At the beginning of the year, Defense Minister Claudia Tanner (ÖVP) again announced an investment program for the armed forces in the coming years. Despite the enormous new national debt caused by the corona crisis, some parts of the army are to be modernized. So does the air transport squadron, which currently consists of three active Lockheed C-130 Hercules. These transport aircraft, which are now more than 50 years old, have been fundamentally overhauled in recent years, but their operational readiness will be terminated by 2030 at the latest.
In order to avoid decade-long emergency solutions and expensive rental contracts, for example with the Swedish Air Force, the Austrian government under Wolfgang Schüssel approved the procurement of three used Lockheed C-2001s from stocks of the Royal Air Force in 130. At a system price of around 40 million euros, largely financed by the sale of 160 tanks to Egypt, the three refurbished Hercules “Charlie Alpha”, “Charlie Bravo” and “Charlie Charlie” came to the air transport squadron of the 2004rd Air Regiment at the air base by 3 Vogel in Hörsching. In addition to the necessary spare parts and equipment to enable operation, the purchase package also included a long-term service contract with Marshall of Cambridge Aerospace, a proven expert in the maintenance and modernization of the Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Compared to the population, the remarkable procurement - after all, up to now they have been content with two small Skyvan shorts as transport aircraft - with a follow-up pursuit and for the personnel rotation of Austrian soldiers stationed abroad, for example in Kosovo or the Golan. The Hercules should also make it possible for Austrians to flee from any crisis areas, as became necessary in 2011 after the terrorist attacks in Egypt.
With the Hercules, the Armed Forces not only provide supply flights for the troop contingent in Kosovo, the spectrum of operations extends from dropping exercises for parachutists to transport flights to Africa and important MedEvac transports (Photo: Bundesheer)
In the past five years, the three Lockheed C-130K Hercules of the German Armed Forces were again extensively overhauled and modernized as agreed at Marshall of Cambridge in order to achieve the service life of around 25 years envisaged in the procurement. To this end, at the end of 2015, a fourth Hercules was purchased for a few hundred thousand euros from the holdings of the Royal Air Force as a spare parts donor, mainly for engines and wings. As part of this refurbishment, the aircraft not only received partially new avionics and cabling, the most noticeable change is probably the color change from so-called “RAF Dark Green BS241” to the now common NATO gray.
With the said announcement by Defense Minister Tanner that the successor procurement for the Hercules will start in good time so as not to commit the same mistakes as with the recently retired Saab 105Ö, public opinions also differ widely. While some generally criticize the procurement, often without knowing the actual range of services of the Hercules of the Armed Forces, others bring the European military transporter A400M from EADS-Airbus or the Brazilian Embraer C-390 Millennium into play.
If taken seriously, however, the working group convened by Tanner for the procurement of transport aircraft should soon come to the conclusion that the procurement of an Airbus A400M would exceed all funding and performance limits within the armed forces. For comparison, the acquisition of the Luxembourg armed forces within the framework of the NATO treaty for an A400M may be used, which is not even operated itself, but in cooperation with Belgian armed forces. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg invested around 200 million euros in the acquisition of this one copy, with a further 600 million euros to be budgeted for flight operations until 2054. Allocated to the Austrian needs, a purchase investment of around 1 billion euros would have to be expected, including the necessary expansion and conversion measures at the current location of the air transport unit in Hörsching. There is not enough hangar space there for the possible maintenance of an A400M. With the discrepancies between the Ministry of Defense and EADS regarding the rejection of the Eurofighters, the basis for the discussion should not be the best if one were actually to consider the A400M, which is probably oversized for the federal government.
With the Lockheed-Martin C-130J “Super Hercules”, Austria would be in the best company and continue to be tailor-made for all tasks, after all France and Germany have also adopted this type of transport aircraft, as the Airbus A400M is too big for many tactical missions and infrastructures (Photo: Lockheed-Martin Corp.)
Significantly lower acquisition costs would be expected for the Embraer C-390 Millennium - around 50 million euros - and the new development from Brazil would most closely match the capacity profile of the current Lockheed C-130K Hercules used by the armed forces. The switch to a more complex jet system is likely to be the biggest hurdle. Austria's partner country France already negotiated the purchase of 2009 C-10s as a dowry for a possible Rafale deal in 390, but ended the talks again. Only recently, however, Hungary signed a declaration of purchase for two copies to replace their old Antonov An-26. With the other transport aircraft available on the market such as the Airbus C-295 or the C-27J Spartan from Alenia, the capacity of the air transport component would be reduced.
As can already be seen from internal circles of the armed forces, the Hercules should again take on the role of favorite in the race for the replacement of the previous Lockheed C-130K Hercules. Although the current model variant of Lockheed-Martin, the C-130J “Super Hercules”, could still be bought as a new aircraft, it would be more realistic to purchase aircraft of these model variants from a correspondingly good second hand. By adding the A400M “Grizzly” to the fleet, the Royal Air Force will sell some of the Lockheed C-130Js over the next few years. With any procurement of this model variant, the necessary costs for a model change should also be kept within manageable and affordable limits, and Marshall of Cambridge would continue to be available to the armed forces as a maintenance partner. Such a purchase should probably also be easier to handle in the context of a government-to-government business than the procurement of new aircraft via a possible tendering process.
It will be exciting to see which manufacturer or which nation Defense Minister Tanner will get to know about the successor acquisition of the Hercules.