Tactical airlift is a military term for the airborne transportation of supplies and equipment within a theatre of operations (in contrast to strategic airlift). Aircraft which perform this role are referred to as tactical airlifters. These are typically turboprop aircraft, and feature short landing and take-off distances and low-pressure tyres allowing operations from small or poorly-prepared airstrips. While they lack the speed and range of strategic airlifters (which are typically jet-powered), these capabilities are invaluable within war zones.
Tactical airlift aircraft are highly manoeuvrable allowing low-altitude flight to avoid detection by radar and air-drop supplies. A Hercules has the same speed and rate-of-turn performance as a Second World War Spitfire. They are fitted with defensive aids systems to protect them from attack by surface-to-air missiles.
Examples of tactical airlifters include:
Note: The Airbus Military A400M, a tactical airlifter, does however blur the line between tactical and strategic transports. Airbus stresses its tactical performance but also its strategic capabilites; higher payload, higher range and higher speed than the Hercules. The table below demonstrates this status, the A-400 occupying a "middle ground" between the C-130 and the C-17. It is of course inferior to the C-17 Globemaster III in terms of strategic performance, but boasts improved tactical characteristics.
Relative performance vs. C-17 strategic airlifter
||Max. (unladen) range
||Max. (cruise) speed
||44,090 lb (20,000 kg)
||3,075 nm (5,700 km)
||41,790 lb (18,955 kg)
||2,835 nm (5,254 km)
||65,000 lb (29,484 kg)
||4,100 nm (7,598 km)
||170,900 lb (77,520 kg)
||4,700 nm (8,710 km)