Are we the only people that like the A400M?

Let’s be frank, the A400M military airlifter programme is in trouble, problems with the engines, flight control software and weight issues mean that it is going to be late, likely to cost more and not as good as expected.

The recent bad press is unremitting

The A400M aircraft programme—to provide new tactical and strategic airlift—is running some two years late. Once the extent of the delay to the A400M programme is confirmed, the MoD needs to decide whether it considers the programme to be so delayed that abandonment would be preferable, and to take timely decisions either to procure or lease other airlift assets so that a capability gap in air transport does not develop.

Defence Select Committee – Defence Equipment 2009, Third Report


Airbus’s flagship A400M military transport plane is facing a three-year delay, Le Figaro reported Tuesday, adding an estimated five billion Euros to its price tag.

AFP Release


The Senate report states that there are serious development problems with the aircraft’s navigation and low-level-flight systems, digital engine controls, horizontal tail surfaces, and with the definition of the wing design. Indeed, it seems that Airbus is proposing an interim standard A400M that would be incapable of undertaking the more sophisticated flight modes planned, until the issues with the avionics have been resolved.

Engineering Newsmm

How did we get here?

The French Senate report states that participating governments rushed into a poorly structured programme, left oversight to a multinational European agency (OCCAR) which had neither the resources nor the authority to fill such a role, ignored industry recommendations that €500-million risk-reduction studies first be carried out, and established tight timescales that left no margin for error.

To make matters worse the participants decided to start the aircraft programme and crucially a new engine and avionics in parallel. The new engine is particularly problematical as it is the most powerful of its type in the world and had to be started more or less from scratch. The Alternative, from Canada, would have been an evolutionary design and although without EU involvement much less risk.

And for the icing on the cake, Airbus, failed to grasp just how complicated the programme was, having no experience in military aircraft.

Where does this leave the UK?

As it stands now, it’s going to be 2014/15 before the RAF takes delivery, it will likely cost more (even though we signed a fixed prices contract) as the alternative is to let Airbus Military go under and have a number of performance deviations from specification.

This is bad news for everyone, but especially bad news for the RAF that is hammering its current aircraft on operations, has experienced attrition losses in existing types and is relying on leased and/or ancient aircraft for some strategic lift.

The existing C130’s of all types are being heavily used in current operations and it is predicted that there is looming on the horizon a ‘crunch point’ where this accelerated fatigue/airframe life issue will result in significant shortfalls in capability.

But here is why I like the A400M

The A400M is often compared with the C17 when other suggest buying more C130J’s and C17’s instead of staying with the A400M but one cannot compare the A400M with the C17. Their capabilities do cross over in certain areas but the A400 is a tactical airlifter that is planned to replace the C130K C1/C3’s in RAF service. It is not intended to replace the C17 or even the C130J C4/C5’s with A400M’s.

I think there are a number of factors which means the UK must stay with the programme;

The Trend in military plant and vehicle design

The A400M specification was built around a number of factors but one of them was a look forward to the types of vehicles, plant, helicopters and other equipments likely to be in service at the time of introduction. It was designed to carry over 96% of these types compared with the 65% that the C130J can carry.

When this took place the most likely combat vehicle types to be in service were the 6/8 wheeled armoured vehicles; Piranha derivatives, Boxer, and VBCI amongst many others. These were central to the Revolution in Military Affairs derived programmes such as the UK FRES or US FCS, the medium weight concept of rapid deployment and information superiority.

Whilst these programmes are still hanging on by the skin of their teeth, the reality of Iraq and Afghanistan has stepped in and produced a new concept, the protected patrol vehicle or MRAP. Many of these are simply too large and/or too heavy for the C130 Hercules and C160 Transall that the A400 is designed to replace.

Protected Patrol Vehicles are likely to be a large proportion of the A400 customer’s vehicle fleet.

Whatever eventually becomes of these vehicle programmes the stark reality is that vehicles will be larger and heavier.

The initial design studies looked at the likely equipment to be in service.

It is here that the A400M really comes into its own.

Whilst it is true that moving vehicles around is not the majority of tasks the A400M will be required to perform it will be a serious capability gap if the RAF cannot move increasing percentages of the Army’s vehicles into tactical landing areas.

This is the main reason I believe the RAF must remain in the A400M programme.

The performance on offer

The A400M offers serious performance improvements in all areas over the Hercules including greater payload, nearly double the cargo space volume, faster speed, better soft field performance, the ability to carry a significant number of pallets and personnel at the same time and supposedly less maintenance.

All these are of course under threat but most aircraft mature from when they are first introduced and there is no reason to believe that the A400M will be any different.

A promo video for the A400M, ironically, some of the items trumpeted here might be at risk in the early aircraft.

Future commercial sales and autonomy

Quite simply if we let the A400M die we gift the US dominance of the market. The USAF has already cited interest in a larger Hercules because it realises the reality of vehicle trends means much of its airlift capability will be unable to carry these larger vehicles.

Short Term and Long Term

In the short term it is obvious that whatever we can do to extend the life of the existing aircraft must be done, if it is within reasonable economic boundaries.

Accelerating the FSTA might provide a small increase in lift capability but not a great deal.

The most sensible option would seem to be leasing or purchasing additional C130J’s, the exact mix depending on detailed studies with leasing being the least favourable option. It might even be worth considering withdrawing the K fleet early, thereby freeing up valuable maintenance, crew and logistics resources to concentrate on maintaining the existing J models and integrating rapidly any new, second hand or leased J drafted in as a stop gap. It may be possible to obtain US spec C130J’s as a stop gap, operating as a fleet within a fleet for the stop gap period and given the US spec models are better in a number of respects than UK models this would not be a bad thing.

Long term I believe that the A400M should replace all models of C130 in service with the RAF as the newer J models are withdrawn from service.

This would leave the A400M as the only tactical airlifter in service with the RAF apart from the few Islanders and this would create a large gap in capability at the lower end.

I will post a proposal for this later but a smaller aircraft such as the C27 or even smaller, a Skytruck might be worth considering.

On a wider front, this should serve as a reminder that collaborative programmes, especially ones so rife with political considerations as the A400M is, must be very carefully entered into and potential delays plugged in to planning assumptions.



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Richard Stockley
Richard Stockley
March 2, 2009 8:45 am

Given the current problems with the A400 and keeping the adage, “Never buy a Mark 1 of anything,” in mind, Lockheed Martin are toying with the idea of a wide-bodied Hercules, the C-130 XL. Although the Herc may be getting a bit long in the tooth, it does have the advantage of fielding existing proven technology and an enviable lineage. Something the A400 does not. It also provides a viable competitor to the A400, this may give Airbus the impetus it needs to smarten up their act rather than expecting the taxpayer to hand over yet more (increasingly scarce) cash.

March 10, 2009 1:55 pm

I’m not sure the A400 can help the RAF. The fact is that we need new transports imminently- the current fleet of original Hercs is going to have trouble holding the line until the A400 reaches an equivalent capability level- it may enter service in 2014, but how long will it take to deliver the whole lot?

And the Protected Patrol Vehicle argument is spurious at best, IMHO. After all, PPVs are getting heavier as the threat changes, so it’s possible the A400 may not be able to lift them. And airlift is not the most efficient way to shift them.

March 31, 2009 8:32 am

Maybe its about time the Herc had some serious compition. I note that Lockheed are only now looking at changing the load bay dimensions in light of the A400. Hopefully the A400 will be a success and seriously dent lockheed’s sales.

April 27, 2009 4:40 pm

Surley the answer is to buy off the shelf and have an aircraft and more importantly a logistics framework which will be operationally fit for purpose in shortest period of time. The success of the C-17 is clear example of this. Add to this the fact that Airbus does not have the military pedigree of other aircraft manufacturers. Is the RAF going to be the test bed for yet another unproven airframe?

March 30, 2011 7:31 pm

I though I would ask my question here in the interests of keeping things tidy so………

Can anybody who understands aeroplanes comment about A400m for use in the tanker role? Is it a bad idea? Works but we could do with something better/bigger/faster/different?

I am wondering again about A400m as one stop shop for tanker, MPA, etc. as well as transporter.

(That isn’t too say as an out and out C17 replacement too.)

March 30, 2011 8:45 pm

A400m will be good for tanking it is the fastest flying turboprop around (.72mach cruise) and also the highest flying turboprop(37000ft). It can refuel fast movers as the the us marine corp herc does presently. All the necessary internal bits are there to do it. However we wont be doing it as air tanker is the sole supplier of UK air to air refuelling. Other than that nice legal point yes an A400m tanker in the falklands would be a good idea.

March 30, 2011 8:47 pm

RE”The existing C130’s of all types are being heavily used in current operations and it is predicted that there is looming on the horizon a ‘crunch point’ where this accelerated fatigue/airframe life issue will result in significant shortfalls” if not some of the earlier Herc models falling off the sky
– the joint UK/Oz wing fatigue study has been kept very quiet?

March 30, 2011 8:53 pm

That “. It was designed to carry over 96% of these types compared with the 65% that the C130J can carry” was then
– is it now back to 65%?
– does not matter really, as there is no competition, the Brazilians coming up, though, and the joint Russo-Indian tactical transport; this latter could shake up the market in the $/ tonne lifted?

Where I find the A400 marvelous is the ground pressure; and it is easy to say now, but taking an existing engine would have derisked the programme

March 30, 2011 8:59 pm

@ Mark

I know about the PFI. I am playing fantasy air forces for a change.

So there is no real issue with speed, or prop wash, or anything?

If there wasn’t the PFI deal and I waved a wand and the RAF ended up with 18 so purely for tanker purposes it would be workable? You wouldn’t want a big jet instead?

BTW I said 18 because in my world we are matching the French and German orders…….

This would leave me 10 for MPAs duties.

March 30, 2011 9:13 pm


Its not the only thing that’s been kept very quite. The engine thing was said at the time the germans didn’t care.


I think I know were your going with this. In a falklnds roles it would be adequate to operate a 400m in that role as opposed to a A330 voyager(apparently the raf name). As your only refueller it is limited by the amount of off-load fuel it can carry and range. It was designed to aar BUT we will only know for sure about prop wash ect when it does it aar flight testing. Lots of unforeseen issues crop up in flight test that’s what there for.

July 24, 2014 9:44 pm

The A400M looks pretty darn good now. The FSTA deal still looks poor and I remain to be convinced that the Voyagers specification is right. I can just about cope without the loading door, but the lack of UARRSI and the ARBS is bonkers.

With the lack of capability to refuel the C17s ourselves, and the lack of the ability to refuel the Voyagers, it is nice to think that should the needs arise we can put the A400M on the task of air to air refueling daisy-chaining like in 1982.

I like options, the A400M, with contra-rotating propellers, modern design and altogether more relevant capabilities looks like a shrewd and sensible design.

I’m glad we signed up

John Hartley
John Hartley
July 25, 2014 8:35 am

I do not think it is a secret that I dislike the Voyager PFI. If Britain could find some money, then the new generation bits for future A330MRTT coming in a couple of years, combined with the new Trent with double digit fuel improvements from the A330 neo announced at Farnborough, could give us a much better tanker with lower fuel costs. An excuse to ditch the ghastly PFI early, or at least half of it.