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Saudi light transport plans still in the dark

Posted 3 March 2020 · Add Comment

The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) plans for a new light transport aircraft are still very much up in the air. Jon Lake looks at the issues.

There are growing signs that Saudi Arabia may be reconsidering its commitments to the indigenously produced Taqnia An-132D light transport aircraft and may, instead, turn its attention to the larger Airbus A400M.
However, German sanctions, imposed in October 2018 after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, formalised in March 2019, and recently extended to March 2020, may prevent any near-term procurement. Germany makes components for other countries’ export contracts.
The re-capitalisation of Saudi Arabia’s transport aircraft fleet was originally thrown into disarray by the ending of Boeing C-17A Globemaster production. Although Saudi Arabia did not order the C-17A before the opportunity to do so disappeared, such an order had been planned, and the aircraft did feature in RSAF future planning documents.
Uncertainty surrounding the C-17A plan had a knock-on effect on the RSAF’s efforts to modernise its Hercules fleet. Though the RSAF (which has the largest C-130 fleet outside the United States) operated 52 C-130H/KC-130/L-100s (reduced from a peak strength of 65 aircraft), it requested only a possible sale of 20 C-130J-30 aircraft and five KC-130J air refuelling aircraft in 2012 and has, so far, ordered just two KC-130Js.
When the Antonov/Taqnia An-132 programme was launched in May 2015, many were surprised. The RSAF’s most pressing transport aircraft requirement was for a replacement for the Hercules, which carries a 20 tonne payload, and for a larger heavy-lift transport. Yet the An-132D, which is an improved and westernised version of the Antonov An-32, is designed to carry only a 10 tonne payload.
There were criticisms that the An-132D was being pursued for political and industrial reasons rather than to meet an urgent military requirement. With Taqnia and the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), driving the project, it promised to be the first major indigenous aircraft programme.
The acquisition of elements of Taqnia and KACST by Saudi Arabia Military Industries (SAMI) led to a suspension of the An-132D programme. SAMI CEO, Dr Andreas Schwer, explained: “The focus of the RSAF (and other local customers) has changed from a 10 tonne payload platform to higher capacity platforms.”
The An-132D prototype was rolled out on December 20 2016, and made its first flight on March 31 2017. But plans to build a Taqnia Aeronautics assembly line at Taif have been put on hold, and the An-132D’s future is uncertain.
In September 2013, Boeing announced that it was to end C-17 production, and Saudi Arabia was unable to place an order before the close-down of the Long Beach plant was made final. This may, in part, have been because Saudi Arabia favoured the unbuilt C-17B, which featured an extra centre-truck landing gear unit with self-deflating tyres to allow operation from soft and austere runways, as well as double-slotted flaps to allow shorter take offs and landings.
Boeing hoped that the C-17B would be ordered by the US Air Force, allowing the company to extend production. But, when no USAF order was forthcoming, the project was cancelled, and Saudi interest alone was insufficient to save the C-17B.
Boeing did build 13 extra initially unsold C-17As at the end of production, but this number was too small to meet the Saudi requirement, and other customers soon stepped in, further reducing the number available. The RSAF lost its chance to operate the C-17A, with its 77 tonne payload.
In recent years, the RSAF has reportedly turned to the Airbus A400M, which offers tactical capabilities similar to those of the C-130, with a significantly larger 37 tonne payload.
Delays and early development difficulties, including a propeller gear box issue, have now been overcome, and the performance of the A400M in service has been revelatory. The aircraft has demonstrated impressive soft/unprepared/unpaved runway capabilities, and can be quickly configured as a tanker.
The A400M carries up to 50.8 tonnes (111,600lb) of fuel in its wings and centre wing box, and two additional 5.7 tonne cargo hold tanks can also be installed.
The A400M has already demonstrated its ability to refuel tactical and other large aircraft. The type has now successfully completed its first helicopter air-to-air refuelling contacts and final certification of a helicopter air-to-air refuelling capability is expected in 2021.

 

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