The Plan-B Option

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Hercules for Germany: What markets are left to conquer?

Another market falls to the Hercules. Who else is left?

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Still selling after 60 years (USAF)

Germany today confirmed its purchase of 4-6 C-130J Hercules that it will use to operate into short airstrips and fulfill other missions deemed unsuitable for the A400M. It’s a bit of a blow for Airbus Defence & Space, which had seen its order of A400Ms for Germany reduced in past (don’t feel too bad – as I kind of covered before, the A400M still exists in a league of its own, and has significant scope for development).

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Cheer up, Atlas – the global military airlift market wasn’t conquered in a day. (Airbus Defence & Space)

Germany’s C-130J fleet will be operated jointly with an existing four-aircraft order for France, easing the logistics and training footprint for the type. Berlin’s purchase represents a fairly big tectonic adjustment in the field of military airlift. For 60 years, Germany has been the one market that Lockheed Martin hasn’t been able to crack for the C-130.

So, who does that leave Lockheed Martin left to sell C-130s to for the first time? As the Wiki page for C-130 Operators suggests, there’s precious few countries that haven’t flown the Hercules before – either in its military guise, or even as a civil contracted freighter.

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All Lockheed Martin would be doing at this stage is to colour in the remaining grey on the map. (Wiki Commons)

China operated a handful of civilian L-100 Hercules freighters. After the fall of Saigon, it’s likely even the Soviet Union poured over a couple of South Vietnamese C-130As and may have taken one back to Russia (though it’s yet to appear on Google Maps if they did make off with one).

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We can only dream. (EON Productions)

Who are some of the contenders?

North Korea

The idea of Kim Jong-Un shaking hands with Secretary of State John Kerry over the successful order of C-130s for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is pretty unlikely. Indeed, the idea of any Western aircraft operating north of the 53rd parallel is hard to imagine outside of a shooting war.

Except, North Korea already does. A New Zealand-made P-750 STOL transport was recently spotted during North Korea’s first Air Show. In the 1980s, North Korea managed to receive at least 60 MD500 helicopters through a broker before the United States stopped the order.

Likelihood: 0.01/10 (and that’s being optimistic). Pyongyang would need a particularly nefarious reason to acquire a Herc for its Air Force, otherwise it would likely seek out a Chinese Y-8 (itself a descendant of the Antonov An-12). The best case scenario is a mirror of how it came to have a P-750 from New Zealand – a Chinese intermediate company purchased the aircraft, and leased/sold it to North Korea. Until then, Li’l Kim will have to content himself with this god awful North Korean CGI Hercules in Olympus Has Fallen. 

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“Look out! We’re under attack from the lowest bidder for this movie’s visual effects.” (Millennium Films)

Ukraine

I wont try to recap the past 15 years of Ukraine’s political and security history, and it’s difficult to imagine where it will be in the future. Suffice to say, it’s possible the country’s worst years might still be ahead of it.

Imagining a best case scenario – a Ukraine that is able to assert itself more independently within Eastern Europe, stand on its own economically, and begin replacing its dated Soviet-era military  – then it’s conceivable that it will seek closer ties with the West, and re-equip itself with new platforms. Like, say, the Hercules.

The only problem is that the prospect of Ukraine flying Hercules is like driving a BMW in Detroit. It’s just not right.

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They got 99 platforms and a Herc aint one (Antonov)

For the last 75 years, Ukraine has been home to Antonov, the aerospace manufacturer that produced the bulk of the Soviet Union/Russia’s large cargo aircraft (with the exception of the Ilyushin Il-76). They even produced the An-12, the Eastern Bloc’s equivalent to the C-130 Hercules.

Today, Antonov as a company is in dire straits, largely owing to its dependence on systems and parts supplied by Russia (not to mention a lack of aircraft orders). Antonov recently sold the design of the An-225 – the world’s largest aircraft – to China , but at best there will be a joint production of new airframes between the two countries. The An-70, produced as an An-12 replacement (and analogous to the A400M in some respects), is another contender for Ukraine’s future airlift. But it would need a miracle to become economically viable.

So, whilst the prospect of Ukraine purchasing C-130s isn’t unlikely, it’s liable to bring tears to the eyes of a few aerospace engineers in Kiev…

Likelihood: 6/10. Afghanistan flies C-130s. Iraq flies C-130s. Poland flies C-130s. No matter how bad things are in Ukraine, it’s not inconceivable that in 10 to 20 years time, it could find itself equipped with the Hercules. Given Ukraine’s current economic state and prospects, it pains me to say that Antonov’s best work lies in its past (pending any more lifelines from, say, China). Assuming all goes well for Ukraine’s future, in a couple of years they’ll need to replace An-12s and Il-76s with an existing platform produced by the West. There’ll be contenders for these replacements, but should a future White House Administration extend a lifeline to Kiev, it might be delivered via ex-USAF C-130Hs…

Ireland

There’s a surprising number of Western European countries that don’t operate the Hercules already. Switzerland, for one. Finland, too. Smaller nations like Luxembourg, Malta and Leichtenstein. Even smaller are your Monacos, Vaticans, and San Marinos.

Also, there’s Ireland.

Founded in 1924, there’s nothing in the Irish Air Corps’ 92-year history to suggest a requirement for a dedicated medium tactical airlifter. The function of the Irish Air Corps and its 750-strong workforce is to provide airborne support to the wider Army, which includes some helicopter airlift and other maritime surveillance. Some of their work includes aero-medical evacuation and airlift of its citizens.

The largest aircraft it has operated are a pair of Airbus CN235s used for maritime patrol, that also have capacity for light transport missions.

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Its third role is to wear this attractive colour scheme. Damn. (Wiki Commons)

Beyond this, larger military transport tasks for Ireland have been undertaken by friendly air forces or contracted airlift, such as when Irish peacekeeping forces or relief aid have been deployed abroad.

Ireland sits within the European Union, meaning it has an obligation to conduct fishery patrols of 340,000 square kilometres of ocean on the EU’s behalf. But Ireland is not a member of NATO, meaning it does not provide personnel and equipment to NATO missions, nor does it receive running military assistance (such as the Baltic Air Policing flight). Thus, the strategic requirements for Ireland to possess an aircraft like the Hercules are limited.

Likelihood: 4/10. The most recent Defence White Paper for Ireland stated the two CN235s are due for retirement in 2019, and Dublin is reportedly seeking a replacement that is larger and more capable – both in the maritime surveillance and transport role. A betting man would say the most likely contender is the Airbus C295 Persuader, which provides some marginal increase in range and payload, but with only a fractional increase in purchase/operating cost. But if Ireland wants to expand its pool of replacment options, don’t be surprised if Lockheed Martin dresses a model of the SC-130J ‘Sea Hercules’ in an attractive blue colour scheme at the next Paris Air Show…

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It’ll never happen, just like Germany buying Hercules. (Lockheed Martin)

 

 

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Boeing’s KC-135 – Born to Die, Destined to Kick Ass

There’s a long-standing nickname associated with the United States Air Force (USAF) fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. The ubiquitous air-to-air refueller celebrates its 60th anniversary of service with the USAF this year, with its crews describing themselves for much of that time as ‘Tanker Toads’.

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Pictured here, not looking especially toad-like (USAF)

A cursory search on Google yields a couple of explanations for that nickname. One suggestion is the fact that the aircraft’s refuelling boom operator lies on his or her belly, prone, whilst looking through a window cut into the bottom of the KC-135 as they control the aircraft’s refuelling boom. Lying down prone is said to look similar to the posture of a toad lying on the ground.

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The KC-135 Boomer, one of the world’s most stressfully comfortable jobs (Wiki Commons)

Another theory is that toad is an acronym, standing for ‘Temporarily on Active Duty’ – referencing the number of KC-135 pilots who return to the USAF for a brief stint in between their main job of flying with civilian airlines. My own theory was theory was that Toad is a homonym for ‘towed’. As the KC-135 refuelled other aircraft to extend their range over long distances, the receiver was being effectively ‘towed’ to it destination.

The true explanation for ‘Tanker Toad’ however was given to me last weekend by a young KC-135 pilot, who explained that ‘Toad’ is indeed an acronym, dating back to the debut of the Stratotanker’s service with the USAF’s Strategic Air Command in the late 1950s. TOAD stands for ‘Take Off and Die’.

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It’s not ‘death by jet exhaust’, but probably should be (Wiki Commons)

Whilst some KC-135s have been lost over 60 years, the aircraft has maintained a pretty good safety record. So why did this tanker pilot give his aircraft and crew such a bleak moniker? The answer lies in the KC-135 being built during the 1950s as an force projector for the USAF’s Strategic Air Command, providing global range to its nuclear bomber fleet. The KC-135’s job was to refuel B-52s on their one-way mission to deliver nuclear weapons to targets in the Soviet Union. Taking off with 200,000lbs of fuel (up to 90 tonnes), the KC-135A would meet with B-52s on their journey, and deliver close to their entire fuel load to the bomber. Once the refuelling was completed, the tanker’s crew would have enough fuel to peel away from the B-52 and ditch their aircraft into the water (or on land). The alternative was to bail out and await an individual recovery. Few KC-135 crews believed they’d survive the crash, much less be rescued if they did. Thus was born the Tanker Toad mission – if World War Three began, and the KC-135 crews received the order to scramble their jet, their job would be to Take Off and Die.

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Basically, the aviation equivalent of Praying Mantis’ mating (USAF)

At the height of its power during the Eisenhower Administration, Strategic Air Command was not an organisation to do anything by halves, which permitted the construction of 803 KC-135s between 1955 and 1965. It will easily be the world’s most-produced dedicated refuelling aircraft, with a handful finding service with France, Singapore, Chile, and Turkey. Others have found themselves relinquishing their tanking role for reconnaissance duties. Over its history, the aircraft has received updated engines that have improved their fuel burn, and in turn allowed the KC-135 to reserve more fuel for their receivers. Avionics upgrades have been largely minor, although additional navigation systems have eliminated the requirement for the aircraft to carry a navigator. But by and large, the KC-135 still refuels aircraft today in much the same fashion that it did 60 years ago, with an Air Refuelling Operator – known as the ‘boomer’ – lying prone in the tail of the aircraft and looking through a window to oversee the refuelling.

Today, providing force projection of USAF’s nuclear bomber fleet (a job now maintained by the USAF’s Global Strike Command) is only a small part of the KC-135’s overall mission. The Stratotanker is a common sight above Iraq and Syria, providing fuel to American and Coalition strike aircraft maintaining overwatch and delivering precision strikes against Daesh targets. Airborne surveillance assets like the E-8 JSTARS and E-3 Sentry AWACS are also kept in the air by KC-135s. The USAF’s Air Mobility Command fleet has a reach that extends across the globe, often in spite of whether there are friendly airfields along the way – again, thanks to air-to-air refuelling from a KC-135.

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Seen here with USAF, RAAF, and RAF customers (USAF)

Arguably, the KC-135 has shaped the United States foreign military projection over the past 60 years, much like the aircraft carrier has done so since the end of the Second World War. Its original intent was largely to allow Strategic Air Command’s nuclear strike fleet to have a global reach, and it 800-strong fleet is indicative of the Strategic Air Command excesses of the 1950s and 60s.  The value of the KC-135 – both in its air-to-air refuelling role, and the sheer quantity of airframes in the USAF – has become evident with the more conventional campaigns fought by the USAF over six decades. Whilst the KC-135 has continued to refuel nuclear-armed bombers, its crews found themselves supporting more ‘traditional’ air power roles, so much so that a new acronym for KC-135 crews was crafted – NKAWTG. That is, ‘Nobody Kicks Ass Without Tanker Gas’.

The KC-135’s timing into service couldn’t have been better for organisations such as the USAF’s Tactical Air Command and Military Airlift Command. When the KC-135’s construction run finished in 1965, the United States Military was on the uptick of the Vietnam War, where the tanker arguably found its calling. Launching out of bases in Thailand, the KC-135s flew ‘tanker tracks’ over South Vietnam, enabling aircraft like the F-4 Phantom and F-105 Thunderchief to strike targets in North Vietnam and provide Close Air Support to troops in contact with the Viet Cong. A hose-and-drogue fitting for the KC-135’s refuelling boom allowed it to also refuel United States Navy aircraft operating from aircraft carriers off the Vietnamese coast. Not only could the KC-135 allow aircraft to remain on-station and extend their range, but it also helped battle-damaged aircraft that were leaking fuel to make it back to friendly bases.

That massive fleet of more than 800 aircraft would prove useful time and again. During Operation Nickel Glass in 1973, KC-135s refuelled C-5A Galaxy transports that were loaded with tanks and ammunition to resupply the Israelis during the Yom Kippur War. It also helped ferry F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks that were transferred to the Israelis from US stocks). The KC-135 was critical to this ‘air bridge’ – the only country between the United States and Israel that permitted the resupply aircraft to land was Portugal, and while that made for a convenient ‘half-way’ point for landing aircraft, the distances and payloads still necessitated tankers to refuel aircraft making the journey across the Atlantic and Mediterranean.

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In case you had any trouble appreciating the size difference between a KC-135 and a C-5 (USAF)

One of the outcomes of the USAF’s experience during Vietnam and Operation Nickel Glass was the requirement for a bigger tanker than the KC-135, and in 1977, the USAF chose the DC-10 airliner as the basis of its new KC-10 Extender refueller, with 60 aircraft introduced between 1980 and 1988. Since then, both the KC-10 and the KC-135 have provided fuel for operations in the Middle East and consistently since 1990, as well as during Coalition efforts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. Regional basing is critical to the USAF conducting global operations, but the exercise would be for nought without refuelling tankers.

Serious attempts to replace the USAF’s KC-135s have been protracted over the past 15 years, with sufficient drama to warrant its own Netflix series. A decision was made in 2011 to acquire a derivative of the Boeing 767 called the KC-46A, with 179 airframes being acquired initially. That will only replace part of the approximately 400-strong fleet of KC-135s which remains in USAF service. Whilst one-for-one replacement for the KC-135 with the KC-46A is unlikely, the USAF will still need to conduct additional tanker acquisition programs (or extend its KC-46A fleet) until all KC-135s can be retired. In the meantime, the KC-135 is expected to keep flying until at least 2040. The last KC-135 crew has yet to be born.

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On the left, refuelling F-100 Super Sabres; on the right, the F-35A. God knows what will be on the end of the boom in 20 years. (USAF)

Last week, after the KC-135 pilot told me about the explanation for the ‘Tanker Toad’, I asked him what it was like flying something that had been a consistent part of American air power for over sixty years. He explained that the KC-135 was a generational aircraft – a grandfather, father, son or daughter could each all have flown the aircraft, and their kids probably will too.

Whilst I was Googling for ‘Tanker Toad’, I stumbled on one such example of the Brink family, for whom two generations had flown on the KC-135, with a third generation applying to follow.  The Grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Brink, joked “around our house, passing gas is a family tradition”.

 

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