Wednesday, August 19, 2009

JASDF's airlift capabilities affected by C-X delays


Design glitches in the Air Self-Defense Force's long-awaited next-generation transport aircraft are throwing a monkey wrench in the Defense Ministry's troop and cargo transport plans, ministry officials say.

The development delays kept the new transport aircraft, codenamed the CX, grounded in summer 2007, when it was originally scheduled to take a trial flight. The delay also will affect plans to transport troops as planned from fiscal 2012, officials say. The ASDF has relied on the C-1 transport aircraft since 1973, but the jets' useful life will soon end. The Defense Ministry began development of a successor plane in fiscal 2001.

However, problems concerning fuselage strength have emerged in the prototypes, and there is no indication of when the first planes can actually begin flying. Because of the delays, ASDF officials will have to delay mothballing the C-1, which could hinder its long-term transport plans.

According to Defense Ministry officials, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., the main company in charge of developing the next-generation transport plane, was to have begun test flights of its prototype from the summer of 2007. The first and second prototypes were to have been delivered to the Defense Ministry by the end of March 2008 and midway through fiscal 2009, respectively. The plan was to tweak the design as the Defense Agency conducted test flights with the prototypes.

However, between May and July 2007, strength tests by the Defense Ministry's Technical Research and Development Institute uncovered structural problems. When load stress was applied to the prototype, part of the horizontal tail wing rose up from the fuselage. The main landing gear also bent and touched the fuselage. The problems led the Defense Ministry to postpone the inclusion of budget expenditures for production of fuselages, slated to begin from fiscal 2008.

A high-ranking ministry official said, "We are reviewing the entire design. There will likely be a major delay in the actual transport of ASDF members" using the new jet. Because the transport aircraft has a rear cargo door under the tail wing, the rear is slimmer than the front. That contrasts with the fuselage on commercial planes, which have a nearly uniform width. Ministry officials have also found that the strength defect is partly due to the prototype's flat roof, which was employed from a design standpoint.

A senior SDF official said, "The design of transport aircraft is more difficult because of the more complicated strength calculations in comparison to commercial jets. "At the root is an issue for the entire defense industry of not having technology passed down, since Japan has not domestically produced a transport plane for about 40 years since the C-1." With the plane's delay, a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said C-1 aircraft would remain in service for now. The JASDF has 26 C-1 planes.

To lengthen the C-1's shelf life, there is a need to gradually reduce the number of flying hours for those planes. One plan being considered is to have commercial planes or ground transportation take over some domestic transport tasks that would have been covered by the C-1. Another option is using one of the 16 C-130 transport planes that the ASDF possesses. The C-130s were used to transport troops and supplies for the multinational force in Iraq.

Now that that mission has ended, there are more C-130 aircraft available for use in Japan. However, a senior SDF official said, "We would lack transport planes should a new overseas transport mission come our way." The next-generation plane is being developed along with a successor to the P-3C patrol aircraft. Total development costs for the two planes is estimated at 340 billion yen.

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