Defence Journalist Tony Hall sheds light on how indispensable military aircraft have become in emergency situations to dispense humanitarian relief…
The first international response to any humanitarian crisis today is the dispatch of transport aircraft carrying aid. Whether they are providing emergency medical supplies to the Ebola-stricken states of West Africa, or rescue equipment to typhoon-hit Philippine islands or parts of Japan or Haiti devastated by an earthquake, the sight of aircraft and emergency supplies at the scene of a disaster has come to be expected. In fact their absence during the early days of a crisis is now taken as the first sign that a relief effort is failing.
The need for resilience in the face of disaster has made transport aircraft an indispensable resource and in terms of their worldwide deployment a global commodity, one that nations both large and small have shown themselves more than willing to invest in. Despite obvious advantages in providing humanitarian relief primarily that investment is made for military purposes. As opposed to commercial freight carriers specialist military cargo aircraft, providing what is known as airlift, are designed to operate in areas of conflict making them well suited to successful operations in disaster zones: places of infrastructure breakdown, often in remote locations with an absence of working airports or even paved runways and a total lack of support services to help load and unload equipment and supplies. Most types are also capable of dropping cargo and personnel from the air by parachute from fuselage doors or rear ramps if landings prove completely impossible. Tests of the new Airbus DS A400M for example show that it can successful drop 24 tons of equipment at a single pass.
These are robust aircraft, developed and built specifically to fulfill vital missions in dangerous places, and although their utility is a selling point, the drawback is they don’t come cheap. At the smaller end of the market twin-engined turbo-prop types such as the C-27J Spartan, made by Italian company Alenia, and one of the world’s most widely used medium-sized airlifters, is capable of carrying around 10 tons up to 1,500 miles, and costs around $49m a plane. The bigger heavy-lift four-engined aircraft like Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III jet can transport 85 tons up to 5,000 miles, and is also able to refuel in-flight making its range practically unlimited. Each C-17 will set a customer back around $240m.
Manufacturers understand that costs cause difficulties for customers and work to mitigate them where they can. Boeing, Alenia and Airbus DS, all offer buyers in-service support contracts to supply full maintenance and overhaul facilities. They also work to ensure that their aircraft can be of maximum use by developing their humanitarian roles. The drawback to military aircraft is that they are essential to airlift troops, vehicles and materiel, but the task is not an everyday one. Give these planes other essential tasks to fulfil and it increases their value to a buyer.
Alenia for example now promotes its C-27J as a “multi-mission transport system” rather than as a military transport, emphasising that the aircraft can be quickly reconfigured to ‘civic’ roles such as medical evacuation, or even firefighting, by changing the types of pallet-mounted equipment it can roll into its fuselage over its rear ramp.
Alenia is not alone in promoting its aircraft like this. Lockheed Martin has introduced the C-130J-30 a new, longer ‘stretched’ variant of its C-130 Hercules that it says can carry over 40% more medical evacuation stretchers than older versions. Medical evacuation is also a capability of the A400M, which says Airbus DS comes readily equipped with 8 fitted stretchers but can also be reconfigured to carry 66 NATO standard stretchers and up to 22 medical personnel.
Highlighting the civic tasks transport aircraft can fulfil led in November 2014 to the arrival of a US Air Force C-17 to China’s biggest air show. Breaking the spirit, if not the letter of a US ban on demonstrating military technologies to China, the decision to send the aircraft explained a Pentagon spokesman was its role in delivering humanitarian help and disaster relief in a region that witnesses 70% of the world’s natural disasters.
Sending the aircraft was politically controversial, emphasising the point that versatile and useful or not military aircraft in emergency situations are being used in the civilian world for civilian purposes. Airbus recently acknowledged this reality. In developing the latest versions of its twin-engined C295 turbo-prop – a competitor to the C-27J – the company drew attention to the fact that the C295’s navigation and communications systems are fully compatible with standards used in civilian airspace. Solving an important issue that if an aircraft can’t fly to wherever it’s needed it’s of no use in an emergency.
While some manufacturers are taking their military aircraft and adapting them for civilian use, others are taking a different approach, developing aircraft that are adaptable and versatile enough to fulfill both military and civic roles at once. This is the strategy of Ukrainian company Antonov, best known for the An-124, the largest transport aircraft in the world. The An-124 has, as standard, cranes and winches built into its fuselage allowing the plane to be loaded and unloaded without assistance from equipment on the ground. It is an essential ability in delivering emergency aid, and are features that is also now seen in Alenia’s C-27J and the Airbus DS A400M.
The ability of transport aircraft to arrive when and where they are needed delivering rescue equipment and aid, and evacuating the injured, has raised expectations that these capabilities will simply always be available. It would be best for the future if it is remembered that our global ability to respond relies on a commercial market, and the manufacturers’ ability to sell these versatile aircraft to customers and make them affordable while they are doing it.