build an airfield on that land instead, especially when suitable alternatives exist. What’s worse, the debate is ignorant of how the Army might deploy its forces in future, having itself just restructured for such a purpose. Turning both LHDs into an F-35B carrier would not only take money to pay for the conversion, it would also require a replacement sealift and amphibious capability for the Army. That money could be spent on a host of other competing priorities that would provide great benefit to Defence, whether it be in the realm of cybersecurity, satellite communications bandwidth, infrastructure, or host of other programs – many of them nominated in the White Paper. Were Defence to take a shortcut to this capability – modifying one LHD and not the other, or equipping LHDs for F-35Bs and amphibious/sealift missions, for example – it would yield a poor compromise for sustaining air power and land forces alike.

Arguing the case for Australian to operate F-35Bs from LHDs undersells the significant capability increase these ships already provide. For the first time in recent memory, the Royal Australian Navy is capable carrying and sustaining an amphibious operation far in excess of what has been capable before – a sealift vessel the likes of which haven’t been enjoyed since, ironically, HMAS Sydney during the days of the Vung Tau Ferry. Once in location, the ships can operate as a deployed base and tranfer its load to shore by landing craft and rotary-wing. These vessels are effectively Navy’s equivalent of Air Force’s C-17A, but potentially far more versatile in its domain.

The ‘F-35Bs for Australia’ debate is a useful tool for getting people to think and speak about Australia’s security and Defence priorities in a maritime context. In my opinion, that’s about where its validity ends. With the United States Marine Corps to base F-35Bs into the Asia Pacific region this year, it’s hardly going to be the last time we hear about this issue. But by focusing entirely on the wrong part of LHD, we’re driving attention away from how they could be conducting their role into the future. There’s significant challenges in Australia’s security environment that include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief events, a commitment to continue useful regional engagement, and peacekeeping. Such scenarios have a great likelihood of occurring, considering the ADF’s operational experience of the past 15 years, from East Timor, Sumatra and the Solomon Islands; to Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. These are all operational theatres where the LHDs could make a considerable positive difference.


HMAS Canberra during RIMPAC 2016 (Royal Australian Navy)

For the air power community, the focus on the LHDs needs to move past the F-35B, and to concentrate on the effects the ships are likely required to deliver in their lifetime. New rotorcraft for the ADF may allow it to better support operations ashore or at sea, a growth path that could see it embark remotely piloted aircraft. We may see it embark a high-speed long-range rotorcraft as a means of projecting ground forces deeper inland, or from greater distances at sea. Aviation may not even be the major growth area for these ships, and their development instead concentrated on the capacity to support C4I or other battlespace networking functions. Or the real estate on the LHDs might be capitalised in some other capacity unknown to us yet.

The discussion that we need to have now isn’t so much “What argument will justify acquiring F-35Bs for the LHDs”, but rather, “What unrealised potential do these ships have in their current role?” Because, hard as it is to imagine, it may not even involve an aircraft.

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Buddha’s next incarnation

What does the future hold for the C-17A Globemaster?

Exercise Pitch Black 2016

A big jet that can fly from little airfields (RAAF)

In airlift terms, the C-17A Globemaster has arguably made the biggest single impact to western Air Forces in the 21st Century thus far – and will likely hold this claim for the next decade. Whilst it was conceived for the United States Air Force in the 1980s and introduced to service in the 1990s, its acquisition by nations including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom has given western Air Forces its first real appreciation of modern strategic airlift. For the USAF, which arguably wrote the book on military strategic airlift, has also benefited significantly from the C-17A’s tactical airlift talents. Elsewhere, the aircraft has been capitalised upon by NATO, India, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait.

With the production line closing in 2015, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see new Globemaster airframes constructed beyond the 279 that were delivered by McDonnell Douglas/Boeing (and indeed, a small number have been relegated to a museum or lost in an accident). This is not to say that we wont see new C-17 variants, especially if the Globemaster lives to see service past 2040, half a century after its first flight. Getting the airframe to that point (and beyond) however will require careful attention and development.


Not bad for an aircraft that Dick Cheney tried to kill off (USAF)

Certainly, the C-17A has been no stranger to being developed over its 25 year history thus far. With a production spanning 15 years, older C-17As have been upgraded to match their newer kin with radios, weather radar, and combat lighting.radios, weather radar, and combat lighting. A centre-wing fuel tank was fitted to C-17As constructed after 2001 to extend the aircraft’s range, and in recent years, aircraft have been equipped with Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures and improved communications systems. Early Block Upgrades to the C-17A addressed design flaws in the original production aircraft – more recent ones have addressed issues of obsolescent aircraft systems and ensured fleet commonality.

More upgrades are projected. The C-17A’s Heads-Up Display (HUD) dates back to the early 1990s, and in 2011, Elbit was announced as the winner of  project to deliver a replacement HUD (although no public announcements have emerged since then). Trials are underway to add airflow strakes to the aircraft’s fuselage as a means of decreasing drag. Options to add Link-16 and more advanced satellite communications antennas are also being explored.


Strake to the heart of the problem (USAF)

How else might we see the C-17A mature in the next 30 years?

Minimalist change

Numerous aircraft go through their service career with modest increases in capability to allow them to continue in their intended role. Indeed, it’s arguable that the C-17A has maintained this track to date with the changes it has undergone thus far. The purpose of such upgrades aren’t so much to advance the aircraft beyond the original design intent, but more to ensure it remains compatible with current/immediate operating practices and airborne environments. Compatibility with any new Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) or battlespace networking systems, or global air traffic control management systems, are examples of this.

The aircraft’s cockpit ergonomics are still reminiscent of its early 1990s design, so it’s not unreasonable to expect a major Mid-Life Update program that would improve the quality of cockpit displays, communications management, and other avionics. Newer airlifters such as the C-130J and A400M are equipped with larger HUD units and displays that can incorporate digimaps or other navigational data. A precedent for upgrading the C-17A exists, whereby older air mobility platforms (including the C-130H, KC-135 and C-5) have replaced their ‘steam gauge’ instruments and analogue controls with LCD screens and digitial displays. Replacing these systems means eliminating obsolescence and ensuring the cockpit ergonomics have greater commonality with the wider air mobility and training fleet, and potentially improving the ease with which software updates can be applied to the aircraft.


An office from a simpler time (USAF)

Slightly more ambitious options….

The aforementioned upgrades were largely to ensure the C-17A maintained pace with its operating environment. More ambitious upgrades however would provide new ways of performing its existing mission. Evidence exists within existing air mobility platforms like the KC-135, which has been upgraded with navigation systems that now allow the aircraft to operate without a Navigator.

How could this apply to the C-17A? It’s difficult to judge this, as it is largely contingent on the technology that will be available to us in the next 15 years. It’s easy to imagine technology that has been applied to the A400M and C-130J being rolled out on the C-17A. It’s harder to imagine the impact that newer and emerging technology – such as helmet-mounted displays, external sensors, and  personal devices – will have. New tactical airlifters benefit from infrared cameras that allow landings to be comfortably made in poor visibility conditions. Whether such technology has an application on the C-17A remains to be seen.

Likewise, the C-17A was revolutionary for its time by its use of a dedicated loadmaster station inside the cargo hold, a feature which has been capitalised by other airlifters. A future C-17A upgrade might extend on this further, allowing the loadmaster to control environmental conditions and cargo locks in the cargo hold with a personal electronic device, or direct automated aircraft loading equipment.

C-17A AME Static Aircraft Communication Systems

Technology is finding its way on board, regardless (RAAF)

The high-end option

High-end changes are easy to debate, being linked to systems on the aircraft that will become wholly inefficient or unsustainable during the aircraft’s life-of-type. These changes would be sufficient to mean the end of the C-17A as we know it today, delivering us a noticeably different aircraft – a C-17B or C-17C, for example.

Again, existing examples allow us to make educated guesses about the future, not only about the systems that are applied and upgraded, but the causes for doing so. The C-5M Super Galaxy is the product of a program upgrade older C-5As and Bs with new engines, new avionics, improved cargo ergonomics, and most importantly, greater aircraft reliability. It essentially brings an aircraft design whose systems have their roots in the late 1960s, and gives a 21st century solution. The net result is a Galaxy with a shorter take off distance and better climb rate, as well as extended range. Whilst the C-17A is reliable now, we can expect to question its relative performance in the future, especially if the expectation is for the aircraft to beyond a 30-year lifespan. Upgrading the C-17A could prove less expensive than embarking upon an all-new airlift replacement, too.

Achieving this could take a number of paths. Replacing the engines on the aircraft, especially in light of advances in civilian airliner powerplants, would be the most obvious choice. It could yield a Globemaster that is more fuel efficient or carries heavier payloads, and the C-17A’s existing powerplant – the Pratt & Whitney F117 – is a militarised version of the turbofan that powers Boeing 757s. One issue here however is that C-17A engines are required to perform across different spectrum than stock civilian airliner. This means a simple transplant of a civilian powerplant will not likely address the C-17A’s performance needs.

Another potential upgrade could be to the C-17A’s winglets, which were revolutionary for their time in 1991. This feature improves the wing’s performance, reducing drag and improving fuel efficiency in a cruise. Today, the C-17A’s winglets appear clunky in comparison to modern airliners which possess ‘blended winglets’ that improve fuel burn. Ensuring the Globemaster can cruise efficiently, extending its range and lowering its operating costs, are likely to be a big consideration for how the aircraft is upgraded into the future.

Other considerations for a potential major upgrade to the Globemaster might include those options put forward by Boeing during the late 2000s to improve the aircraft’s tactical performance. Considerations for the ‘C-17B’ including a new higher thrust powerplant, double-slotted flaps, additional centre-line landing gear, and precision landing systems. It’s arguable that the additional weight of some of these systems would come at a cost to the aircraft’s range and cruise efficiency. On the other hand, a sub-fleet of C-17s optimised for tactical performance to deliver payloads that can not be accommodated in a C-130 (and are unable to be transported over long ranges by future heavy vertical lift)


A model solution (Flight Global)

Examining options for the Globemaster’s future may see it called to perform roles that are well outside the traditional airlift roles that the aircraft performs today. Few would argue that the C-17A’s talents are best applied to providing dedicated strategic and tactical airlift. The external surfaces of a C-17A however provide significant ‘real estate’ for discrete sensors and antennas, and the aircraft’s interior likewise has space that would allow it to fulfil support functions for C4I and ISR – especially if the terminals for such roles are significantly smaller and modularised, contrasting with the fixed workstations that fill C-135 and Boeing 707 variants operated by the USAF. Today, other platforms (such as those based on commercial airliners) might conceivably fufill this role more efficiently and effectively than a Globemaster. But future requirements – especially those that call for an aircraft to deliver personnel and vehicles, then remain in close proximity to provide immediate support – might dictate that the C-17 is the aircraft for the job.

The last consideration for the Globemaster receiving a ‘high-end’ upgrade is that it might pick up new roles not even in service today. The aircraft has been mooted as a potential ‘Drone Mothership’ in a battlespace, deploying them to perform a range of ISR, attack, and strike missions. Alternatively, the C-17A’s cargo bay has considerable space for batteries and other systems that would employ high-energy weapons.

Where the Globemaster ultimately fulfils any of these roles is anyone’s guess – whilst the technology is being developed, it’s by no means about to be applied to the C-17A. Once said technology is mature, there’s no guarantees that the C-17A will be the best jet for the job.

The likely options

At a minimum, progressive upgrdes will need to be applied in the future to ensure the C-17A can continue to be operated. The crew stations are likely to be developed over time, as are the aircraft’s avionics, communications and networking systems. Foreign operators should bear these developments in mind – on the one hand, the upgrading of their aircraft is likely to have a greater impact in the number of aircraft they have available. On the other hand, such programs are an avenue for them to suggest development roadmaps that can be shouldered by Boeing and USAF. Exploring these avenues however would have to be a modest process, however – it is unlikely that an entirely new C-17 variant will be developed if only one smaller operator is guaranteed to require it.

Operation Fiji Assist

Together, we are many (RAAF)

With that in mind, the Globemaster’s future development is likely to be informed by three things – keeping the airframe viable, the USAF’s appetite to embark on upgrade programs, and Boeing’s willingness to provide options. Lockheed Martin’s C-5M program provides a good example of where the C-17A can go with such updates, replacing aircraft structures and systems that have become tired and unreliable whilst also meeting demands of the customer to capitalise on generational changes in engine, avionics, and ergonomic technology. Indeed, the C-5M in some respects feels like it carries some of the best features of a C-17A (with the exception of the HUD and fighter control stick).

Strategic airlift development however emphasises the importance of cruise efficiency and performance, which is often largely dependent on reductions in the aircraft’s weight and improvements in powerplant. Such upgrades are easy to forecast in the C-17A’s future. The more ‘creative’ upgrades for the Globemaster will be in how it is required to perform tactical roles in future – or approach brand new problems.


Everyone has an embarassing childhood photo (USAF)


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Review: The Second World War (the book, not the conflict)

I should preface this review by stating that I’m only just halfway through reading this book. As far as I am concerned, the year is 1943, and the possibility of the Axis Powers losing the war is looking to become a reality, as the Allies start thinking about what shape the post-war world will be. So, nobody tell me how it ends.


Everyone likes to think they have this War figured out. The attraction to reading history is often with the obsession with the detail – as if knowing how Churchill took his tea, what precise models of tanks fought at Kursk, the squadron numbers of Zero fighters used in New Guinea, would somehow leave you with a deeper appreciation of history. And it’s true that sometimes, those details have a role in affecting history.

The trouble with taking such forensic interests is that you often fail to understand the bigger picture, which can dictate why such details are important, leading to second- and third-order assumptions from the reader that have little bearing in reality. Alternative History Fiction (which is still awesome, by the way) can be rife with this, leaving readers with the idea that momentum is unimportant, so long as a single event possibly changing the entire outcome of the war.

The enjoyment of reading Antony Beevor’s The Second World War  (published in 2012 by Weidenfeld and Nicholson) comes from having the events of the conflict strung together so that the reader knows why the detail is important, and appreciates its truly global nature. Having considerable background in writing about the individual campaigns of the war such as the Battles of Stalingrad, Crete, and Berlin, Beevor plies his trade at telling the story of individual campaigns, but in a narrative where the reader understands how events affected one another – all over the world. For example, I never quite appreciated quite how the international powers sought to influence the Sino-Japanese War until now.

ardennes-slide-with-2016-boBeevor still manages to show his talent is for weaving detail amongst the bigger picture, and it makes for some heavy reading. There’s entertaining quips (my favourite: a British soldier in North Africa, asked how many POWs he’s taken, and replying “Oh, I’d say a few acres worth”). But in a conflict where so many lost their lives, there’s some harrowing chapters, especially when names are given. The conflict witnessed a wholesale loss of human life that will cause you some despair for the human race.

As a historical reading and learning experience, The Second World War is still rewarding, and reading about the conflict through a whole-of-events narrative has ironically inspired me to go seek out the details of campaigns and individual personalities in other books. Beevor can’t address every campaign in only 800 pages, and sometimes this is to a fault, as subject matter important to the war goes largely ignored.

Beevor’s other talent is for making the information digestible, and again, the curious details matter here. But even he struggles to clearly convey some events and relationships – which is, admittedly, not necessarily his fault as the historian. Take the French, for example. The social and government disarray of France going into the German invasion is clear and surprisingly understandable, but the soap opera relationships that come with the Free French and Vichy is complicated to a fault – and fundamentally does little to affect the war (considering other events). On the other hand, the clash of personalities between the Allies is kept simple, understandable, and reasonably entertaining.

Having sat on my ‘to read’ shelf the past year or two, I made a start on The Second World War during a work trip this year. Since then, it’s become a 1.7kg weight that I carry in my backpack everywhere, and when the mood and opportunity strikes, gives me the enjoyment of reading and learning. With each chapter I finish, there’s a satisfaction that comes from knowing that I’ll probably re-read this book again every five to ten years to remind myself of just what the world went through.

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Imperial Doctrine – Economies of Effort

Why does the Empire embark on obscenely expensive programs to create Weapons of Mass Destruction? Because the alternatives are even more terrifyingly expensive.


Right-side up (Lucasfilm)

An oft-stated criticism of the Galactic Empire in the Star Wars series is its dependence on building a resource-consuming superweapon, intended to wipe out the Rebel Alliance in one swift stroke. The Death Star, The Death Star II, and the Starkiller Base are all intergalactic-equivalents of our own Weapons of Mass Destruction, each possessing the power to destroy an entire planet.

The reliance on this kind of weapon could be chalked up to lazy story-telling on behalf of the filmmakers. What’s more, naysayers criticise these superweapons on account of resource intensive they are, not to mention the relative ease with which they are destroyed.


Were it not for this orbital white elephant, the Empire might still be here with us today (Lucasfilm)

The trouble with these arguments is that they ignore the benefits to the Empire of building such a weapon, to say nothing of the cost of governing the Galaxy without it. The Death Star was central to the Imperial’s long-term security strategy. The best metaphor for our world would be the cost for a military to maintain a nuclear deterrence, versus accomplishing the same strategic effect through solely conventional means. Galactic tyranny doesn’t just fund itself, and when you consider the fiscal costs of maintaining the peace, the prospect of a superweapon that threatens total destruction with little warning makes sudden strategic sense. 


This guy was right to be arrogant (Lucasfilm)

To argue the Death Star’s benefits, we should hark back to the time of the Old Republic. It’s safe to assume that a lot of the Empire’s warfighting doctrine was informed by individual experiences of the Clone Wars. The Empire’s predecessor – the Old Republic – faced off against a mass of separatist systems in a Confederate-instigated Civil War, with their opposing forces largely made up of a massive Droid Army. Ignoring the fact that Chancellor Palpatine was secretly pulling the strings of the Confederacy, we can assume a host of non-Clone Colonels and Fleet Captains were the ones prosecuting the Clone Wars for the Republic. On the formation of the Galactic Empire, these same men went on to form chief decision-makers within the Imperial Army and Navy, and would craft the strategic policy of the Empire – everything from its governance style, warfighting doctrine, and acquisition requirements. 


Did you really think Emperor Palpatine was the one signing off on Block Upgrade programs for the Imperial-Class Star Destroyer fleet? (Lucasfilm)

The Empire’s roots in the Clone War are evident within the Original Star Wars Trilogy. Take TIE Fighters for example. If you were a three-star Imperial Admiral leading the starfighter procurement project office on Coruscant, you’d probably recall your experiences in the Old Republic with operating slow and heavy ARC170s and Y-Wings, and demand something small, cheap, and simple to operate, especially considering the only other major military threat has just been eradicated. The result was the TIE Fighter, which could be produced en masse cheaply, and provide capital ships with a basic fighter screen. The relative simplicity of construction in a TIE Fighter might have made it vulnerable to attack from the emergent Rebellion, but for Logisticians and Engineers, it must have been a delight to maintain.

Imperial Walkers are another good example. They demonstrate some brutal effectiveness during the Battles of Hoth and Endor, but during both engagements, it becomes apparent that they’re vulnerable to unconventional attacks from indigenous groups and Rebel squadrons. Substituting the Rebel Alliance for, say, a Droid Army, then it’s safe to say that these Imperial Walker assaults would have been successful. Nobody would expect Battle Droids to have the imagination to conceive of log traps, much less wrap a tow-cable around the legs of an Imperial Walker.


I don’t think Battle Droids had a plan for this, either… (

Much of how the Empire fights its wars makes sense when you consider that it was founded as an organisation to combat the Confederacy, and not the Rebel Alliance. The Confederacy sought to overcome the Republic with a sheer weight of resource supremacy, to which the Republic responded with its own sheer greater number of troops and equipment, coupled with a core of Jedi Knights. The mass-produced nature of the Empire is evidence of that. By the time we reach A New Hope, however, the Empire is confronted with two problems. Firstly, the Rebel Alliance doesn’t fight like the Confederacy – knowing it can’t defeat the Empire numerically, they seek to undermine it through more creative and innovative techniques, capitalising on their diverse racial support base.

The second problem is the task of governing an Empire. No matter how cheap and mass-produced you make it, it’s still resource intensive.

Consider the task of crewing a Star Destroyer. The crew complement for each ship is 37,000 (not counting each ship’s embarked Stormtrooper complement – that’s another 9000). The Empire had an estimated 26,000 of these ships – that’s 962,000,000 operational crew. And it doesn’t account for reservists, off-duty crews, training and development personnel, logisics support, or depot servicing technicians. Even with astromechs and mouse droids pulling their weight, the conservative estimate has the Empire’s entire Star Destroyer workforce coming in between two to three billion souls.


That’s one hell of an annual reunion (Lucasfilm)

And Star Destroyers are only a piece of the Empire’s total workforce. You had everything else it needed to run the Galaxy, from all the other capital ships it operated, the entire Imperial Army, Garrisons, Engineers, Fuel Transport, Security and Intelligence, Human Resources and Finance, Public Affairs, Bands, and the Air Show Demonstration Team.


You know they had one. (Fantasy Flight Games)

The colossal construction expense of building two Death Stars, followed by a Starkiller Base, is a massive resource drain to have on top of this. Critics are right to say that the Empire was in over its head for embarking on the construction of such a space station. Estimates put its construction at eight quadrillion dollars (anyone who can give me an exchange rate for Republic Credits to US Dollars?), but the resources available to the Empire would have made it more achievable (obviously, considering they built two).  The reality however is that the over the life-of-type for a Death Star, it would have saved the Empire a lot of troubles with its governance expenses, not to mention sustaining its military.

For a start, a Death Star makes the job of governing significantly easier. Pax Imperia could be achieved through a single space station that threatens of violence without needing to be physically present in the same way that thousands of garrisons and Star Destroyers would need to be. Grand Moff Tarkin says so himself: “Fear will keep the local systems in line – fear of this battle station”. It’s not a new argument, either – Grand Blog Tarkin covers this ground very well. Whilst a Death Star can’t be in two places at once, its mere existence would stun countless systems into compliance.

Despite its construction costs, the predictive modelling for how much money the Death Star could save the Empire must have been terribly attractive to Imperial Comptrollers. Here was a silver bullet which could potentially negate the requirement for additional capital ships and ground forces. At some point in the Death Star’s construction, however, the Empire would still have needed to fund conventional forces. That would have caused tremendous confrontation within the ranks of the Imperial procurement programs competing for funds. In one corner, the program offices for the tried and proven Star Destroyers and pre-fabricated garrison; and in the other, the new Death Star project team.


Sound familiar? (United States Air Force)

That’s a caustic environment to have within a military organisation, whereby conventional warfighting experience is challenged by ‘Young Turks’ who see the potential of the Death Star as a governance tool. It also comes with numerous second- and third-order effects, right down to the boots of  Stormtrooper on the frontline. Budgets for supporting conventional warfighting training and development take a hit, or worse, can’t be guaranteed for the next fiscal periods, because the money is being reallocated towards a new planet-destroying battle station.

The impact of nuclear weapons and guided missiles had a similar effect on conventional forces during the 1950s and 60s, with many of the misconceptions about their employment only addressed in the wake of the Vietnam War. A similar scenario would have affected the Empire, with the Death Star figuring on its horizon, and an armada of Imperial Walkers and TIE Fighters left to equip its conventional forces. Conventional forces would have been given only marginal increases in technology and training, proving a dangerous gamble in the face of a bold Rebellion. Following the Death Star’s destruction, the Rebel Alliance still isn’t facing the Empire on anything close to equal terms. But the internal conflict between the old ways and the new within the Empire might have just helped its odds.

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Imperial Doctrine – What’s in a Name

Why Did the Chicken Walker cross the road? (Hint: It wasn’t to transport something)


Why the long face? (Star Wars Wikia)

There’s something odd about the AT-ST. Its name, ‘All Terrain – Scout Transport’, is a misnomer. The vehicle is comprised of two legs, a chassis, and a ‘head’ inside which the crew are positioned, along with the vehicle’s armament and power source. Indeed, the head has space only for two crew members (or; two Ewoks and a Wookiee). Whereas the larger AT-AT (All Terrain Assault Transport) has a ‘torso’ with seating for 40 assault troops, the AT-ST would appear to have no capacity for transport at all.


Zilch. (Lucasfilm)

When is a transport actually not a transport?

Calling the AT-ST a ‘Transport’ could be argued as a movie error, but might also be an insight into the (admittedly fictional) Imperial doctrine during the Galactic Civil War, which mirrors our own real world in many respects. Star Wars isn’t so much a direct metaphor for earthly conflicts, but a reflection of how real world prosecutes conflict in an imperfect fashion. The Empire and the Rebel Alliance adhere by doctrine (in some cases to a fault), and are erroneous in their decision-making, much as we are. For a Space Fantasy, Star Wars is littered with details that are grounded in reality, from the weathering and battle scars on the Rebel X-Wings starfighters, right up to the approach t warfighting of the Empire.


Not pictured: Years of training and exercises for woodland tactics techniques and procedures for the AT-ST. (Lucasfilm)

The AT-ST is a good example of this. In spite of its name, its primary role doesn’t appear to be scouting, but rather, light-armoured fire support. During its two cinematic appearances, it’s seen providing infantry support in the Battle of Endor, and protecting the flanks of larger armoured formations in the Battle of Hoth. In a scouting role, an AT-ST is arguably less effective at forward reconnaissance than the Empire’s smaller and faster speeder bikes or probe droids. As a Transport however, it simply can’t pull its weight. Unless there’s some kind of tow-bar attachment for the AT-ST to be connected with a trailer or caravan; or racks on which smaller vehicles and troops can be mounted; then it’s not a transport at all.


These guy would probably appreciate going on a good walk (Lucasfilm)

Naming inconsistency is a reality of our world, too, and often says a lot about the doctrine and thought of the beholder. Take NATO for example. When the Sukhoi Su-24 and Su-25 ground attack aircraft were revealed, NATO designated them as the ‘Fencer’ and ‘Frogfoot’ respectively, using an ‘F’ name to indicate their status as fighters. Whilst both aircraft are ‘fighter-sized’, the reality was that they held only a limited self-defence capacity, but were in effect a Strike and Close Air Support aircraft, meaning they should have had ‘B’ names.


Bencer and Brogboot just don’t have the same ring (Wiki)


The United States Air Force falls under the same judgment. During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the Tactical Air Command (TAC) received a string of fighters whose primary role was precision strike. The nature of TAC’s role and establishment as a ‘fighter’ organisation led to the designation of the F-105, F-111, and F-117 as ‘fighters’. The first two aircraft were capable again of carrying a self-defence armament; the F-117 ‘Stealth Fighter’ meanwhile carried no air defence weapons during the operations it served on. All three should probably have been given ‘B-‘ designations to reflect their Bomber roles.

The justification for Fighter and Bomber designations within the United States Air Force links back to the respective function of TAC and the Strategic Air Command during the Cold War. Bomber designations were largely destined for aircraft serving with SAC, and indeed, when SAC purchased its own F-111s, its aircraft were redesignated ‘FB-111’. Names and designations are often not indicative of the aircraft’s immediate role, but rather, who the aircraft is working for, and what that organisation sees its role as.

So, how does this link back to the Empire in Star Wars? Quite simply, the Imperial Army views its Walkers as Transports, irrespective of whether they’re utilised in a battlefield to transport personnel or cargo. That suggests any number of things about its armoured vehicle doctrine – ranged assault vehicles like Walkers are viewed primarily as an infantry transport/support, thus earning them a broad title of ‘Transport’. Armoured vehicles that didn’t need to range out or provide direct assault -such as those use for policing or garrison support – probably had little requirement to transport infantry or cargo, and thus probably viewed as a separate breed. The AT-ST falls into the former range, having some capacity for scouting ahead of a larger formation, chart clear lines of attack for AT-ATs and probing defences. But it is not a true transport, in spite of its name.

This inconsistency in detail is one of the enjoyable things about Star Wars. For every bit of military hardware, civil planning, and cultural touchstone within these films (and their selected spin-offs), the implication is that there’s an entire world behind the scenes. Every AT-ST used on the Sanctuary Moon of Endor probably linked back to a cubicle in the Scout Transport Systems Project Office on Coruscant where their logistics support, engineering, and spare parts were coordinated. Movie goofs and Cinema Sins in A Galaxy Far Far Away might be caused by the film-makers’ artistic licence, but the imperfections and errors are often a meta-commentary on how our own world works.


Also, why do they have such dead eyes? (Lucasfilm)

In a future post, I’ll look at why the Empire emphasised such a Walker-centric ground assault formation, especially in light of what the alternatives might have consisted of. No doubt many have watched The Empire Strikes Back and scoffed at the idea of AT-ATs mounting a forward assault with little capacity for defence against a counterattack or specialised defences. The explanation is that the Empire, much like our own Defence Forces today, inform their procurement based on years of experience against past foes. The AT-AT and the tactics employed by the Empire aren’t just good cinema – they’re a response to the Clone Wars and a Generation of warfighting.


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