Atlas shrugs

The A400M is arguably about to hit its stride as a strategic airlifter – but recent purchasing decisions by its customers demonstrate its tactical shortcomings.  

The closure of Boeing’s C-17A Globemaster III production line in California was a good day for Airbus’ A400M Atlas. In recent years, Boeing was able to make new sales to foreign markets with its C-17A, whilst Airbus effectively lost A400M sales to its existing customers (the ‘lost’ aircraft are still being paid for by their original purchasers, but need to find new end-users to be sold to). Never-the-less, demand for the C-17A wasn’t enough to keep the 20-odd-year production line ongoing, forcing its closure. Meanwhile, the A400M is emerging from a protracted and painful development, and is entering service in sufficient quantities with operators who will demonstrate what useful capability it can provide.

Better yet for Airbus, the A400M is effectively the only choice for Air Forces in the market for a strategic military airlifter. It’ll take 37 tonnes of cargo, or outsized loads like a Super Puma helicopter or armoured vehicles, and fly it across long distances in short space of time. If you’re an Air Force without a strategic airlift capability, your options are simple: get a friend with C-17As, rent an Antonov freighter, or buy a fleet of A400Ms. Anything less and you’re simply not getting the job done.

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Gary Larson might have been talking about strategic airlift when he penned this cartoon. (The Far Side)

But the A400M was never intended to be a one-role airlifter – from its outset, it was also intended to do the tactical work of the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules (and its European contemporary, the Transall C-160). The A400M is intended to airlift two-to-three times the payload of these legacy airlifters, and deliver greater performance in austere environments (Afghanistan remains a good example, where aircraft needed greater performance to take off from ‘hot-and-high’ airfields with useful payloads). This tactical aspect has figured heavily in Airbus’ marketing, as it competes primarily against the C-130J and the Embraer KC-390 (both of which are predominantly tactical airlifters). Airbus wishes to establish the A400M as not just the only strategic airlifter available to Air Forces, but also a tactical airlifter par excellence.

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What the A400M promises – strategic airlift in dirty environments. (Airbus)

It’s in this tactical capacity however that the A400M has stumbled, as recent purchasing decisions from its customers have shown.  The Royal Air Force had intended to retire its fleet of C-130J Hercules by 2022, but last year reneged on this plan, instead announcing it would retain several Hercules past this date – ostensibly for use in Special Forces transport roles. Its planned fleet of 25 A400Ms has been reduced to ‘at least 22’.

The French Air Force meanwhile had planned to replace its older C-130s and C-160s with a fleet of 70 A400Ms, but has slashed that figure to 50, and may go as low as 35-40 examples. The Armee de l’Aire however has also announced it will acquire four C-130Js – two of them equipped for air-to-air refuelling of helicopters. A big marketing point for the A400M was its ability to not only refuel fast jets, but helicopters, too. Last November, Airbus announced this role was not immediately possible with the aircraft, and would examine engineering solutions to make this possible. Air-to-air refuelling relies on fairly stable airflow for a receiver to ‘plug in’ to a drogue which is unreeled by the tanker aircraft, and some observers speculated the A400M’s massive turboprop engines created air that was too turbulent for a helicopter to make a safe connection.

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An A400M refuellign French Caracal helicopters – not quite the reality demonstrated here (Airbus)

For some Air Forces, refuelling helicopters is an important role for conducting Combat Search and Rescue missions, extending the range to which they can retrieve personnel from a battlespace. It’s a role that the C-130 has performed exceptionally since the mid-1960s in Vietnam, and continues to do so today.

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An MC-130 refuelling CH-53 helicopters. At this point it just feels like showing off. (USMC)

Another function of the C-130 (and also the C-160) that hasn’t found its way to the A400M is the ability to use both its paradoors to drop paratroops simultaneously. It sounds  like a relatively simple feat – two paratroops jumping from doors on opposite sides of the fuselage at the same time – until paratroops hit each other once they’re falling out of the aircraft. The A400M has yet to be cleared for this duty, meaning it takes twice as long a distance to deliver paratroops as a C-130 or C-160.

Following on from Britain and France’s decision to invest in the C-130J, Germany is now the latest A400M partner who is interested in the Hercules. Reuters reported this week that Germany has expressed an interest in buying up to 10 transport aircraft, with sources reporting the A400M to be too big (by dimensions and mass) for smaller runways the Luftwaffe wants to operate into.

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Much less desirable with an aircraft (NT Gov)

Airfield operability is perhaps one of the key performance criteria for a transport aircraft. Speed, range, and cargo capacity are all critical – but if you can’t operate from your available runways and taxiways because they’re too small, then you’re limited to operating between major airports. It’s no different from a courier buying a 4WD because it affords greater internal volume and the ability to cross rough terrain – but discovering it’s ill-suited for inner city car spaces or laneways where you might spend most of your time driving.

The decision to field both the A400M and the C-130J makes some amount of sense for the United Kingdom (which is a long-time Hercules operator) and even France (still possessing familiarity with the Hercules in its older C-130 models). The rumour that Germany may be interested in the C-130J however is quite remarkable – the Luftwaffe is the customer that Lockheed Martin hasn’t sold Hercules to in 62 years of building them, making it the world’s longest running military aircraft production line. Other C-160 operators such as France, Turkey and South Africa succumbed long ago to buying C-130s to supplement their airlift fleet. Germany co-built the C-160 with France in the early 1960s, and has patiently waited over the past 20 years for the A400M to come online. But despite Germany being a strong NATO partner, and the presence of USAFE C-130s in Germany for more than 50 years, the Luftwaffe remains the only western Air Force never to have operated the C-130.

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Even the Russians had a C-130 before Germany – kind 0f. (EON Productions)

So far, with the Luftwaffe in possession of three of its eventual 40 A400Ms, there’s likely no doubt it’s impressed with its strategic talents, offering transport capacity it’s not enjoyed before. Until now, Germany has had to rent freighters from Russia or the Ukraine, or lean on NATO allies, to carry large payloads abroad. But for an Air Force that will soon lose the C-160 from its air arm, the Luftwaffe can’t be blamed for wanting to also buy the C-130J, which would provide better consistency in tactical capability.

The decision by European air forces to invest in the C-130J might suggest a lack of faith in some aspects of the A400M’s tactical performance. But there is absolutely cause for the Airbus camp to remain optimistic. Drawing on history as an example, the C-17A entered service in the mid-90s, emerging into a black cloud not all that unlike what the A400M. Questions over its performance, and strong competition from Lockheed Martin (hoping to re-furbish old C-5 Galaxies) saw the C-17A faced with the prospect of only 40 aircraft being produced. Through its support of peacekeeping operations in the Former Yugoslavia, it was able to acquit itself as a capable and robust performer, with missions built to fit its unique talents. Subsequent improvements to its reliability, coupled with service in the Afghanistan and Iraq war, reinforced its place within the USAF. Export orders, and political expediency to keep the Long Beach plant open, further built on its success.

How does this example apply to the A400M? The next five years of operational service could potentially make-or-break the aircraft. In the hands of the RAF, Armee de l’Aire and Luftwaffe, there wont be any shortage of deployments showcasing the aircraft’s talents (indeed, France has heavily employed the type for its operations in Africa). Airbus has promised to apply engineering solutions that may yet see it be able to conduct air-to-air refuelling of helicopters and improved paratroop operations. One critical area the A400M needs to succeed in is the Asia Pacific market, where austere environments and long-range missions are a matter of daily requirement. The Asia Pacific region is home to a a significant legacy C-130 market that will need replacement in the next 10 years. Not insignificantly, 80 per cent of the world’s natural disasters occur in the Asia Pacific, which often require an effective and immediate airlift response. Even competing against the C-130J (and KC-390) in the airlift market, Airbus has sold A400Ms to Malaysia, and is confident that there are roles that its product can peform that others simply can not.

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There’s a lot riding on Malaysia with this aircraft. (Airbus)

Depending on what the customer’s requirements are, the A400M is the only game in town for strategic airlift. What is becoming apparent however is that switching entirely to an A400M fleet may risk losing the tactical capability that made the C-130 so successful in the first place. What’s more, the C-130 has 60 years of experience of branching into niche roles. Helicopter refuelling is only one example – the C-130 has been applied for use as an Airborne Command and Control post, Reconnaissance platform, Close Air Support provider, and countless other functions. Airbus either has yet to consider any of these roles on the A400M, or hasn’t presented customers with them as optional extras. With a strong tally of orders from the United States and other export customers (Saudi Arabia receives the first two of 30 examples this week), the C-130’s production can be assured to at least the late 2020s. Given that no guaranteed plan exists for a Hercules replacement within the United States (though there’s interesting work being done), this production is likely to continue more than 70 years. When it comes time for Lockheed Martin to build this replacement, it will have to consider whether to keep the physical dimensions and performance in line with past C-130 models, or do what Airbus did with the A400M – change the recipe, and see what comes out.

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About eamonh

Air Mobility enthusiast and Star Wars fancier. All writings my own opinions and not those of my employers or associates.
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