Airlift and Special Operations Fixed-Wing Aircraft

Issues Details: 
Vol 10 Issue 1 March - April 2016
Page No.: 
Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)
Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Large scale mobility and rapid response are the hall-marks of strategic airlift.Since WW II, special operations aircraft have been another important component for any Air Force. Airlift and Special operations aircraft are being designed for short readiness-time, undetected-penetration, greater self-protection, and capability to land at short unprepared-surfaces. Typically these aircraft have wide/tall fuselage cross-section, a high-wing to allow the cargo area to sit near the ground, a large number of wheels to allow it to land at unprepared surfaces, and a high-mounted tail to allow cargo to be driven directly into and off the aircraft. Such aircraft generally feature one or more large doors for loading cargo.

The Airlift Missions

Typical military airlift mission entails movement of troops, weapons and other hardware for military operations to inter-theatre distances often in active war zones. It could be a physical landing at an airstrip with minimal facilities and aids, or a drop behind enemy lines. These aircraft could also be used as platforms for Airborne Early Warning and Control, and for aerial refuelling. Air-ambulance has both peace-time and operational roles. WW II saw some major airlifts. More famous of which included, ‘the Hump’ airlift from 1942 to 1945 when USAF airlifted 500,000 tons of materials from India to China. The ‘Berlin airlift’ in 1948-49 was to support ‘Allied’ part of Berlin. The airlift to Punch and Srinagar in J&K in 1948 permitted India to secure J&K. The evacuation of Indians from Kuwait in 1991 and Yemen in 2015, the airlift to safety after Nepal Earthquake, or of Kashmiris after snow storms and floods, are examples of airlift operations.

Major Transport and Cargo Aircraft

Boeing and Lockheed of USA, Antonov and Ilyushin from Soviet Union (now Russia/Ukraine) and Airbus of France have dominated transport aircraft manufacture. AVIC of China and Embraer of Brazil are also growing in a big way. The 600 ton max-take-off-weight Antonov An-225 Mriya is the world’s largest transport aircraft that can carry 225 ton payload. Antonov An-124 ‘Ruslan’ the next bigger can carry 160 tons. These huge aircraft require, strengthened flooring, large cargo doors and big wheel trolley. Cockpits of these aircraft are designed high up to prevent the pilots getting crushed in case of accident. The fuselage interiors have to cater to typical loads including battle tanks. Lockheed C-5 Galaxy with 122 ton payload is the nearest US competitor to the Russian biggies. McDonnell Douglas KC 10 Extender carries 77 tons. Other big aircraft are the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and 747-8F freighter. The recent entrants Airbus A 330 MRTT (45 ton) first flew 2007, and Airbus A 400 M (37 ton) first flew in 2009. Airbus has also been considering having a Cargo variant of A380. China’s Y-20 (66 ton payload) flew for the first time in January 2013.While the C-130, A440M and IL-76 class can be termed as tactical airlift aircraft, C-5, C-17, and Y-20 are termed as strategic airlifters.    The current aerial tankers are the Airbus A400M and A310/330 MRTT, KC-130 Hercules, KC-10 Extender, KC-135 Stratotanker, and the Russian IL-78.

Special Op Missions

During the late 1960s, USAF flew a six hour low level night mission from Thailand to para drop sensor pallets in Gansu province to monitor Chinese nuclear tests at Lop Nor. In the Indo-Pak wars, Pakistan used C-130 and India An-12 and An-32 for bombing missions.  During the Falklands war of 1982, Argentine Air Force C-130s daily undertook dangerous re-supply night flights to supply the Argentine garrison in the islands. C-130s also dropped the world’s largest bomb BLU-82 “Daisy Cutter” during the Gulf war. Since 2004, the Pakistan Air Force has employed C-130s in the North West using FLIR sensor to enable tracking the militants.

The Israeli Air Force hostage-rescue mission to extricate Israeli citizens from Entebbe airport in Uganda on 04 July 1976 employed four C-130 Hercules aircraft carrying Commandos. Forward looking infrared systems, night vision capability, all-weather weapon aiming sights, self-protection systems to defend from aerial/ground fired weapons are key to special operations aircraft. All major Air Forces of the world have special operations aircraft and Armies have special operations troops. USA, because of global commitments, has a Special Operations Command, since 1990, which handles missions ranging from precision application of firepower, infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply and refuelling of special force’s operational elements. USA mostly employs Hercules C-130 variants and CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor among others for Special Ops. Some of the other special missions include Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), airbase ground defence, air interdiction, special reconnaissance, psychological operations, radar assault/bursting etc. The Special Services Group (SSG) is the main special operations force of Pakistan Army. They have ten battalions. Indian Army has Para Special Forces since 1966. India has among the larger special operations forces in the world. The army has eight (expanding to ten) Special Forces (SF) battalions. Indian Navy’s Marcos were created in 1988 and IAF’s Garud Commando Force in 2004 to undertake service specific missions.

Aircraft for Special Missions

The C-130 Hercules Special operations aircraft family has the longest continuous production run of any military aircraft in history of over 50 years. Fifteen nations now have 300 of the latest variant, the C-130Js.

In Kosovo, USAF used C-17 for half of the strategic airlift missions due to its capability to use small airfields, and rapid turnaround times. The C-17 has also been used to deliver military cargo and aid during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom.On 26 March 2003, 15 USAF C-17s participated in the night-time airdrop of 1,000 paratroopers over Bashur, Iraq. C-17s also ferried M1 Abrams, M2 Bradleys, M113s and artillery.

The Bell-Boeing MV-22 Tilt-Rotor had its first offensive combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2009 in Operation Cobra’s Anger. Ospreys assisted in inserting 1,000 Marines and 150 Afghan troops into the Now Zad Valley in southern Afghanistan.

On 2 May 2011, following Operation Neptune’s Spear, MV-22 was used to fly the body of Osama bin Laden to aircraft carrier Carl Vinson for his sea burial.

Russian Tu-214 R is a special mission aircraft with ELINT, SIGINT and COMINT loads and has a side looking synthetic aperture radar.

IL 76 is the main aircraft for Russian airborne troops. Special Forces were used extensively during the Soviet war in Afghanistan including storming of the palace and killing of President Hafizullah Amin and his guards.

Pakistan Air Forcehas 18 C-130s since 1960s and four CASA CN-235 medium lift tactical aircraft. Four Saab 2000 Erieye are used for AEW&C role. More recently, four Chinese Shaanxi ZDK-03 AEW&C aircraft have been inducted.

China’s indigenous Y-20 ‘large’ transport aircraft first flew in January 2013. Y-20 reportedly weighs around 200 tons and carries 66 tons. It currently uses D-30 engines borrowed from the Russian IL 76s operated by them. China has begun developing a turbofan engine specifically for large transports.

The Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey is an American multi-mission, military, tilt rotor aircraft with both vertical take-off and landing (VTOL), and short take-off and landing (STOL) capability. It joined USAF in 2009 and has already seen deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Libya. They are also contenders as tactical refuellers for US Navy. With capability to carry up to 32 troops or 9.0 ton cargo, makes it a good special operations aircraft. Israel, Japan and UAE are serious customers.

IAF’s Capabilities

IAF had inducted two squadrons of the four-engine turbo-prop Soviet An-12 (10 ton payload) aircraft in 1961 which were later phased out. IAF then became the launch customer for the medium transport, 6.7 ton payload An-32 aircraft. Starting 1984, a total of 125 were bought. Currently in inventory, nearly 100 aircraft have been upgraded. One squadron of these has bombing and special mission roles.

On 04 Jun 1987, five An-32s escorted by four Mirage 2000s undertook food supply drop mission “Poomalai” over Jaffna peninsula. Induction of IL-76 in mid-1980s for the first time brought strategic lift capability in the sub-continent.

IAF today has 17 IL-76MD (freighter), seven IL-78MKI (Air Refuellers), and five ‘A-50’ with Israeli Phalcon radar as AWACs. IL-76s are being used to logistically sustain the Indian Army in the Northern Himalayas and for inter theatre air transportation.

IAF purchased six C-130 J-30s in early 2008 at a reported contract value of US$1.2 billion for its special operations forces. It had option to buy six more aircraft. The Lockheed Martin C-130J “Super” Hercules is a four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft. The C-130J is a comprehensive update of the earlier variant, with new engines, flight deck, digital avionics (including head-up displays for each pilot), has reduced crew requirements, and 41% shorter take off distance. The first C-130J was delivered to the IAF in December 2010.The typical C-130J payload of 33 tons include three armoured personnel carriers, five pallets, 74 stretchers, 92 equipped combat troops or 64 para troops. The aircraft has an electro-optical missile warning system, a radar warning receiver, and countermeasures system dispensing chaff and infra-red flares or GEN-X active expendable decoys. IAF set a new world record for C-130 J by landing it at Daulat Beg Oldie at an altitude of 16,700 feet near Karakoram pass. C-130s have been playing a big role in disaster management in the Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods among others.

In June 2011, a $5.8 Billion deal was finalised by the IAF to purchase 10 Boeing C-17 Globemaster III from USA. The C-17 roles include tactical airlift, medical evacuation and airdrop duties. The Indian military required augmentation to quickly lift larger troops and greater tonnage across western and eastern theatre, especially in a two-theatre war. C-17 lifts 77.5 ton vis-à-vis the IL-76′s 47 ton. IAF is likely to buy six more and would thus become the second largest operator. The Aircraft is regularly flying the aircraft to high altitude airfields like Leh and Thoise and has test flown an infantry battalion to Port Blair. The foreign deployments included Tajikistan and Rwanda to support Indian peacekeepers. C-17s were also used during Yemen evacuation and for transporting relief materials during Cyclone Phailin. With capability to transport modern battle tanks; IAF could use these to fly Indian Army’s Armour to Ladakh.

The Unfolding Future

The twin-engine Multirole transport aircraft (MTA) is being developed by Russian United Aircraft Corporation and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). This 20-ton load carrying aircraft (100 passengers) is to replace the smaller An-32. The first flight is likely to be 2017 and aircraft is expected to enter service by end of this decade.

India is soon likely to procure 15 Japanese amphibious aircraft ‘US-2’. It will be the first ever Japanese sale of military equipment after WW II. The Shin Maywa Industries developed amphibious flying boat has a short take-off (280 m) and landing (330 m) performance over water, and could land at high sea states as also operate on land from runways as small as 1.3 km long.

India is in one of the most threatened regions, and with serious boundary disputes with the two nuclear armed neighbours. With Pakistan being the epi-centre of terrorism, special operations would remain the key to India’s defence. India is rightly building its Special Forces and air transportation capability.

The ‘Make in India’ priority of the government has already resulted in HS-748 replacement being offered for Indian private sector. With gradual increase in FDI, foreign aircraft majors are expected to move to establish manufacturing in India. Major manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing are already exploring the options. In the not so far future India should have its Special Forces Command. Special Ops aircraft are a capability that India’s Armed Forces would need to necessarily possess to give themselves a defining advantage.

Military Affairs