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Shaping New Zealand’s airlift force for the next 40 years

Line of Defence, Autumn 2017

A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130H lands on the ice in Antarctica. Courtesy RNZAF.A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130H lands on the ice in Antarctica. Courtesy RNZAF.


Dr Robert C. Owen, Professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, offers his thoughts on the airlift options available to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). He argues that the Air Force has basically two broad options for modernising its fleet.


As the title of this thought piece implies, New Zealand is on the cusp of a force structure decision that will shape the capabilities of its airlift eet for decades to come. This is a profoundly important decision, since the transport aircraft chosen for the RNZAF will shape its ability to support the nation’s military, diplomatic, international engagement, regional leadership, domestic and international disaster relief, and scientific endeavors.

Air mobility force planning involves a calculus of many elements, including strategic constraints, budgetary priorities, expected operational roles, and risks. Strategic constraints—when where, and how New Zealand expects to employ its airlift forces—will shape their desirable scales and composition. Budgetary priorities will boundary the possible makeups of those forces.

Categories of expected operational roles include the airlift of military air and ground combat forces, logistical transportation of people and “piece” cargos, VIP transport, and medical evacuation. Risk assessments begin with visualisations of likely enemy threats, but also include such operational risks as limitations in available airfield infrastructures and the possibility that future requirements will exceed future capabilities.

The RNZAF’s ongoing effort to develop an affordable plan to recapitalise its airlift fleet involves interplay of all of these mission and operational considerations.

New Zealand’s global commitments place a heavy burden on its small fleet of two Boeing 757s and five early-series C-130Hs. Both sets of aircraft are operating at the limits of their service lives, are expensive to maintain, and suffering reliability problems.


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Typically, the Boeing 757s support long-range routine and VIP personnel and piece-cargo movements, while the C-130s move piece cargos and larger items of military equipment and vehicles up to the 19-tonne New Zealand Light Armored Vehicle (NZLAV). RNZAF C-130s also operate into short and unpaved airfields in combat zones and small Pacific islands.

Given these considerations, the range of aircraft available and suitable to replace the RNZAF’s C-130s is actually quite narrow. New Zealand defence analysts have already discussed this issue in depth, so it is useful here only to provide a summary from, perhaps, and outside perspective:


The Airlift Options

The Chinese Xian Y-20 and Antonov AN-70 appear to be suitable and relatively low cost alternatives, but their origins from states with governmental systems and foreign policies inimical to those of New Zealand make these aircraft politically and logistically unsuitable for the RNZAF.

Japan’s Kawasaki C2 is also not a suitable choice. It is the most expensive aircraft available, with a basic (aircraft- only) pricetag of around USD 170 million. The plane also is not designed for operations on short and unpaved runways, and Japan’s limited production plans for the aircraft raises questions about long-term logistical support.

Buying more Lockheed C-130Js is an obvious choice for New Zealand, given its derivation from the C-130Hs already in the inventory. The plane has transoceanic range, but its 350-knot (650 kph) cruise speed makes it the slowest, as well as the smallest, option on the table.

With a basic pricetag of around USD 69 million, the “J-model” is the least expensive replacement option available, per aircraft, though not necessarily per mission accomplished. A point of concern is that the Herc offers no expansion space to accommodate up-armored versions of the NZLAV or any larger protected repower vehicles or equipment items that the Army or civil agencies may need to move in the future. 


Dr Robert C. OwenDr Robert C. Owen


Several in New Zealand have commented favorably on the Embraer KC-390. Essentially, it is a jet- powered equivalent to the C-130, with similar cargo deck dimensions and payload capacity. Its distinguishing characteristics in relation to the C-130 are a 470 knot (870 kph) cruise speed, slightly better range-payload characteristics between developed runways, and somewhat inferior tactical airfield performance. The KC-390’s basic cost is about USD 85 million. 

Finally, the Airbus A400M is a broadly-capable modernisation alternative. Its cargo compartment dimensions and range/payload specifications are significantly greater than those of the C-130J and KC- 390, but the plane remains capable of operating into and out of virtually any tactical airfield useable by the smaller planes. Its cruise speed of 410 knots (760 kph) also makes it a reasonably quick transoceanic carrier. 

The plane also can transport the NH-90 helicoper and can carry a NZLAV for 3,700 miles, compared to 1,700 nm for a C-130J and 2,100 miles for the KC-390. A reasonable estimate of the A400M’s basic pricetag would be around USD 150 million. 

Based on these considerations, data, and its strategic interests, New Zealand probably has two broad options for modernizing its fleet. Political forces and non-public military assessments might drive variations in the numbers of aircraft involved with these options, but their basic outlines aren’t likely to change. 


Option 1

Replace the current fleet of Boeing 757s with newer-but-still used medium- weight airliners, and acquire five C-130Js or KC-390s to replace the RNZAF’s C-130Hs. The choice between the C-130J and KC-390 likely will hinge on the tradeoff between the tactical airfield capabilities and logistical familiarity of the “Herc,” and the higher speed and better range/payload performance of the KC-390. 

As an estimate, the basic costs of two used Boeing 767s (USD 60 million each) and 5 C-130Js (USD 69 million each) would be about USD 505 million, while the Boeing 767/KC-390 (USD 85 million each) option would cost about USD 585 million. 


An Airbus A400M performs a dirt airstrip take off.An Airbus A400M performs a dirt airstrip take off.


Option 2

Replace the current fleet with two new but smaller airliners, such as Boeing 737s or Airbus A320s, and three A400Ms. With reduced loads of around 100 passengers, the smaller airliners would have ranges of around 4,000 nm; comfortably transoceanic but at much lower operational costs than those of a mid-sized jet. The three A400Ms would increase New Zealand’s long-range lift capacity, while providing substantial expansion capacity to handle future developments. 

The basic cost of this fleet option would be around USD 190 million for the two small airliners and USD 450 million for the three A400Ms, for a total of around USD 640 million. 

Each of these options offer different mixes of institutional and operational advantages and risks. 


Option 1 minimises institutional and operational risk by sticking with the essentials of the current set up, with the possible variation of bringing in a jet, the KC-390, as the core airlifter. But, Option 1 offers little improvement over current capabilities, no expansion space to handle unforseen increases in the sizes and weights of New Zealand’s combat or engineering vehicles, and will require more aircrews and support personnel to operate. 

Option 2 gives the RNZAF a new capability to move present and future ground combat units, military and disaster-response engineer vehicles, and other loads over transoceanic distances while retaining the current fleet’s operational flexibility to deliver them at or near the places where they will be needed. As an offset of its initial cost, Option 2 would substantially reduce the crews, support personnel, and logistical support required to support New Zealand’s airlift program for decades to come. 

The main implications of this discussion should be that airlift force structuring is complex and vital to the strategic interests of New Zealand, and that there are conceptual rules and relationships available to ease the challenge of working out the necessary plans. If sensibly applied in the context of its specific military, political, and financial realities, New Zealand likely will come up with a fleet mix that optimally meets its current and future military and civil challenges.


Dr Robert C. Owen is Professor of Aeronautical Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, USA. During his distinguished career in the United States Air Force he clocked 3,200+ flying hours in C-130 and T-37, 38, and 41 aircraft.


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