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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Now a Motion Picture – Entebbe on the Screen

Hijacking, Crisis, Rescue – the conventional reading of Flight 139 and the events at Entebbe follow a classic three act story structure that’s been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions.

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When the Israelis executed Operation Thunderbolt to rescue hostages from Entebbe Airport in July 1976, Western audiences were ripe for a news story with a happy ending. The memory of Vietnam and Watergate were still fresh. Cinema audiences were treated to The Omen and Taxi Driver in June 1976, with Carrie and  A Star Is Born still to come. Joyous summer blockbusters like Star Wars were still a year away. About the only major Western film of 1976 that carried any real sense of optimism was Rocky, and even then, Apollo Creed beats him at the end.

Naturally, when Israel rescued its hostages from Entebbe, there was cause for these events to be adapted into a movie. Western audiences now had a story set against the backdrop `of Middle Eastern conflict, and through the Israelis feel like they too had won a battle against terrorism – even if it was just that once. Within six months of the Raid on Entebbe, the story was retold through three separate movie productions – including one directed by Irvin Kirshner.

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Kirshner, pictured here riding a Tauntaun.

That’s right. The guy who directed The Empire Strikes Back made a direct-to-television movie adaptation of the raid titled Raid on Entebbe, although it was screened theatrically in some countries. And he wasn’t alone in this endeavour – at the same time, director Martin Chomsky was at the helm of Victory at Entebbe, also being produced for the smallscreen.

All the while, an Israeli-backed adaptation of the story – Mivtsa Yonatan (Operation Jonathan) – was also being produced.

Victory at Entebbe screened first, airring on ABC television in the United States on 13 December 1976 – just 162 days after the events on which it was based. Raid on Entebbe followed on 9 January 1977, (although it had a theatrical release in Denmark on 26 December 1976), and Mivtsa Yonatan on 27 January 1977.

For a handful of reasons that I’ll explore, these three films have not aged well over the past 40 years. You can watch Kirshner’s Raid on Entebbe and the Israeli Miytsa Yonatan are both available to watch on YouTube. Victory at Entebbe is more elusive, but can be purchased from Amazon. Sadly, I did not have a chance to view it.

Raid on Entebbe

If there’s one thing to take away from Raid on Entebbe, it’s Yaphet Kotto as Idi Amin. It’s worthwhile watching on YouTube just to see his perfomance.

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Don’t let the Bronson-heavy poster fool you

The movie follows a fairly linear profile of a hijacking movie, going through the motions of re-telling the story until it reaches Entebbe, when we meet Kotto’s Amin. He’s bizarre, bewildering, and terrifying – everything that you’d expect from reading about Amin in real life, and true to his action during the hostage crisis. Kotto’s Amin wanders through the terminal with a jovial candour, addressing the passengers as though they’re merely waiting on a delayed flight.

His tyrannical edge comes out occaisionally whilst speaking to the hostages, and in the negotiations between Israel and Amin (told with brief albeit accurate detail). Kotto’s role in this movie clearly has the most meat for an actor, as the remainder of the cast in Raid on Entebbe – including James Woods, Peter Finch, Charles Bronson, and Robert Loggia – are locked into playing their roles straight-faced and down the line.

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Kotto’s Amin addressing the hostages. Yes, Amin really did address the hostages at Entebbe whilst wearing a cowboy at.

Watching Raid on Entebbe, you can appreciate that Irvin Kirshner was definitely under the pump to get this movie out, as there’s very little done to dress this movie up outside of Amin and the raid at the end. Surprisingly, this hastiness in movie-making has its advantages, with a script that feels like it was taken from newspaper articles and memoirs released in the raid’s immediate aftermath, making it feel reasonably true to the events. The hastiness also means the movie looks like it was shot in spare offices available to the production, and is otherwise lacklustre in presentation – the studio lighting is absent, the editing at a minimum, and the cinematography dull. A lot of scenes feel like they were done in only one take. Add in the video-transfer, and it’s not held up well since its release.

Raid on Entebbe is a broadly accurate summary of what happened over the first two-thirds of the film up until the raid itself. Shot with the assistance of the United States miltiary, planespotters will easily spot out what aircraft do and don’t belong during the finale. Not only that, the hasty film-making means there’s no depth in the detail and staging of how the raid was executed. The audio track is a mix of screaming, gunfire and overly dramatic score that sounds like a soundtrack for exacting a confession from a detained prisoner. The audience is left with a loud, dark, and incomprehensible mess of a raid.

Worth Watching? For Yaphet Kotto, definitely. For a dramatisation of the hijacking and hostage crisis, yes. For the raid itself, watch a documentary or Mivtsa Yonatan.

Victory at Entebbe

This is the harder movie to review, considering I haven’t seen it.

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What I can say from looking at excepts of the movie online is:

As much as I want to feel like a completist in these reviews, I don’t know if I could bring myself to pay the $30 to get a copy of this on DVD.

Worth Watching? If I had $30 to spend at Amazon, I could still probably find other things I’d rather spend my money on – it just doesn’t look that good. If it was in a $10 bin, I’d consider it.

Mivtsa Yonatan

With Israeli Government backing, there’s not many places you can go wrong with accurately recreating the raid. To its credit, Mivtsa Yonatan is probably the strongest of the three Entebbe films. The movie’s poster alone is perhaps the most literal in its metaphors.

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There’s good use of real locations (except for Entebbe itself, of course), and all of the military hardware is true to what was used during the raid. I don’t know if the Mercedes Limousine featured in this film is the same one used during the raid, but several of the C-130 Hercules transports featured in Mivtsa Yonatan are.

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Accuracy doesn’t get much more…accurate.

Mivtsa Yonatan also looks much better than the other two films, shot on film instead of video, even going to the effort of lighting the night-time scenes properly so the viewer can understand what’s going on (as opposed to the ‘filmed in a cupboard’ appearance of Raid on Entebbe). The cast lacks any big-name actors, meaning they can get down to the task of re-telling the story in the Hebrew, English, Arabic and German. All of this means that when Mivtsa Yonatan reaches the rescue mission, everything is pretty coherent and accurate.

So, what’s not to like?

Well, the cast doesn’t really give much by way of stand out performances, and the Israeli backing does give you a very one-sided view of events. A handful of scenes depicting Arab military units are hilariously politically incorrect in a funny way. Apparently, they all get around in the same pattern of shemagh, and wear their sunglasses indoors.

And it does have some errors in accuracy – that’s definitely the interior of a single-aisle Boeing 707 substituting for a widebody Airbus A300. Why does that matter? Imagine a single-deck bus playing the role of a double-decker.

And the disco-era soundtrack in Mivtsa Yonatan has aged terribly. It’s bad enough when it’s playing over scenes of passengers boarding their Air France Flight. But when the Israeli Special Forces team rescue the hostages, you’ll be on your seat – not from suspense, but because the music is so jive.

Worth Watching? Actually yeah, for the combination of accuracy and to see 1970s Israeli film-making than anything else. Just don’t expect a terribly balanced view.

The Others

Entebbe has found its way onto the screen a number of times as part of a broader story.  In 1981’s The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, the Raid is featured as part of a montage where Amin is in bed with his mistresses (NSFW). I am legitimately not kidding.

Less salacious is 2006’s Last King of Scotland, which recounts a relationship between Amin and a fictional Scottish doctor (played by Forrest Whitakker and James McAvoy respectively), where the doctor uses the release of non-Israeli hostages at Entebbe as his means of escaping Uganda.

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Not for the faint-hearted.

There’s a host of documentaries about Entebbe, too, ranging from segments on hijacking and air safety serials through to feature-length stories that speak to the survivors of Entebbe and their relatives. After 40 years, there’s a fairly wide depth in our understanding of what happened during that week in 1976.

 

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Cohen on the Bridge – a documentary told with 2D and 3D animated recreations – is on my to-find/to-watch list. 

The Untold Story

Adapting the Entebbe story is a natural fit for the screen, as these stories have shown. At the risk of trivialising the events of Entebbe as entertainment, there’s still dimensions to this story that we haven’t seen. The background of the hijackers – not to mention the insight into Amin’s motivations – are all lacking from most adaptations and documentaries. I don’t believe they should be lionised, however I do think there’s an interesting story to be told.

The week in Entebbe illustrated some nuanced motivations and complicated relationships that would do well in a film. The German hijackers were desperate not to be seen as Nazis, and several hostages had survived the Holocaust. Most adaptations conclude with a ‘happily ever after’ as the raid returns to Israel, but there was still more tragedy and death to come in the days following the raid, with further reprisals in Uganda and Kenya in the months and years to follow. The story of the Entebbe Raid did not end with hostages walking off of C-130s at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.

The best compromise for a movie adaptation might be to mash-up the best elements of the existing films and documentaries, combining the Israeli military hardware used in Miytsa Yonatan with some of the performances from Raid on Entebbe, with documentary interview asides. Audiences can expect yet another film about Entebbe in the near future.

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Saul David’s written recount ohas been optioned by Working Title/Canal Studio for film adaptation, and has reportedly cast several roles. If the book is anything to go by – and I’ll review it in the next Entebbe Post – then it’s likely the film will tell much the same story of the existing movie adaptations, albeit with some fresh information. The benefit of making such a film 40 years after the fact is that the source material for has become considerably better. There’s still a risk in achieving accuracy, given this is now a period film, not to mention the artistic licencing being for the 21st Century audience – for example, a number of Israeli Special Forces in the assault wore blackface so as to confuse the Ugandans.

We’ve also got a different take on the issue of the Israeli/Palestinian relationship and Middle Eastern conflict, much less airline safety, power projection, and the sovereign rights of territory. Western cinema tends to treat terrorism with little-to-no nuance or depth, although there are noted exceptions (2005’s Syriana, for a start; 2008’s The Baader Meinhof Complex too, dealing with West German left-wing factions). As an audience, are we ready to see the Entebbe story told again?

We’ll find out in around 2018.

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The Entebbe Raid at 40

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the Raid on Entebbe, when Israel mounted a rescue mission to Uganda with four C-130 Hercules transports, helping to free more than 100 hostages.

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The audacity and success of this rescue was unmatched in its time, and since then has been imitated but never surpassed. Over the course of this week, I’ll be writing about these events including how the Israelis came to be able to execute the raid, and coverage of the raid on paper and on the screen.

The events that led to the raid began on 27 June 1976, when Air France Flight 139 – an Airbus A300 carrying 248 passengers and 12 crew – was travelling from Tel Aviv to Paris via a stopover in Athens. Shortly after its departure from Athens, two German and two Palestinian hijackers took over the aircraft, re-directing the crew to fly to Libya.

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An Air France A300 airliner as it would have appeared in 1976.

When the hijacking of Flight 139 occurred, there was seemingly little to differentiate it from those that preceded it (or indeed, several that followed after). The hijackers demanded the release of prisoners from Israel and a number of European countries. Having landed in Libya, the aircraft was refueled, a hostage was released (she had feigned a miscarriage), and the aircraft took off – this time, heading for Entebbe Airport, located on the shores of Lake Victoria in Uganda.

Entebbe is where the hijacking of Flight 139 begins to differentiate itself. Several previous hijackings led the aircraft to be flown to Middle East or Mediterranean states, resulting in extended and successful negotiations, or rescue raids against the aircraft. During a hijacking of a Sabena airliner in May 1972 by the Black September terrorist organization, the aircraft was flown to Tel Aviv, allowing Israel was able to mount a successful rescue of the hostages. Four years later, the hijackers of Flight 139 transported their hostages well outside of the West’s sphere of influence – much less the reach of Israel – in a well-calculated move.

Late on June 27, the Airbus touched down at Entebbe Airport, and the hostages were herded into the Airport’s Old Terminal building, where four more Palestinians joined the hijackers. Soon after, a new partner in the crisis arrived. To use his full title His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’ toured the hostages at the Entebbe with his entourage and cameras. Initially, Idi Amin presented himself as just as much the victim of the hijacking’s circumstance as the passengers, pleading for the West (and Israel in particular) to meet the demands for their release, and bring the crisis to a peaceful conclusion.

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Idi Amin, ruler of Uganda 1971-79.

Amin had once been close to Israel, trained with their military and embracing them when he came to power in a military coup in 1971. The following year however, the Israelis were expelled from Uganda. When the Air France A300 arrived in his country in 1976, Amin had seemingly embraced the hijacker’s cause, with his ego providing the motive. Through the crisis, Amin could present himself as a regional and global negotiator, and embarrass the West through its inability to act without him. In all conversations with the Israelis, Amin said he was helpless to act against the hijackers, despite it being clear that the crisis could not have without Amin being in some way complicit in the plan. He argued the only recourse for Israel would have to be to negotiate with him, making him a hero if all hostages were exchanged for prisoners peacefully. Much like the hijackers, Amin couldn’t conceivably think Israel would mount a rescue mission.

As the crisis played out, 148 hostages would be released to the West, leaving 107 – predominantly Jewish and Israeli passengers, along with the Air France crew – in the Entebbe Old Terminal building. There is a question that had the entire complement of hostages been retained, how Israel and the West would managed negotiations, let alone a rescue. A security perimeter of Ugandan troops had been established around the Old Terminal, also in a nearby Air Traffic Control tower. All the while, civilian airliners continued their scheduled flights through Entebbe around the clock.

Israel’s negotiations centred on Amin, rather than meeting the demands of the hijackers. This would ultimately feed information into their operational planning for a rescue mission. The initial Israeli response called for an Air Force Boeing 707 to be disguised as an Air France airliner, and seemingly conduct a handover of prisoners for hostages at Entebbe. The prisoners however would be a force of Sayeret Matkal (Israeli Special Forces) troops who would mount a rescue raid. Other plans involved the delivery of Sayeret Matkal troops into Lake Victoria, leaving them to swim ashore and mount a raid; and airdropping a force of about 1,000 paratroops into Entebbe, and taking over the airport.

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Entebbe Airport today. The Old Terminal is marked.

The rescue options were refined as the intelligence picture was grown, built on interviews with freed hostages, information from Israeli military leaders who knew Amin intimately (including through their negotiations with him by phone), pictures from spy flights by light aircraft flown out of Kenya, and the architectural designs of the airport. Construction of the Entebbe Old Terminal had been managed by Israeli firms who still owned the blueprints. Whilst the hijackers had believed flying the hostages to Idi Amin’s Uganda would make a rescue mission insurmountable, what they had really did was provide just the thinnest of threads for Israel to consider launching a raid.

By 2 July 1976, the Israelis had settled on a plan, and conducted mission rehearsals. At its heart would be four C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, whose availability to launch the mission came thanks in large part to the Arab-initiated 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1970, Israel had identified a need to acquire the C-130 for its Air Force, but a leisurely acquisition pace meant only two were in service in 1973. The Yom Kippur War illustrated just how essential the C-130 was to Israel as a logistical link to the frontline, and soon more than two dozen were acquired. By 1976, the size of the fleet and their combat experience meant the Israeli Air Force – in particular, its C-130 squadrons – had the confidence and maturity to launch a rescue raid.

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The crew of the lead C-130 used in the raid.

On 3 July 1976, the Israeli Government gave the go-ahead for a rescue raid, using four C-130s, joined by pair of Boeing 707s – one acting as a Command-and-Control (C2) aircraft, the other as an Aero-Medical Evacuation (AME) transport. The first Hercules landed at Entebbe shortly before midnight on July 3, and the assault was all over in 30 minutes. I’ll cover the detail of the raid in a following Post, but the four Hercules landed at Entebbe to deliver a force of Sayeret Matkal and Israeli Paratroopers. The hijackers were eliminated, a number of Ugandan troops killed, and a squadron of MiG fighters at Entebbe were destroyed. In return, four of hostages were killed during the assault and its wake, which also claimed the life of Lieutenant Colonel Yonatan Netanyahu, leading the raid on the ground.

The C-130s and the C2 Boeing 707 headed for Nairobi in Kenya, where they rendevouzed with the AME team on the Boeing 707 and also refueled their aircraft. As the rescue force returned to Israel at daybreak on July 4, a number of things had become apparent.

The way in which Israel had demonstrated the integration of Special Forces with air mobility platforms – coupled with airborne C2 and AME assets – wasn’t so much as ‘ahead of its time’ as it was pioneering. I’ll explore this theme in the next Post, but there’s little coincidence that both the United States and United Kingdom planned similar raids in the six years following Entebbe. For the German left-wing factions and Palestinians, they would use airline hijacking as a tool for negotiating the release of prisoners again in 1978.  Lufthansa Flight 181, bound from West Germany for Spain, was taken on an odyssey by the hijackers through Europe and the Middle East before it settled on Mogadishu, Somalia. While the hijackers seemingly hoped that they were beyond the reach of a German rescue effort, the Somali government permitted a German rescue team to launch a rescue mission that eliminated the hijackers.

For Amin, the events at Entebbe were an embarrassment, albeit one that saw him attempt to present the Israelis as the belligerents. In the weeks following the raid, several thousand Kenyans – living within Uganda or along the border – are believed to have been killed as a reprisal against Kenya’s complicit support to Israel. Whether you can place any guilt for their deaths at the feet of Israel is a good debate topic, however it is clear that Amin held little regard of the value of the lives of his own people, a fact that would see him deposed in 1979.

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The Ugandan response to the raid.

After four decades, the Raid on Entebbe still retains some valued lessons in how governments can respond to emerging crises, what the considerations are, and what their consequences may be.

*Edits to this post will be made as required, and any corrections of fact are welcomed.

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Is there a seat at this table?

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A letter from Australia to the European Union.

G’day Brussels,

We read in the news this week that you might soon find yourselves one country short. It sounds like a nasty business, Brexit, especially after all you’ve been through together. But from all accounts, Britain’s heart is not really in it any more, and they’re not even listening to common sense. Perhaps it’s best to let them call it quits.

In the meantime, we hope we’re not being too forward asking that if a spare seat at the EU table happens to become available, could Australia have a crack at it?

Yeah, we know what you’re thinking – what’s to gain from letting the Land Down Under join your club. You probably haven’t even heard that much from us since we had you over for the Olympics in 2000 (remember how great that was? Anyway). If any of you have been out our way, you’ll appreciate that we’re on the literal opposite side of the globe from you, which hardly makes us neighbours.

We’ll stick to the Southern Hemisphere, thanks. (SatireWire)

Well first of all, we’d like to remind you of our runner-up status in this year’s Eurovision. Remember when you rocked up there and thought “what the bloody hell is Australia doing in Eurovision”? And that was the second year we competed. And we nearly won it. Europe is ready to accept us. No one else appreciates your annual festival of power ballads and key changes quite like us. Even if you knock this request for EU membership on the head, we guarantee you’ll be seeing us in Kiev next year.

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In a couple of years, it’ll be like we were always there. (Wikipedia)

It’s more than just Eurovision though. You should see us during the Tour de France – a month whereby Australian workplace productivity takes a significant dive, thanks to nights of sleep deprivation. Did you know too, Melbourne’s Greek population is the largest outside of Athens (I think I read that somewhere). Thanks to our Italian immigrants, we know what constitutes a good espresso (amongst many other things). You see what we’re saying? We’re not just a former Brit colony – have a look and you’ll see no shortage of Dutch, Irish, and Maltese kicking around. With Britain leaving the EU, what better way to replace an English-speaking nation with one that feels a little more familiar? You’ll find that when it comes to Nonnas, we speak the same language as you.

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How do you say “No, thank you, I’m full”. (Pinterest)

There’s mutual benefits to having us on board the EU, mind you. There’s our mutual exchange program for backpackers, which means you’ll find grassroots-level support for an EU membership if it leads to an easier transit through borders. Nobody likes waiting to have their passport scanned after spending more than a day inside an Airbus (which, by the way, did you know we fly?). The line at Sydney Airport goes out the door sometimes. We reckon an Aussie membership to the EU will sort this out for us both.

What about our Asia-Pacific neighbours, we hear you ask? Well, ASEAN has missed its chance with us, and the Pacific Island Forum doesn’t mind us throwing our hat in your ring – hell, New Caledonia has a foot in both camps already. And, just quietly, we reckon the wider Asian region will be OK with it. For one thing, our island continent is staying right here, so all our shared trade and security interests remain as they were. We’re also the beneficiaries of decades of Asia-Pacific immigration, and that doesn’t look like it’ll be slowing anytime soon. It’s pretty bloody fantastic they’re here, because they’ll tie us to the region for generations to come. Australia becoming an EU state just makes us a gateway for the respective Asian and European markets. All win-win, mate.

The Commonwealth? Yeah, we know what you’re thinking, and we’re all over it. Our British ex-pats either moved here for the weather, or to escape so-called EU tyranny, so a Brexit should lead to a couple of them returning home grateful. For the rest of us, we figured out we don’t even have to give up our Governor General or Queen’s Birthday Long Weekend, either. Did you know one of our own is married to the future King of Denmark? Swap in his portrait at the RSL Halls, and replace the Union Jack with a Danish red-and-white cross on our flag, and I doubt most Aussies will notice the difference.

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They scrub up alright. (Denmark Government)

Whilst we’re talking, would it be worth our while adopting the Euro down the track? Don’t get us wrong, we love our Aussie Dollar, but it’s a pain in the arse to get a decent exchange on it at the Travelex, and it doesn’t stand up to much punishment. Chinese markets go down, the Aussie Dollar drops. The US Dollar rallies, the Aussie dollar drops. The same goes for the Aussie markets in general, really – a bit of economic insulation with the EU might even do us good. Yeah, yeah – we heard about the state of affairs with Greece, but if anyone’s going to have hard words with them, leave Germany out and send us in – we’ve got Greek relatives, after all. I don’t think too many Aussies will be bothered about the change in notes and coins, so long as you let us put our native animals on some of them. It’ll all be sweet.

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We’re about 90% sure the Platypus was a practical joke left here by the Dutch. (Australian Mint)

Don’t get to thinking this is all going to be one-way traffic from our end, mind. We’re not coming to the EU to just free load. Our relative isolation from Europe makes us your neutral go-to for arbitration between member states. Latvia and Estonia are having a tiff? We’ll sort them out – to be honest, we’re not really sure which is which, so you can’t accuse us of playing favourites. The EU is all about standardising things across Europe, and who better to do it than us?

A bit of regulation would do us some good, too. Your organisation cops a bit of criticism for micro-management, but truth be told, we could benefit from standardising some things between our own states. Four different major football codes, for starters. We can’t even keep north and south Tasmania on the same track some times. And do you think a country of 24 million has a common system of beer glasses between each state? It’s a joke, is what it is.

In closing, it’d be a bloody exciting opportunity for you to let us in, and transition the EU from strictly continental boundaries to become a more global power. We’re pretty enthusiastic about the potential of Australia if it had a chair at the EU. We could do with a little more publicity in the world. We don’t get much thoroughfare traffic out our way, you see.

Just whatever you do, don’t give that spare seat away to New Zealand, yeah? They might try and seduce you with their landscape finery and earthy good looks, but forget about them – you’ve already got a Norway.

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And don’t even give this bloke a look-in (CBC)

Sincerely,

Australia

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Review – Night Manager on the small screen

There’s more to this British-American TV series than being just a James Bond audition.  Sadly, there’s also much less than meets the eye.

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A television series heavily influenced by Dolce & Gabbana ads.

The Night Manager has all the ingredients we’ve come to expect from major television dramas. Co-produced between BBC and Showtime, the six-part series capitalises on international locations and its solid cast. The idea of adapting a John Le Carre novel, with Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander and Elizabeth Debicki should work.

The series survives first contact with the viewer, right from the opening title sequence. The credits play against a string of high society visuals – champagne, high tea, pearl necklaces and high speed boats – that morph into the modern tools of war.

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Seriously, go watch the title sequence. On repeat.

We’re introduced to Tom Hiddleston as the titular night manager of an upmarket hotel in Cairo during the Arab Spring of 2011. I’ve not read Le Carre’s source material, but despite it being released in 1993, the modernisation works decidedly in the adaptation’s favour.

It’s when the characters open their mouths, however, that The Night Manager falters. Episode One establishes the motivations for Hiddleston’s character as he sets out to infiltrate the world of illegal arms dealing. Once that’s in train, there’s precious little by way of character study or subtext in the script. You could watch this series with the volume turned down and it would still have the same emotional impact. Considering the amount of screentime a television series has to flesh these characters out, there’s often less than meets the eye in The Night Manager.

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Yeah, House, I said it

As each character literally speaks about what is happening in the plot at that time, we also miss a real opportunity to explore the modern arms trade business. The Night Manager plays in interesting space here, especially in how governments could be complicit in the approved transport of these arms, which speaks to a conspiracy that some arms dealers are are actively encouraged by western governments. When The Night Manager comes close to making a profound point on this subject, it falls frustratingly short.

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There are no trips to the showroom in The Night Manager.

The Night Manager is worth watching, but sadly, there’s little about this that will bring you back for a second viewing. I’ll gladly put the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on the TV for a Sunday afternoon re-watch, and probably catch something I missed in the first dozen viewings. But I could only imagine myself re-watching The Night Manager in the event that Hiddleston is cast as James Bond (or if the series director, Susanne Bier, gets the greenlight for the next film).

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We’re gonna need a new tailor.

Roger Moore had The Saint. Pierce Brosnan had Remington Steele.  Daniel Craig had Layer Cake. Is The Night Manager strong enough to hand Hiddleston and Bier the keys to the Aston Martin? No. But in the absence of stronger contenders, that’s not to say that they wont land the gig.

 

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Can I borrow a lift?

The Luftwaffe is reportedly seeking partners to help cover its tactical airlift gap.

A few months ago, I wrote about how Lockheed Martin might eventually crack a market for its C-130 Hercules that has remained elusive for 60 years – the German Air Force. The world’s most popular military airlifter might finally be wearing the an iron cross.

This week comes news that Germany may look to pool a fleet of Hercules with other local operators – specifically, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, and United States (which operates a squadron at Ramstein Air Force Base, 135km south of Frankfurt).

They come in grey, gray and grau (USAF)


It’s a bold move by Germany, which is reportedly unhappy with the tactical airlift performance of the Airbus Military A400M. The Luftwaffe is receiving 40 A400Ms to replace its C-160 Transall fleet, due for retirement in 2021. Despite the A400M offering a considerable increase in Germany’s strategic airlift capacity, it has reportedly left them cold when it comes to operating from smaller airstrips – something that tactical airlifters need to do as a matter of course.

Getting dirty, eventually (Airbus Group)

A pool arrangement for a limited fleet of Hercules might seem unusual, but is not without some precedent. Already, Germany is party to the European Air Transport Command, which combines airlift, air-to-air refuelling and aero-medical evacuation capacity between seven Air Forces. A number of countries in the EATC – France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium – already contribute their C-130 capacity. Austria, Portugal, Poland and Norway, which currently operate various marks of the C-130 (for now), are potential members.

Airlifters, assemble! (EATC)

Similarly, the NATO Heavy Airlift Wing operates a fleet of three C-17As from Hungary on behalf of selected NATO states (and Sweden). The aircraft carry Hungarian Air Force insignia but are crewed by an international workforce, with partner countries allocated a number of flying hours per year.
Not only are European air forces trending towards pooled aircraft arrangements, but they are adopting common practices in how they operate. The European Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Course (EATTC) brings European transport crews together to plan and conduct airlift missions under a set syllabus for each course, based on operational experience.

Planning for a rainy day (EATC)

So, there’s some precedent to follow for Germany if it has an operating concept for a pooled-fleet of C-130s. Better yet, France is introducing a fleet of four C-130Js, and Netherlands could be a potential customer to replace its C-130H-30s. The United States Air Force in Europe too is a relatively recent C-130J operator. If Germany were to purchase its own fleet – even a handful – of C-130Js, there would be a good case for a European-based Hercules training centre, not to mention local industrial base for maintenance and logistics support.

From this angle, you can’t even see the flag on the tail.  (USAF)
So, the sharing economy works for military airlift like it does for getting a lift with Uber, right? Not necessarily. A key issue for a pooled fleet however is how the aircraft are used. Good tactical airlift is often dynamic and responsive in nature, responding to the needs of frontline customers. The size and performance of a Hercules means it’s best applied as an intra-theatre airlift solution over a longer period, rather than a Fly-In/Fly-Out inter-theatre option like the C-17A. Germany is likely to want C-130Js operating outside of continental Europe, instead flying into austere airfields for peacekeeping operations in Africa or the Middle East.

Taking Uber as a example, it’s like booking a 4WD/SUV to drive you out to a remote campsite located up a goat track, and go back to that site over the course of a week whenever you need them. It’s not outside the bounds of possibility – but it’s not like getting a lift home from the pub. Whoever turns up, you want to be sure they’re up to the task.

Managing a strategic and tactical platforms can therefore be exclusive concepts. Current pool arrangements for strategic airlift or air-to-air refuelling aircraft work because an Air Force can book the flying hours in advance with a degree of predictability. Doing the same for a tactical airlift in a deployed environment however might mean keeping it there for weeks or months. If your partners aren’t co-deployed to that same theatre, then they’re missing out.

That leaves plenty for France, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States to consider if they are to entertain Germany’s reported offer of joining a pool fleet of C-130s. For all of the combined advantages, it will require consent from all parties to manage tasking, not to mention ensure the aircraft are ‘up to spec’ – whilst all Hercules might look the same, there can be a wealth of difference in the avionics and self-protection systems they are equipped with, which in turn can affect the theatres that they can fly in to.

It’s not all scenic flying for some. (USAF)


In the meanwhile, what of the A400M? There’s little doubt  Airbus Military is feverishly looking at options to get the A400M to perform more evenly against the C-130J (and Embraer’s KC-390) in the tactical space. Airbus Military can try to implement workarounds, compromises, or modifications that may allow the A400M to meet the needs of France and Germany more closely – otherwise, the aircraft risks losing out to the aircraft it was conceived to replace, the C-130. For countries seeking a strategic lifter (for example, carrying armoured vehicles or helicopters), the A400M is quite simply the only game in town, meaning Airbus Military will enjoy some export successes down the road. But for countries seeking an airlifter to support those same armoured vehicles or helicopters at the frontline, the A400M still isn’t up to task – at least, not yet.

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The New Normal

Bell/Boeing’s revolutionary V-22 Osprey has had very select prospects – until now.

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United States Marine Corps MV-22 Ospreys in the Northern Territory during Exercise Talisman Sabre 15 (Defence)

For the past ten years, Bell/Boeing have searched out additional orders for its tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey aircraft beyond the United States Air Force (USAF) and United States Marine Corps. News from Breaking Defense this week suggests that Air National Guard units are interested in purchasing the type as a Search and Rescue (SAR) platform – specifically, Alaska, Texas, and Pennsylvania. As with past announcements about potential V-22 sales, it’s best to wait until a firm commitment is made, and there’s good cause for skepticism here. As journalist Richard Whittle points out, Texas and Pennsylvania have quite an interest in the V-22 program – the aircraft is manufactured in Philadelphia (Boeing) and Forth Worth (Bell), after all. Prospective sales to the Alaska Air National Guard present a good operational case for the Osprey as a SAR platform, however. As the biggest and most remote state in these United States, Alaska has mountainous terrain and bad weather which prohibits the effective use of many helicopters in a SAR role. In spite of its expense, the Osprey just might have a good business case in America’s Last Frontier.

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A Marine MV-22 in Alaska (USMC)

More importantly for Bell/Boeing, selling the Osprey to an Air National Guard customer could help to ‘normalise’ a revolutionary aircraft. From its inception, the V-22 Osprey was intended to comprehensively change the way a military would routinely deploy or retrieve personnel, combining the best aspects of fixed- and rotary-wing transport. Instead, it became a very selective – and expensive – solution to specific airlift problems. Tilt-rotor technology inherent to the V-22 didn’t quite spawn an ecosystem of similarly-equipped aircraft in civilian and military use (The AW609 has met limited sales success; Bell’s V-280 Valor is an attempt by the manufacturer to built a tilt-rotor replacement for the UH-60 Blackhawk).

Rather than opt for the Osprey, most nations have opted to continue operating conventional fixed-wing Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) alternatives, or employ simpler rotary-wing aircraft (such as the CH-47 Chinook) that carry bigger payloads than an Osprey, albeit over shorter distances. Neither option combines the Osprey’s advantages of high-speed, long-range, and vertical take off. But at least they’re cheaper.

This means the Osprey’s customer-base has remained largely limited until last year, doing exceptional roles for those who could afford it. The USAF’s Special Operations Command uses them for Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), whilst the United States Marine Corps – which arguably fought hardest to get the Osprey – primarily employs it as just a medium-veritcal lift platform, although even this is subject to change. The USMC and Bell/Boeing have trialled the Osprey has an air-to-air refuelling tanker, and recently announced its intent to use as an ISR/Strike platform. For an aircraft brought on to just replace the CH-46 Sea Knight, the Osprey is growing its capability significantly.

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Adding yet another role to the mix (USMC)

Two important developments in the past year however have seen the Osprey’s customer-base grow. The first was the United States Navy’s announcement that it was ordering 44 Ospreys to replace its C-2A Greyhound Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) aircraft. Introducing the Osprey to the COD role will reduce the range at which a Fleet can be resupplied, given the Osprey’s shorter range compared to the Greyhound. But it will increase the options for vertical replenishment of surface ships; not to mention, allow carriers themselves to land forces ashore, such as during humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

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Osprey buzzing the tower (Bell/Boeing)

Another sales success has been Japan’s announcement that it would purchase its first five of an anticipated 17 Ospreys. Japan’s purchase is ostensibly to support humanitarian and disaster relief capabilities along with supporting amphibious operations. The aircraft has proven itself in this capacity during disaster relief operations in the Philippines and Japan itself, where it can be rapidly deployed within the immediate region and can be used to deliver aid flexibly. On amphibious operations, the Osprey will likely see day-to-day use in conjunction with Japan’s helicopter destroyers and landing ships, alongside aircraft like the CH-47 Chinook. Its performance here might inform other potential foreign customers about whether they really need to supplement their existing rotary-wing aircraft to support amphibious operations. The Osprey will allow these ships to remain further offshore, or project forces deeper inland – the question is, do amphibious forces necessarily need this capability, and can they afford it?

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Coming to a pile of unbuilt model kits near you. (Hasegawa)

 

 

Another avenue to future Osprey sales however might be in what has the Air National Guards of Alaska, Pennsylvania and Texas so interested – SAR and CSAR.

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A USAF CV-22 (USAF)

During airborne SAR and CSAR operations, timing is a critical factor for the responding force. Whomever is in need of rescue is often at risk to the elements or enemy forces. The Osprey is a natural fit here, given its speed and range advantages over a helicopter, and ability to operate independently of airfields to deliver a rescuing force. For CSAR operations, the USAF has equipped the CV-22 Osprey variant with a number of self-protection systems to allow it some measure of defence in a hostile environment. The limiting factor is the V-22’s rotor downwash, which prevents it from winching survivors from the water.That’s a pretty important requirement for conducting SAR and CSAR – think of all the times you’ve seen an emergency services helicopter winch people to safety.

 

Good CSAR is like insurance – you hope never to use it, but you need a good policy if the worst happens. In the case of most western Air Forces, that coverage comes courtesy of the USAF, which operates the most comprehensive CSAR capability in the world with a mixed fleet HC-130J Hercules, HH-60 Nighthawks, and CV-22 Ospreys. A few other Air Forces use modified EC725 Caracal or AW101 helicopters, which obviously don’t have the Ospreys performance; but are admittedly cheaper and can be more conventionally operated.

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Plus, Italy painted their’s black, so you know its good. (Leonardo Helicopters)

CSAR is a niche role, but one that has applications in conventional military and humanitarian operations when it’s not being applied directly. More militaries are envisaging a need for the role, rather than banking on the USAF as being their sole provider. The Australian 2016 Defence White Paper advised that the Army’s fleet of CH-47F Chinooks would be given an initial SAR and Aero-Medical Evacuation (AME) capability, and went on to raise the prospect of a long-range and high-speed being acquired under a AU$3 billion program. In Australia’s case, a CSAR capability would provide a useful contribution to Coalition air campaigns, akin to the RAAF’s deployment of Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, along with the KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport. A CSAR potentially be employed on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, or even to evacuate citizens from a foreign country.

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The cabin is still a tight squeeze (USMC)

Introducing that capability comes at a price, especially given the Osprey is not the only CSAR platform on offer. But there’s some precedent for being optimistic about the aircraft. Boeing’s C-17A Globemaster III experienced a similar shift from an arguably niche strategic airlift capability to wider-spread export prosperity during its lifetime. In the late 1990s, it was largely unthinkable that anyone aside from the USAF would operate the C-17A, largely due to its operating costs and the availability of civilian cargo alternatives. Delays with the European Future Large Aircraft program (which became the A400M) led the Royal Air Force (RAF) to lease a fleet of four C-17As in 2001. The subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, coupled with the C-17A’s evolving utility and reliability, led the RAF to purchase the aircraft outright, and order four more. By the time C-17A production finished in 2015, it had attracted seven more export customers. That might not be the same runaway export success of an aircraft like the C-130 Hercules, but to its credit, the C-17A ‘normalised’ the idea of an air force possessing its own strategic airlift capability for future generations. Once governments had a taste, they couldn’t bear to think of not having that option open to them. The current combat operations in the Middle East, coupled with humanitarian missions undoubtedly to come, might do the same for the V-22 Osprey just yet.

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A quick plug for Richard Whittle’s history of the Bell Tilt-Rotor and V-22 program, The Dream Machine, which I highly recommend (Simon and Schuster)

 

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