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.
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.
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.
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 problematic 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 others 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 that 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 equipment 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 stopgap 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 into planning assumptions.