Indonesia has indicated a strong interest in buying the A400M Atlas. That’s good news for the TNI-AU. It’s great news for Airbus.
This week, Indonesia’s Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said his country was interested in buying a “small number” of Airbus Defence & Space A400M Atlas transports for the Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia – Angkatan Udara, or TNI-AU). No further detail was given on when the purchase would be confirmed, much less the total number of aircraft or their expected delivery.
Pessimists will take the announcement at face value until an aircraft has actually been delivered. In past, Indonesia has made similar claims about a number of aircraft types it has intended to purchase, but not followed through with an order. Despite big acquisition plans there is often limited follow-through.
Indonesia also has a number of existing acquisitions it needs to fund – like extra Sukhoi fighter-bombers, and attack helicopters, for example. The Minister’s words may yet come to fruition. Airbus has some close ties with Indonesia, having partnered on licensed construction of the C212, CN235, and C295 transports. An export order of a handful of A400Ms – albeit manufactured in Europe – would be a natural progression of this relationship.
Bringing the A400M to TNI-AU service would represent a boon for both Indonesia and for Airbus alike. For Indonesia, it would represent a marked increase in the country’s strategic and tactical airlift capability. Indonesia is a country of 258-million people, and is the world’s largest island archipelago nation, with more than 6000 inhabited islands. It straddles a major shipping route into the Asia Pacific from the Indian Ocean, and is susceptible to a range of devastating natural disasters – from earthquakes and tsunamis, to volcanos and floods. Its stability – both from a humanitarian and a security perspective – is vital to the region.
These factors make airlift an essential requirement for the Indonesian military, and its current ‘heavy lift’ to this end is supplied by the Lockheed Hercules. The TNI-AU operates a mixed fleet of C-130Bs, C-130Hs, and stretched L-100s, the youngest of which is more than 30 years old. The Hercules is an able airlifter, and there are roles it can perform that are (to date) off limits to the A400M. The Hercules is, however, limited to a payload of 20 tonnes; it can’t carry a number of modern armoured vehicles; and in the case of the TNI-AU Hercules fleet, its engines don’t give quite the same performance in ‘hot and high’ conditions as more modern airlifters. Put simply, an A400M will likely climb much more comfortably on a hot day over terrain than, say, a C-130B carrying the same payload.
Supplementing the TNI-AU Hercules fleet with a handful of A400Ms would therefore allow Indonesia to potentially retire older C-130B airframes that have been in service for more than 50 years (the country was the second export customer for the C-130, receiving the first aircraft in 1960), whilst continuing to fly newer C-130s, including nine aircraft recently acquired from Australia.
The A400M may not have quite the tactical performance of the Hercules, so it might be in Indonesia’s best interests to continue operating a number of C-130s. Small airfields are dotted throughout Indonesia, and many of them are located in austere environments with very limited taxiway or parking space. The Hercules (or smaller CN235s/C295 transports) could continue servicing these strips, whilst the larger A400M performs airlift of bulk cargo between regional centres.
There are also functions the A400M can perform that are off-limits to the Hercules. At present, Indonesia has no means of airlifting larger helicopters in its fleet, requiring its Super Puma and Mi-17 helicopter fleet to conduct lengthy (and costly) ferry flights, should they need to move about the archipelago. The A400M could potentially conduct such ferry flights with helicopters on board, cutting deployment time, extending range, and reducing flying hours.
Another boon would be in replacing Indonesia’s present air-to-air refuelling capability, currently residing in a pair of KC-130B Hercules – amongst the oldest airframes in its fleet. An A400M equipped with hose-and-drogue pods would be compatible with its Hawk trainers and Su-27/30 Flanker fleet. Better yet, aircraft that can function as strategic transport and/or tankers making it a useful regional engagement tools. The TNI-AU could participate in exercises and operations by refuelling friendly aircraft, and moving about their personnel and cargo (in bulk).
The A400M also represents a different airlift capability to what the TNI-AU has operated before. Its C-130 fleet is still largely ‘man-draulic’ in how it is operated, driven by the need for a Flight Engineer and Navigator, and with the aircraft able to provide little in the way of self-diagnosed fault-finding during maintenance activity. The C295 is a modern tactical airlifter, albeit of limited complexity compared to aircraft line the A400M. Much like the C-130J and C-17A, the A400M only requires a minimum crew of two Pilots and a Loadmaster, and uses software to aid in aircrew and maintenance operation. It’s also equipped with a number of advanced avionics systems, many of which have already found application in the civilian space – and many others that will be standard issue in coming decades. Whilst the TNI-AU already operates a number of modern combat aircraft, the A400M would help bring its ‘large aircraft’ experience effectively into the 21st century.
For Airbus, Indonesia would represent an important sale over the life of the A400M. Even if the TNI-AU were to equip with only 3-4 aircraft initially, additional examples could be acquired through the life of the program, especially as its C-130s come due for replacement.
The reduced orders from the A400M’s launch customers means Airbus desperately needs to sell the aircraft by the dozen, and not by a ‘couple at a time’. However, if the the A400M is successfully operated by the TNI-AU, it will illustrate to other Air Forces that the type is robust and mature. The TNI-AU will likely need the A400M to fly into hot/humid/high environments (common in areas like West Papua), and often under security or humanitarian deadlines. It’s part on a logistics chain too means that smaller transport aircraft and helicopters will be counting on it to ‘deliver the goods’ when and where they’re needed most.
Regionally, Airbus has already found a buyer for the A400M in neighbouring Malaysia, which is acquiring four examples. Another order could consolidate the A400M’s standing in Asia, as Air Forces within the wider region consider replacements for their older C-130 models (including Taiwan, New Zealand, Thailand and Singapore). Whilst Airbus holds the high ground in building the West’s only strategic military airlifter (Japan’s C-2 not withstanding), Lockheed Martin’s C-130Js has remained evergreen, even finding orders with existing A400M customers. Embraer’s KC-390 is likely to show air forces a cost-effective ‘third option’. Any new order placed today by Indonesia would likely not result in a first A400M delivery until 2018 at the earliest; by then, Airbus will well and truly want the Atlas to be ready for whatever Indonesia can throw at it.