• An RAAF C-27J Spartan pilot conducts search and rescue operations from Guam during Exercise Cope North in February. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Charles T. Fultz)
    An RAAF C-27J Spartan pilot conducts search and rescue operations from Guam during Exercise Cope North in February. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Charles T. Fultz)

Exercise Cope North 2023 wrapped up in March with smaller tactical airlifters playing a critical enabling role. Centred on Anderson Air Force Base, Guam, units from four countries deployed across the region to practise dispersed operations. This year's iteration of the exercise went beyond humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR), placing more emphasis on training for Agile Combat Employment (ACE).

A range of combat and air mobility assets from the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) and United States Air Force (USAF) made up the bulk of the aircraft taking part in the exercise. They were joined by smaller contingents from the French Armée de l'Air et de l'Espace (FASF) and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) operating two kinds of tactical airlifters. RAAF participation in the exercise took the form of personnel from 35 Squadron as well as a C-27J Spartan aircraft. 

The C-27J was redefined as a “Light Tactical Fixed Wing Airlifter” in 2021 changing 35 Sqn’s focus to regional support and HADR missions. Despite Cope North 2023’s focus on combat operations, Group Captain Robert Graham, Exercise Lead for the RAAF, said that 35 Sqn was fully integrated across the “entire spectrum” of operations during the exercise. His USAF counterpart, Exercise Director Colonel Jared Pasley, highlighted some of the similarities between HADR and distributed combat operations like ACE. 

“Combat air forces and humanitarian forces both require a considerable [amount of] support: Think generators and fuels, even meals ready to eat and water. If you've got a typhoon that comes in and wipes out a runway or you get a kinetic strike that impacts the runway, the rapid airfield damage repair response is going to be pretty much the same. So, I think there's a lot of [overlap] between HADR and [the] combat Air Force's lines of focus.”

Flight Lieutenant Ben Calman, 35 Sqn Detachment Commander Cope North 2023, said that the C-27J and French CN-235 integrated well with concepts like ACE because of the flexibility inherent in their size. He also emphasised the C-27J's ‘low-drag’ and its ability to self-deploy with all the necessary equipment. 

“The C-27J in particular is a very self-supporting aircraft with what we refer to as low drag, so we can get up, get airborne and operate very quickly and very efficiently compared to the larger air mobility platforms,” he said. “We [35 Sqn] definitely found a niche on this exercise in particular for being able to rapidly transport people and cargo in a very efficient manner - and also [change] the nature of our tasking very quickly as well. An example being, in a matter of hours, moving from passenger and cargo movements, to real-world search and rescue to the real-world aeromedical evacuation incidents that occurred as well.”

COL Pasley, who is also the ACE Joint Integration Team Lead said that he valued smaller aircraft for ACE, as they give planners options for moving cargo and personnel more efficiently. In particular, he noted the C-27J utility for conducting aeromedical evacuations and connecting points within a hub and spoke logistics system. 

“I would much rather have a smaller option to more effectively and efficiently move the equipment. I really liked these smaller aircraft for aeromedical evacuation where you've got a small team with a small footprint that needs to go from point A to point B and you don't need a larger tactical airlifter,” he explained. “It was really awesome to see the French and the Australians come in and fill on those smaller moves, more agile moves, between a hub and spoke location.”

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