The Luftwaffe is reportedly seeking partners to help cover its tactical airlift gap.
A few months ago, I wrote about how Lockheed Martin might eventually crack a market for its C-130 Hercules that has remained elusive for 60 years – the German Air Force. The world’s most popular military airlifter might finally be wearing the an iron cross.
This week comes news that Germany may look to pool a fleet of Hercules with other local operators – specifically, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, and United States (which operates a squadron at Ramstein Air Force Base, 135km south of Frankfurt).
It’s a bold move by Germany, which is reportedly unhappy with the tactical airlift performance of the Airbus Military A400M. The Luftwaffe is receiving 40 A400Ms to replace its C-160 Transall fleet, due for retirement in 2021. Despite the A400M offering a considerable increase in Germany’s strategic airlift capacity, it has reportedly left them cold when it comes to operating from smaller airstrips – something that tactical airlifters need to do as a matter of course. A pool arrangement for a limited fleet of Hercules might seem unusual, but is not without some precedent. Already, Germany is party to the European Air Transport Command, which combines airlift, air-to-air refuelling and aero-medical evacuation capacity between seven Air Forces. A number of countries in the EATC – France, Spain, the Netherlands, and Belgium – already contribute their C-130 capacity. Austria, Portugal, Poland and Norway, which currently operate various marks of the C-130 (for now), are potential members. Similarly, the NATO Heavy Airlift Wing operates a fleet of three C-17As from Hungary on behalf of selected NATO states (and Sweden). The aircraft carry Hungarian Air Force insignia but are crewed by an international workforce, with partner countries allocated a number of flying hours per year.
Not only are European air forces trending towards pooled aircraft arrangements, but they are adopting common practices in how they operate. The European Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Course (EATTC) brings European transport crews together to plan and conduct airlift missions under a set syllabus for each course, based on operational experience. So, there’s some precedent to follow for Germany if it has an operating concept for a pooled-fleet of C-130s. Better yet, France is introducing a fleet of four C-130Js, and Netherlands could be a potential customer to replace its C-130H-30s. The United States Air Force in Europe too is a relatively recent C-130J operator. If Germany were to purchase its own fleet – even a handful – of C-130Js, there would be a good case for a European-based Hercules training centre, not to mention local industrial base for maintenance and logistics support.
From this angle, you can’t even see the flag on the tail. (USAF)
So, the sharing economy works for military airlift like it does for getting a lift with Uber, right? Not necessarily. A key issue for a pooled fleet however is how the aircraft are used. Good tactical airlift is often dynamic and responsive in nature, responding to the needs of frontline customers. The size and performance of a Hercules means it’s best applied as an intra-theatre airlift solution over a longer period, rather than a Fly-In/Fly-Out inter-theatre option like the C-17A. Germany is likely to want C-130Js operating outside of continental Europe, instead flying into austere airfields for peacekeeping operations in Africa or the Middle East.
Taking Uber as a example, it’s like booking a 4WD/SUV to drive you out to a remote campsite located up a goat track, and go back to that site over the course of a week whenever you need them. It’s not outside the bounds of possibility – but it’s not like getting a lift home from the pub. Whoever turns up, you want to be sure they’re up to the task.
Managing a strategic and tactical platforms can therefore be exclusive concepts. Current pool arrangements for strategic airlift or air-to-air refuelling aircraft work because an Air Force can book the flying hours in advance with a degree of predictability. Doing the same for a tactical airlift in a deployed environment however might mean keeping it there for weeks or months. If your partners aren’t co-deployed to that same theatre, then they’re missing out.
That leaves plenty for France, the Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States to consider if they are to entertain Germany’s reported offer of joining a pool fleet of C-130s. For all of the combined advantages, it will require consent from all parties to manage tasking, not to mention ensure the aircraft are ‘up to spec’ – whilst all Hercules might look the same, there can be a wealth of difference in the avionics and self-protection systems they are equipped with, which in turn can affect the theatres that they can fly in to.
In the meanwhile, what of the A400M? There’s little doubt Airbus Military is feverishly looking at options to get the A400M to perform more evenly against the C-130J (and Embraer’s KC-390) in the tactical space. Airbus Military can try to implement workarounds, compromises, or modifications that may allow the A400M to meet the needs of France and Germany more closely – otherwise, the aircraft risks losing out to the aircraft it was conceived to replace, the C-130. For countries seeking a strategic lifter (for example, carrying armoured vehicles or helicopters), the A400M is quite simply the only game in town, meaning Airbus Military will enjoy some export successes down the road. But for countries seeking an airlifter to support those same armoured vehicles or helicopters at the frontline, the A400M still isn’t up to task – at least, not yet.