Modern Day

Kawasaki C-2 – Japan’s Answer to Modern Airlift Needs

The Kawasaki C-2 military airlifter is one of the best medium/heavy strategic airlift aircraft available in the world today and the result of a uniquely Japanese procurement project.

While not able to carry as much freight as the C-17 Globemaster or the even larger C-5M Galaxy, the C-2 can airlift a useful load and carry it higher, faster and out to a comparable range with most other military cargo aircraft.

The C-2 was ordered to replace the Kawasaki C-1 cargo aircraft which had been in service with the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) since the early 1970s.

The C-1 itself was an innovative and unique Japanese design, and the first major attempt by the JASDF to modernise its airlift capacity, while the C-2 program drew much inspiration from the earlier aircraft.

The C-2. Photo credit - Hunini CC BY-SA 4.0.
The C-2. Photo credit – Hunini CC BY-SA 4.0.


Design and Development

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the Japanese nation was forbidden any military forces until the 1950s, when the Cold War intensified and the US allowed the formation of the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) as a counterweight to growing regional tensions.

Almost from this date, the Japanese government decided on a strict policy of self-reliance in procuring military equipment.

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Enabled in part by the rapidly growing Japanese manufacturing base, the JSDF commenced to design and fabricate most of their military equipment requirements from local sources including warships, armoured vehicles and aircraft.

From its formation, the JASDF had employed US-surplus C-46 Curtiss Commando prop-driven cargo aircraft in the military airlift role.

Japan was given surplus C-46 Commandos.
Japan was given surplus C-46 Commandos.

By the 1960s these aircraft were in urgent need of replacement, and the Kawasaki C-1 was designed and manufactured to replace the C-46.

The C-1 was a workmanlike design and an impressive accomplishment as an indigenous project, but was limited by a total load capacity of 8,000 kilograms (18,000 lbs) and the restrictive dimensions of the cargo hold, and was supplemented in JASDF service with the C-130 Hercules.

In May 2001 the Ministry Of Defence issued a proposal for a new design of a military airlift aircraft to enter service with the JASDF, and this program became known as the C-X project.

The program managers evaluated foreign designs for military airlifters such as the C-17 Globemaster, the Airbus A400M and the C-130J Hercules but decided that none of these aircraft had the unique combination of capabilities needed by the JSDF.

Accordingly, a domestic alternative was sought by the project leaders, and in December 2001 Kawasaki was selected to design and manufacture a new indigenous airlifter to be accepted into Japanese service.

The C-1 was built to replace the C-46. Photo credit - Toshiro Aoki CC BY-SA 2.0.
The C-1 was built to replace the C-46. Photo credit – Toshiro Aoki CC BY-SA 2.0.

Kawasaki decided to develop the new airlifter in conjunction with its P-X anti-submarine aircraft project, and the two airframes shared many fuselage sections and other components in each separate manufacturing process.

This had the effect of lowering the final developmental costs of both projects, and the savings are best represented by the fact that the P-X proposal ended up costing roughly a third of the US-made P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft in design costs.

In 2003 the C-X design was formalised, with some strict operating parameters: the ability to carry four times the cargo of the C-1 and twice that of the C-130, a very high cruise speed and service ceiling, and the ability to land/take-off from runways as short as 500 metres.

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With the confirmation of the final design at this time the ministry gave approval for Kawasaki to start manufacturing prototype airframes.

The initial roll-out of the first prototype aircraft was planned for 2007, but some delays were experienced because of issues with some US-supplied rivets.

Additional problems were discovered in some locally made components as well, and the project became subject to a formal one-year delay as some funds were diverted to an urgent upgrade of JASDF F-15J fighter aircraft.

The first flight of the C-2 occurred in January 2010, but further problems continued to dog the project, including cracking in some fuselage structures and undercarriage components, and these problems were reportedly very difficult to overcome.

The prototype XC-2. The early aircraft had some severe issues. Photo credit - Richard Vandervord CC BY-SA 4.0.
The prototype XC-2. The early aircraft had some severe issues. Photo credit – Richard Vandervord CC BY-SA 4.0.

A further delay occurred in 2014 when the rear cargo ramp/door failed pressurisation tests and needed extensive re-design work. However, all these obstacles were eventually overcome, and in 2017 the Ministry of Defence stated that all developmental work had been fully completed.

The C-2 formally entered service with the JASDF in 2016, and 22 examples are eventually planned to be procured for Japanese use.

Kawasaki has implemented plans for a civilian version for both local employment and export and has reportedly attracted much interest from air freight cargo companies around the world.

Such is the enthusiasm for a civilian variant of the C-2 that Kawasaki projects that up to 100 airframes may be manufactured for civilian cargo use in the 2020-30 decade.

Kawasaki and the JASDF have also collaborated on an Electronic Warfare (EW) version of the airlifter airframe, and one of the first cargo prototypes was modified into the RC-2 variant in February 2018. The type formally entered service with the JASDF in October 2020.

The RC-2 electronic warfare aircraft. Photo credit - 防衛省 CC BY 4.0.
The RC-2 electronic warfare aircraft. Photo credit – 防衛省 CC BY 4.0.

The C-2

The C-2 has a minimum crewing requirement of three; 2 pilots and a loadmaster, but this can be increased as necessary.

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The height of the C-2 is 14.2 metres (46 feet 7 inches). It has a length of 43.9 metres (144 feet) as well as a wingspan of 44.4 metres (145 feet 8 inches).

Empty, the airframe tips the scales at 69,000 kilograms (152,119 pounds) and the Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) is an impressive 141,400 kilograms (311,734 pounds).

The Kawasaki C-2 is fitted with two General Electric CF6-80C2K1F high-bypass turbofans, each of which can generate 59,740 pounds of thrust. This gives the C-2 a top speed of 920 km/h (570 mph), and a very high cruise speed of 890 km/h (550 mph).

A close of the massive engines. Photo credit - Hunini CC BY-SA 4.0.
A close of the massive engines. Photo credit – Hunini CC BY-SA 4.0.

The service ceiling of the C-2 is an impressive 13,100 metres (43,000 feet).

The C-2 can carry a maximum payload of 37.6 tons, though in practice lighter loads are carried on long-range missions.

The C-2 can carry eight military-standard cargo pallets, a single UH-60 helicopter, a Patriot missile battery or a single JGSDF Manoeuver Combat Vehicle (MCV) along with the vehicle crew and support elements.

Procurement and Service Record

The Kawasaki C-2 has one major advantage over nearly every other military airlifter in service today: its incredibly high cruising speed and service ceiling.

This enables the C-2 to fly on international air routes without any restrictions, and as most other military cargo aircraft cannot accomplish this feat Air Traffic Control (ATC) normally direct that they have to operate at a lower altitude, with the concurrent increase in fuel consumption.

The C-2 and the original prototype.
The C-2 and the first prototype.

The C-17 was expressly disqualified from entry into the C-X program as a result of its lower cruising speed, despite its larger cargo capacity.

While the C-2 is incapable of transporting a Main Battle Tank (MBT) this is not considered a major problem by the JASDF. Most Japanese tanks are retained in the country for national defence tasking, and the wheeled MCV with its 105 mm gun and high mobility can be carried by the C-2 in the event that deployed Japanese forces need armoured support and reinforcement.

As a member of the current Western alliance, Japan would have access to allied heavy airlifters to supplement JASDF aircraft, and transport outsized loads such as MBTs and other heavy armoured vehicles.

In November 2017 a C-2 undertook a supply mission for the first time to the JSDF base in Djibouti, which is Japan’s only permanent overseas base and used to help combat piratical activity off the Horn of Africa.

In response to an American request, the JASDF deployed a C-2 in August 2021 to help evacuate foreign nationals and Afghan refugees from the Kabul airport during the ISIS take-over of Afghanistan. To date 15 of the planned 22 airframes have entered service with the JASDF.

An airdrop demonstration by the C-2. Photo credit - Hunini CC BY-SA 4.0.
An airdrop demonstration. Photo credit – Hunini CC BY-SA 4.0.

The Kawasaki C-2 has been offered to other nations for airlift duties, but to date, no foreign sales have been recorded.

The platform was offered to the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) as a possible replacement for the C-130H in RNZAF service, but the C-130J-30 was selected instead by the New Zealand Government.

Export orders have been possibly stymied because of two factors; the Japanese restrictions on exporting defence equipment have only recently been revised, and the platform does have a high unit cost.

In March 2023 Kawasaki made a formal undertaking to reduce production costs of the aircraft, which has been the subject of much concern from potential customers and the Ministry of Defence.


The Japanese determination to design and manufacture equipment for the JSDF has proved to be a success on many occasions and ensures that Japanese forces are equipped with cutting-edge weapon systems of very high quality.

As well as warships, armoured fighting vehicles and combat aircraft, Japan has shown itself capable of manufacturing excellent combat support systems as well, and the C-2 is a prominent example of this superb national design innovation.

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The Kawasaki C-2 ensures that the JASDF and the Japanese government are able to support national forces locally and on foreign deployments, and also provide heavy cargo transhipment at both home and abroad.

As the platform is in the infancy of its service career, we can expect to see the C-2 flying in the skies for many decades to come.

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  • Crew: 3: 2 pilots and 1 loadmaster
  • Capacity: 32 t limited to +2.5g  ; 36 t limited to +2.25g ; maximum payload 37.6 t
    • Field Operation System or
    • Truck Crane or
    • 8 463L Pallets or
    • 1 UH-60JA helicopter or
    • 1 Maneuver Combat Vehicle wheeled tank destroyer
  • Length: 43.9 m (144 ft 0 in)
  • Wingspan: 44.4 m (145 ft 8 in)
  • Height: 14.2 m (46 ft 7 in)
  • Empty weight: 69,000 kg (152,119 lb)
  • Max takeoff weight: 141,400 kg (311,734 lb)
  • Powerplant: 2 × General Electric CF6-80C2K1F turbofan engines, 265.7 kN (59,740 lbf) thrust each
  • Maximum speed: 920 km/h (570 mph, 500 kn)
  • Range: 7,600 km (4,700 mi, 4,100 nmi) with 20 t (20 long tons; 22 short tons) payload
  • Service ceiling: 13,100 m (43,000 ft)