Boeing Still Chasing African C-17 Sale

Boeing C-17
Boeing C-17

AFRIANGLOBE – The Boeing Company still views South Africa as a prime candidate to be the first African country to purchase its C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifter.

Described by Boeing as the most advanced military airlift aircraft in the world, Boeing has been actively marketing the C-17 to the South African Government and Air Force ever since the contract to purchase eight of the smaller European Airbus Military A400M transport and tanker aircraft was cancelled in November 2009.

With the retirement of the final Boeing 707 air-to-air refuelling (AAR) tankers in 2007, the south African Air Force has lost the capability to provide in-flight refuelling to extend the range of its Gripen fighter fleet. The A400M was meant to provide both airlift and AAR capability to the South African Air Force (SAAF).

It is no secret that the SAAF still requires new strategic transport aircraft to replace its current force of ageing Lockheed Martin C-130BZ Hercules, most of which have been in SAAF service for nearly 50 years.

Even before the A400M contract was cancelled, Boeing had been touting the C-17 to South Africa, as it was clear that various design and software issues were forcing Airbus Military into a series of first flight and production postponements.

The C-17 is a regular visitor to South Africa, as USAF examples provide logistic support to the American Embassy and Consulates in southern Africa. Boeing brought a C-17 operated by the NATO/Strategic Airlift Capability consortium to the Africa Aerospace and Defence (AAD) Exhibition held at AFB Ysterplaat in September 2010, where the aircraft put on an impressive flying display. A USAF example was also present at the recent AAD Exhibition held at AFB Waterkloof this past September, although it was only on static display.

Boeing used the delivery of the final of four C-17s to the Qatar Emiri Air Force at Long Beach, California, last week to discuss the suitability of the C-17 Globemaster III for South Africa.

Boeing Looking to Africa

In a telephone interview, Nigel Beresford (Director, Mobility, Surveillance & Engagement Business Development) said that a small C-17 fleet would be of tremendous value to South Africa.

Beresford said that “the C-17 gives you strategic capability, but with a tactical engagement at the end because we can generally get into the same kind of fields as the C-130 or A400, but with four to five times the amount of equipment on board.”

“The great value of the C-17 is its capacious nature, its ability to get into short fields like the C-130,” Beresford continued. “The down side, people say, is maybe it’s too big, it’s too expensive.”

The C-17 is just one of a handful of aircraft that has a hull large enough to fit an Oryx medium helicopter by just taking off the main rotor, i.e., without having to disassemble the main rotor gearbox.

As far back as April 2009, the then Chief of the South African Air Force, Lt Gen Carlo Gagiano, was quoted as saying that, apart from the A400M (and the new Ukrainian Antonov An-70 and older Il-76), “there is no other aircraft that can do it, except the American C-17 which is far too expensive.”

While the C-17 may provide great value due to its spacious hold, its tactical ability to get into short fields like the C-130 and its strategic long range, “it’s too expensive” seems to be a familiar reaction when Boeing initially proposes the large airlifter to potential clients.

Acknowledging that the initial acquisition cost of the C-17 is high, Beresford counters this by saying that when looking at like for like capability, the C-17 is better value for money than other options.

“With a fleet of four or eight aircraft, the operator will get the benefits of being involved with a 250-plus fleet support solution,” says Beresford. “This brings in the order of 10-to-1 savings over a conventional indigenous organic support solution.”

Beresford is referring to the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III Integrated Sustainment Program (GISP), a performance-based logistics programme. The GISP arrangement provides all C-17 customers access to an extensive support network for worldwide parts availability and economies of scale when purchasing materials. This lowers through-life cost of ownership.

A minimum number of spares are purchased upon initial acquisition of the fleet. These spares are then placed into a ‘virtual spares pool’, providing each operator with access to the total pool which is worldwide. All spares used are replaced immediately, meaning that additional spares are not required while waiting for the repairable part to be returned.

The optimal mix of aircraft for the SAAF has not been confirmed, but with the C-17 being larger than the A400M, a C-130J category aircraft may still be required. According to Boeing, international operators of the C-17, through their own requirements studies, have determined that a ratio of 3:1 (C-130/C-17 mix) is the optimal solution. Boeing believes that four C-17s would match the capability requirement of the eight cancelled A400Ms.

Given the costs, a major hurdle for Boeing is to convince the south African government of the value of having the larger C-17 in addition to the ubiquitous C-130 Hercules.

In its studies of capability requirements, Boeing found that the C-130 cannot perform 10% of the required missions, either due to range, payload weight or payload dimension limitations.

“The C-17 brings a unique capability,” Beresford said. “The 10%…can become a critical discriminator in military missions, certainly in humanitarian and disaster relief missions.”

With South African Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma now chairing the African Union (AU), there is also the possibility of South Africa taking the lead in establishing a Strategic Airlift Capability-type consortium involving AU nations. The aircraft would not be owned by a single nation, but by an AU-affiliated management company who will own and operate the fleet, with the consortium nations paying the management company for the number of hours they’re prepared to commit to on an annual basis.

Then-Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu earlier this year said that other African nations would still not be able to afford such an arrangement.

Beresford thinks that it is something worthy of more debate and would welcome an opportunity to present to the South African government on how the consortium works.

“The C-17 definitely fits South Africa (and) definitely fits the South Africa continent through the AU,” Beresford concluded. “Even if South Africa were just to take a small fleet, I think it would be tremendously valuable for the nation and also give the nation enormous kudos on the world stage (when a) South African flagged aircraft pitches up at a major disaster in the world, it buys a lot of goodwill.”