C-change in the Middle East
Major improvements to two Gulf nations' air transport capability are on the way, with both opting for packages of Boeing C-17 Globemaster IIIs and Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules. Alan Dron reports.
At a stroke, the purchases of C-17s and C-130Js by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates give both countries an airlift capacity that many larger air arms would envy.
Boeing is hopeful that the Qatari and Emirati orders for the C-17 will open the door to other customers
Traditionally, Gulf nations have paid more attention to front-line combat aircraft rather than transport assets. The obvious exception is Saudi Arabia, whose large land area and relative lack of surface infrastructure made the purchase in the 1960s and 70s of large numbers of C-130s a logical choice. It still operates more than 40 C-130s in various roles, including air-to-air refuelling.
Apart from Saudi, only the UAE has shown much previous interest in building up a transport force. It already has a fleet of five C-130Hs and a single civilianised L100 example. Additionally, it has a light transport element of seven CN-235M-100s. In 2006 the country reportedly ordered five Antonov AN-32 light transports, which have excellent ‘hot-and-high’ characteristics and would be particularly suitable for the 40°+C summer temperatures that prevail in the Gulf, but little has been heard of this to date.
It also gave an indication of its ambitions with its 2008 purchase of three Airbus A330MRTT (Multi-Role Transport Tankers), which will greatly extend the range of UAE Air Force aircraft through air-to-air refuelling.
The Qatar Emiri Air Force, in contrast, had no transport capability at all before its purchase of C-17s and C-130Js, apart from those passenger aircraft in its Amiri Flight.
Both Qatar and the UAE have specifically stated their intention to use their C-17s for humanitarian missions. Qatar has previously used a US Air Force C-17 to transport a complete mobile hospital to help survivors of the severe 2005 earthquake that struck northwest Pakistan. Indeed, there have been reports that the difficulties encountered in moving relief supplies to the scene of that disaster spurred the emirate to look at developing a transport capability that could get into small, rough airstrips close to the scene of any future crisis.
Thrust reversers give the C-17 the ability to get into short airfields with limited support infrastructure
The UAE has been a regular participant in United Nations peacekeeping missions over the past two decades, with units dispatched to Somalia, Kosovo, Lebanon and Afghanistan. “The UAE has a large military that do a lot of things in a lot of places,” said Tommy Dunehew, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems’ international C-17 programme manager. “These aircraft give their military the ability to be anywhere in the world in 24 hours, with the cargo they require.”
Both nations “are really looking to give something back to the world community”, said Dunehew. “That’s genuinely their desire, although they will also use the aircraft for their own sovereign use.”
Dunehew said the sale of C-17s to the two Gulf nations did not come out of the blue: “We’ve been looking at this market for 10 years.” Both countries will receive the same C-17 configuration as that supplied to the US Air Force: “Every couple of years, the US Air Force does upgrades, so both countries will get the latest and best aircraft on the production line.”
He admits that Qatar was initially looking at other types to fulfil its transport needs. Like most people, the Qataris perceived the C-17 as “a big, expensive aircraft”. Boeing was able to demonstrate, he says, that two C-17s could the job of, for example, four Airbus A400Ms and that the fewer aircraft required would more than offset any difference in unit costs. Other benefits included flying at commercial aircraft altitudes, at airways speeds.
Dunehew said he passed on the phone numbers of his contacts among other air forces that operate C-17s – Australia, Canada and the UK – and suggested: “Call these customers” so the Qataris could get their opinions of the aircraft.
Asked if the Qatari and Emirati purchases foreshadowed the emergence of a joint transport force among the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council Dunehew said that while he does not doubt the two new members of the C-17 club will make the aircraft available to their GCC partners if requested, no formal GCC pooling arrangement is in operation.
That may change. Dunehew’s colleague Jeff Johnson said that Boeing is currently talking “to virtually the entire GCC, who are all very interested after the Qatar and UAE orders”.
Johnson, vice-president business development for the Middle East, said the US military presence in the Arabian Gulf means that Arab nations can also see the benefits of commonality in operating the same transport equipment as the US. “Clearly, that helps us.” The aircraft’s long range, which gives it the capability of flying non-stop to Europe or large swathes of Asia, is also a factor.
Boeing has previously listed Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia as potential customers for the C-17. Saudi is perhaps the most obvious candidate, with its large fleet of ageing C-130s.
Saudi Arabia already operates earlier C-130 variants
Traditionally, the problem small nations meet when fielding large, sophisticated aircraft such as the C-17 has been maintaining them once they are operational, said Alastair Campbell, head of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute’s satellite office in Qatar.
“My assumption is that they will have some sort of deal with the Americans at Al Udeid air base [in Qatar] to service and maintain them as part of their rent. That would sort out that problem.”
Campbell said Qatar is keen to step on to the world stage and be seen as a player of significance. Using the C-17s for humanitarian efforts in the event of natural disasters around the world achieves that aim in a way that does not tread on anyone’s toes, he says. The same can be said of UN missions. Qatar’s armed forces, while small, are professional and keen to take part in more peacekeeping operations in future.
While Qatar and the UAE’s purchases of C-17s have tended to steal the limelight, Lockheed Martin is quietly delighted with its success in selling C-130Js to both and believes more orders will be forthcoming from the region.
Jim Grant, Lockheed Martin’s vice-president, air mobility, notes that the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency notified Congress last July of a possible foreign military sale of six C-130J-30s worth around $1.5 billion and that “most Middle East countries fly some version of the C-130.
“Our belief is that the majority of these will modernise to the C-130J, to take advantage of its increased benefits of propulsion, range and overall capability.”
Saudi Arabia, for example, “has a long, successful history with the C-130 and we would clearly expect that they would modernise their Hercules fleet with some Js and operate a mixed fleet for some years. They have some very old aircraft: that said, they’re in very good condition.”
The C-17’s ability to get into unimproved airfields makes it potentially crucial to getting relief supplies to the scene of natural disasters. Both Qatar and the UAE have highlighted this use for their aircraft
While not referring specifically to the C-130Js latest customers’ uses for the aircraft, he acknowledged “we’re seeing a greater participation in humanitarian flights around the world. Nations really like to do that and they get a lot of respect from the international community when they do so.”
There is also a growing general appreciation of the flexibility bestowed by airlift capability across a wide range of civil and military tasks, he says.
As a new C-130 customer, Qatar will receive a full support package of ground support, training and spares. The UAE, whose existing C-130s “have been maintained extremely well but are getting on a bit” will receive an integrated logistics package that will include a ‘weapon systems trainer’ – effectively a Level D simulator. “You go straight from the simulator to a check flight,” explained Grant.
The fate of the UAE’s existing C-130E/H and L100 fleet will not be decided until the C-130Js are in place, he added.
Boeing has always formally declined to reveal contract numbers, but two Qatari C-17s are expected to be delivered in August. In April, senior Qatari officials were reported as saying two options would be firmed up by the end of 2009.
The UAE’s decision to buy four C-17s and 12 C-130Js was announced at Abu Dhabi’s IDEX defence exhibition in February – taking aback the manufacturers, as firm contracts had not yet been signed. Boeing said C-17 delivery dates have not yet been finalised for the UAE but the country wants them as soon as possible. Lockheed Martin anticipates deliveries of the UAE’s C-130Js will take place over a three-year period beginning in 2012.
The C-130Js for both nations will be the stretched-fuselage C-130J-30 variant.
Both C-17 and C-130J orders are direct commercial sales, although some support equipment is the subject of government-to-government agreements.
Many Middle East nations already fly the ubiquitous C-130 Hercules. Qatar will be the first nation to field the upgraded J version
The Qatari and Emirati C-17s will be able to take advantage of Boeing’s Global Support Programme, which allows C-17 operators access to a pool of spares available to the entire worldwide fleet of 200 plus aircraft. These economies of scale help keep spares prices down.
Training on the aircraft will initially take place in the US. Boeing is studying the possibility of undertaking training in the Middle East but nothing has yet been decided.
Commenting on Qatar’s purchase before news of the UAE’s order broke at IDEX, Andrew Brookes, aerospace analyst at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies, said there are probably two reasons for Doha’s decision to take the aircraft. While undoubtedly a highly capable aircraft – “If you want to move things fast, that’s the boy” – he believes that Qatar’s 2008 order, at a time when Boeing was struggling to find new orders to keep the C-17 production line running, was probably partly politically motivated. “I’m assuming it’s partly to help out Mr Boeing and doubtless it will have been highly appreciated in Washington DC and Long Beach.”
The C-17 Globemaster III is a high-wing, four-engine, T-tailed military-transport aircraft.
It has staked a claim to being one of the world’s most capable airlifters, boasting a combination of large payload, good range and ability to use relatively short, unprepared airstrips.
Its popularity can be demonstrated by the experience of the UK Royal Air Force, which began by leasing four C-17s from Boeing, eventually buying them outright and adding a further two. A major reason for this was that the aircraft were so in demand – both within the UK and with NATO allies, who repeatedly asked for the aircraft to help move outsize items of equipment – that they were operating at 300% of the use permitted by the terms of the operating lease.
Its origins can clearly be seen in the McDonnell Douglas YC-14, a contender for the US Air Force’s Advanced Medium STOL Transport (AMST) requirement of the 1970s. AMST was aimed at finding a replacement for the C-130 Hercules tactical transport. The YC-14 strongly resembled a smaller C-17, the main difference being the former’s unswept wing. In the event, the US Air Force decided to modernise its C-130s and the AMST project was shelved in 1979. Ironically, the C-X programme, aimed at finding a new strategic airlifter and which eventually resulted in the C-17, began almost immediately thereafter. The C-17 first flew in September 1991.
Despite its undoubted qualities, Boeing has until recently been scrabbling to find enough orders to keep its production line open. For some time, the US Air Force’s fleet was capped at 190 examples and export orders from Canada (4), Australia (4), UK (6), NATO (3) and Qatar (2), while very welcome, barely sufficed to keep the line ticking over.
However, February’s long-awaited US Air Force $2.95 billion order for an extra 15 examples takes the programme through to August 2010, with the UAE’s four aircraft further extending that.
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ proposals for the first defence budget of the Obama presidency signalled no further US Air Force C-17 orders, but this may change as the proposals wend their way through Congress. Additionally, the current major delays surrounding the rival Airbus A400M military transport may encourage prospective customers for the latter aircraft to switch allegiance to the C-17.