The Royal Australian Air Force has trialled a new aircrew role during a joint special operations support mission with the US Air Force.
Exercise Teak Action 2021 was held at RAAF Richmond west of Sydney between June 24 and July 2 and saw RAAF Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules airlifters from 37 Sqn flying with MC-130J ‘Commando II’ aircraft from the USAF’s 353rd Special Operations Group (SOG), based in Kadena, Japan.
The exercise involved RAAF and USAF crews operating together in a number of scenarios, including planning and executing missions from Richmond to drop zones and regional airfields across NSW, low-level formation flying by day and night and the establishment of a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP).
A further scenario practiced a joint medical evacuation rescue in conjunction with the RAAF’s No. 3 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Richmond.
“Exercise Teak Action 2021 provided exposure to, and increased understanding of, elements of advanced medium air mobility capability. The exercise demonstrated successful integration and enhanced interoperability through flying a variety of combat mission scenarios together, and conducting air-land and airdrop tasks,” a Defence spokesperson said.
Although the two squadrons have been exercising together since 2016, Teak Action 21 was the first to involve RAAF Combat Systems Operators (CSOs), as part of a trial being undertaken within 37 Sqn to add an additional flight crew member in the flight deck to assist with workload management during complex missions.
The RAAF C-130J-30 fleet has undergone a series of trials and upgrades in recent years to enhance Command and Control (C²) and situational awareness for both flight crews and passengers under the Plan Jericho banner. These upgrades include the addition of a Link 16 tactical data link, high-bandwidth satellite communications systems and the integration of a Litening targeting pod, which became available with the drawdown of the F/A-18A/B Hornet fleet.
However, Defence seemed quick to point out that the CSO trial was just an experiment. “At this stage there are no C-130J roles that require a Combat System Operator, and this concept is a trial only,” a Defence spokesperson said, in a brief written response to ADM’s questions.
Which naturally begs the question: if there are no roles which require a CSO, why is the trial being conducted? Unfortunately Defence declined requests for an interview on the subject and supplied brief statements to questions in lieu.
It may be worth noting that a C-130J-30 replacement is flagged in the 2020 Force Structure Plan, under an expanded $13.2 billion Medium Air Mobility Replacement program from around 2029. While the RAAF’s current Hercules fleet fulfills the medium airlift role, the shorter MC-130J variant is optimised with role-specific equipment to support US Special Forces, so are the CSO trials being used to inform expanded roles for a C-130J-30 replacement capability?
Again, Defence did not directly respond to ADM’s questions, but noted that both 37 Sqn and the 353rd SOG will further conduct joint operations in the Northern Territory this month as part of Exercise Talisman Sabre 2021.
“The MC-130J and C-130J-30 will largely be employed in a complementary manner on Talisman Sabre in similar mission types (to Teak Action 2021),” a Defence spokesperson said. “The differences between the two types will provide operational planners with flexible air mobility options, a strength that coalition partnerships bring to any operation.”