Airbus: Tactical & Strategic Lift
Sep 15, 2013

The French Air Force officially accepted its first A400M airlifter from Airbus Military in September, marking the completion of a 10-year development program that put European engineering and cooperation to the test. Four years late and reportedly billions of dollars over budget, Europe’s largest defence project was managed by a multinational procurement organization, OCCAR, the European Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation on behalf of partner nations Belgium, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain. The A400M program was designed to generate major savings for participating countries through interoperability and multi-national training, but cost overruns and engineering problems put both the project and OCCAR’s credibility on the line and forced partner nations to sign off on a $5 billion rescue deal in 2011.

Photo Courtesy of Airbus Military

An early decision to go with an all-European powerplant rather than a variant of an existing Pratt&Whitney Canada engine was both controversial and challenging. In 2011, engine problems forced Airbus Military to withdraw the aircraft from its Paris Air Show presence. The next year, the company was again forced to cancel flying displays at the UK’s Farnborough Airshow because of engine trouble.

However, the company persevered, and its powerplant (shown in photo below) has recently been described as the most powerful turboprop engine designed in the west. Safran (France), Rolls-Royce (UK), Industria de Turbo Propulsores (Spain) and MTU Aero Engines (Germany) all contributed to its development.

In addition to its new engine, the A400M is the first military aircraft to employ the Thales Integrated Modular Avionics (IMA) suite in the cockpit. Developed originally for the Airbus A380 civilian aircraft, the military version meets military standards for vibration levels and has a higher electromagnetic compatibility.

Back on track, and with a total of 174 orders from France, Germany, Spain, ­Belgium, Luxembourg, Turkey, Malaysia and the United Kingdom, the A400M is designed to bridge the gap between other turboprop aircraft like the Lockheed Martin C-130J and Boeing’s C-17 jet.

The aircraft’s long range (up to 3,300 km) and cargo capacity (up to 37 tons) make it a strategic airlifter, but its ability to fly into short, unimproved airfields is what gives it a strong tactical capability. As well as troop transport, cargo and electronic surveillance, the A400M (noted FrontLine #3, 2013) can be configured for aerial refuelling.

Other transport aircraft, like the C-130 family, can also use unimproved airfields, but the A400M has the advantage of much larger payload. Airbus Military says the A400M can take 25 tons of cargo into an unimproved airfield as short as 750 meters.

In a recent inter­view with Soutien, Logistique et Défense, General Mercier, the Chief of Staff of the French Air Force, highlighted the importance of the entry into service of the A400M.

Photo Courtesy of Airbus Military

“In Mali, strategic lift transported equipment and support from France to Bamako. This was done by allies and by charter aircraft. We then off-loaded the equipment and transported it by land, which significantly reduced our tempo of operations. With the A400M, we could bring those same loads directly into the north of Mali, which would have completely changed our operational life.”

He also emphasized the key role the plane will play in not having to stockpile equipment and troops in key locations, but rather deliver capability much closer to the point of attack. Ongoing instability in so many regions around the globe has created a need to deliver large amounts of military personnel and equipment or humanitarian aid and assistance directly to unprepared areas of strategic interest. This may prove important for future sales of the aircraft.

In the years ahead, potential customers for cargo aircraft will select from a changing mix of capabilities as they are forced to either upgrade existing fleets or purchase new aircraft. The A400M’s major competitor for range and payload, the Boeing C-17, will soon go out of production, with some 257 delivered, including four to Canada, and another 22 in production. In the next few years a new Brazilian aircraft, the Embraer KC-390 may enter the military market. A twin-engined jet aircraft, the KC-390 may challenge the A400M for its ability to use unimproved airfields, but its cargo capacity is closer to the C-130 series.

Airbus is expected to make another 10 A400Ms this year, and to deliver its first aircraft to the Turkish Air Force. After that, annual production could be as many as 30 aircraft. The French Air Force has ordered 50, and the Luftwaffe has ordered 53. Britain will add 22 A400Ms to its existing ‘heavy’ fleet of eight C-17 Globemasters, and Spain has ordered 27 A400Ms.

Richard Bray is FrontLine’s Senior Writer.
© FrontLine Magazines 2013