The Airbus A400M Atlas – Part 1 (Background, Progress and Options)

This is a five part series on the A400M Atlas transport aircraft

Part 1 – Background, Progress and Options

Part 2 – What is So Good about the A400M Anyway?

Part 3 – Beyond Tomorrow, a Multi Role Platform

Part 4 – Export Potential

Part 5 – Say Hello to my Little Brother

If you look at the Think Defence Archives (click here) the very first post I published on the site was called; Are We the Only People that Like the A400

It’s not a very well written post with a number of errors and a massive 12 comments, interestingly, ArmChairCivvy, Mark, X and Richard Stockley were amongst them. Those four are still regularly commenting on Think Defence, wow, have to say thanks guys! For an even bigger laugh, pop over to a 2009 post on A400 predictions or another in 2010.

Since I started writing on Think Defence I have been a consistent supporter of the aircraft despite it being subject to as much scrutiny and negativity as the F35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The history of the A400M should be required reading for those wishing to enter multilateral and ambitious development programmes. There is no doubt that the A400 was ambitious; with the benefit of hindsight, developing a new aircraft with every imaginable modern feature and a new record breaking engine at the same time was risky. Giving this mammoth development programme to a company with a modest track record in developing large military airlifters and who were also developing other innovative aircraft (the Airbus A380) added to that risk.

That basket of risks have come to be realised and combined to produce the inevitable delays and cost inflation that equally have resulted in expensive stop gap measures, reductions in numbers ordered and a softening of the original specifications.

The development and test programme continues apace and despite a blip this week when Airbus announced a couple of months delay due to engine problems, the direction of travel is plainly obvious.

Civil certification, water ingestion, soft field operations, air despatch, equipment loading, high altitude, icing, in-flight refuelling, hot and high operations and myriad of other items on the to do list are being slowly ticked and indications are that for the most part, predicted performance seems to being validated by test.

Many people either fail or refuse to realise that a test and development programme will find faults, issues and problems; that being entirely the point. It has parallels with criticism of the Typhoon or F35.

First planned deliveries will commence next year with France being the launch customer. They will receive three and Turkey two. The following year will see a total of ten aircraft delivered including the first handful to the UK (MSN16) and Germany.

For entry into RAF service, the national training centre opens in 2014 and Initial Operating Capability (IOC) is planned for 2015 and set at three aircraft. Full Operating Capability (FOC) is planned for 2018 when twelve aircraft should be in service. 2018 is also the planned Full Operating Clearance milestone with the first aircraft being delivered with partial clearance.

From AIN Online

The first three aircraft will have IOC/entry-into-service (EIS) release, which allows them to operate as logistic transports. In 2013, the Service Operating Clearance (SOC) 1 will be released, providing initial aerial delivery capability. Subsequent releases will be SOC1.5 (2014: full aerial delivery and initial tanker), SOC2 (2015: enhanced tactical mission and additional performance), SOC2.5 (2017: enhanced tanker and search and rescue) and SOC3 (2018: low-level flight). Earlier aircraft will be brought up to later standards as appropriate. The IOC/EIS standard has no defensive aids subsystem (DASS), while a partial DASS is fitted to SOC1 and a full DASS implemented at SOC1.5.

The latest National Audit Office Major Projects Report stated that all 8 of the key Performance Measures are forecast to be met although performance against some of the defence lines of development were assessed as being likely to be met, but with some risk.

There are plenty of online sources that one can look at for the back story of the A400 with its political/industrial shenanigans but whilst not being in any way immune to the cost and delay issues this is an optimistic look at the aircraft itself, export potential, why it is perfect for the UK, possible alternatives and how the UK might use it going forward.

Have a nice video before I start

In no particular order

Would Additional C130 and C17 Have Made More Sense?

Many commenters and no doubt many in the services think the best outcome would have been a larger buy of C17’s beyond the eight we already have and a like for like replacement of the C130’s as they leave service, thus leaving the RAF with a three type Air Transport (AT) of the C130J, C17 and A330.

Simple maths dictates that for a given budget this would have resulted in more aircraft than the planned A400, C17 and A330 mix as planned. This is undoubtedly true if we were to use the A400M budget entirely for C130J’s and maybe a greater number of C17’s depending on how the budget cake was sliced.

As attractive as this proposition might appear on face value, more aircraft for the same money, I still don’t find the argument compelling or realistic.

That the C17 is hugely capable is not in doubt but we should not be blind to its issues either.

Operation austere conditions like in the video above is dependent on a number of factors such as load, altitude, runway length, surface load bearing factors (California Bearing Ratio), operating restrictions and whether one wishes to use the runway surface again or repeatedly. A USAF operation into Camp Rhinowas only able to support a small number of landings before heavy engineering plant (bought in by C17) was required to repair the surface for example.

When the RAF was operating the C17 under a lease, before they were purchased outright, all operations into such locations were prohibited by the terms and conditions.

11.  However, under the terms of the lease the full capabilities of the C-17 will not be available and the aircraft can only be used as a strategic long-range transport, albeit with the ability to land on short runways. The C-17s will be restricted in operational use and their capability for para-drop, airdrop, rough field, low-level operations and air to air refuelling will not be used.

The reason for these restrictions is obvious, they add risk and cost and in the then commercial arrangements, those risks and costs would have been borne by Boeing and their finance provider. We are no longer leasing the aircraft but this simply means the MoD carries the risk and cost.

When the C17 does operate from these rough conditions it needs extensive inspection and maintenance, the USAF might be able to afford this but the RAF cannot.

Whilst more C17’s would never be a bad thing to routinely operate then in conditions that the C130 and A400 will be required to operate in is an expensive hobby and therefore, done only on an exception basis.

A turbofan aircraft like the C17 will display flight envelope issues for role, the reason most tactical transport aircraft use turboprops is because their drag allows them to decelerate rapidly at lower altitudes and thus perform a steep approach, flare and landing. Turbofan aircraft are much more limited in this respect and therefore less survivable in higher threat areas, i.e. exactly the environment the C130 or A400 will be required to operate in, if not all the time.

As we all know, pinning down the cost of individual items of military equipment if fraught with difficulties but piecing together various snippets it should be obvious that the C17 is very expensive to buy and operate, unlike the usual internet nonsense of quoting the very lowest price, usually without engines for example.

Boeing supports the RAF’s C-17s through the C-17 Globemaster III Sustainment Partnership, a performance-based logistics programme, at RAF Brize Norton, the RAF’s main operating base for strategic air transport and air-to-air refueling. This arrangement provides the RAF with the benefits of complete “virtual fleet” access and an extensive support network. The virtual fleet concept enables C-17 customers, especially those with smaller numbers of aircraft, to benefit from worldwide parts availability and economies of scale when purchasing materials, all good stuff.

In 2008 the estimated UK cost of participation in the GSP was $225 million for six aircraft and in 2010 the seven aircraft resulted in an estimated cost of $390 million. I have seen other figures which suggest a much lower prices, £44m for example, here

Purchase cost depends very much on the optional extras and how many you are buying. The ‘all option included’ price for 10 to India was reported at $.5.8 billion, Australia’s 4 at $2 billion and Kuwait’s1 at $690 million.

It should therefore be clear that the oft mooted $200m price for a C17 is way off the mark for export customers who would have other costs to consider A closer figure would be around $580 million or £360 million for an aircraft in a usable condition, fully supported or about £300m as a straightforward purchase.

Inserting C17’s into an already established user, like the UK for example, does mean the unit cost will be much lower. a recent Parliamentary Answer for example, puts the figure at around £200m but it is not clear whether this includes any government furnished equipment.

It is here that we enter the murky world of national and international defence economics, there have been one or two studies to suggest that buying from your own shop and not someone else’s can reduce the overall cost by as much as 30%. We should also note that the UK does not have a majority stake in the A400M but it is still significant nonetheless.

More C17’s would result in close to zero UK industrial participation and tax revenue, putting my Treasury hat on, that makes it more expensive to the public purse.

The National Audit Office 2011 Major Projects Report lists the A400M budgeted cost as £3.105 billion for 22 aircraft and associated items.

The programme cost is therefore, a very rough £141 million each.

But don’t forget those ‘associated items’ like training facilities and the economic benefits overall to the Treasury that will depress the unit price of the aircraft.

There is also the strategic industrial benefits of reducing dependence on the US and maintaining highly skilled jobs that can be used for other aeronautic projects.

Critics of the A400 point to the low $200m price of the C17 and compare its Wiki performance unfavourably to the A400 but there is more to it than that and in the real world, the C17 costs nowhere near $200 million either.

What about more C130’s?

The obvious trend in vehicle, equipment and engineering plant weight and size means that the C130 is becoming less able to move them and this problem will only be greater in the future.

As a means of countering this many point out that the majority of tactical transport loads are not vehicles or engineering plant but pallets of stores and personnel and for the rare occasions when the big stuff is needed the C17 can be used.

Looking at this alone puts the C130J in a much better light but as I have explained above the C17 is not as cheap or capable in the required conditions as the headlines would have us believe.

A tactical airlifter exists to move men, materials, vehicles and engineering plant, not just the first two. The Hercules has been overtaken by the reality of larger vehicles and engineering plant so no matter how cheap it is or how many you can combine for a large total payload if your single tactical airlifter type cannot lift the majority of your kit the rest doesn’t matter a jot.

Going down this road we condemn the forces to having to rely on a small number of very expensive C17’s to move outsize equipment by air and I do not think this is a desirable state for any number of reasons.

But even for this people and pallets requirement the A400 is actually very good as I will describe later in this series.

The RAF was the launch customer for the C130J and according to the National Audit Office Major Projects Report 2001, the 25 C130J’s cost the £1.049billion, or £42m each, but don’t forget, this excluded many systems that come as standard on the A400 and we would have ten years of defence inflation to tot up.


More C130’s, I think, is not a desirable option.

The last fundamental problem of binning the A400 and buying more C130/C17’s is a combination of political, industrial and economic reality.

The A400 programme will support 10,000 European jobs, a large, diverse and multi-national supply chain, billions in tax revenues and re-establishes European skills in large military aircraft/turboprop design, thus countering current US and Russian domination in the sector and potential challengers in China, India and Brazil.

The A400 makes perfect sense from a geo-industrial perspective.

Many people see industrial issues as either irrelevant to defence needs or if the word ‘Europe’ is involved automatically a bad thing. The former Labour Defence Minister, Lord Gilbert, was famous for calling the A400 a ‘Euro wanking make work programme’

He was of course correct in many ways and one might perhaps wonder what the in service date and final cost would have been should the original engine proposal from Pratt and Whitney been pursued but this is a spot of wishful thinking and somewhat naive.

So whilst detractors might point at the total programme cost of the A400, divide it by the production numbers and then take a sharp intake of breath the actual economic value has a bit more depth.

With the US being plain about desiring Europe to be more responsible for its own defence needs, especially in transport, air refuelling and ISR, the A400 will address a number of these concerns and if one looks at the military airlift capability available to European nations as a whole, post 2020, it will be very impressive indeed.

One does sometimes get the impression that the US wants Europe to have a greater military capability just as long as it buys the kit to do so from the US and I suspect that is the root cause of much of the criticism of the A400.

The A400M Atlas makes sense and is here to stay.

Keeping the C130 in Service

The A400M Atlas was nominally due to replace the C130K fleet but the SDSR indicated that all C130 variants will be out of service by 2022 as the Atlas comes into service.  The original Out of Service Date for the C130J’s was 2030 but this was bought forward.

We are currently selling the C130K’s and with the C130J’s working flat out, the A400M Atlas is sorely needed.

It has been recently reported by Jane’s and others that the RAF has desires to keep some of the C130’s in service beyond their planned out of service date. The news reports indicated Special Forces concerns about size of the A400 and even the risk of tyre damage from unprepared operating runways.

That this is news should be newsworthy in itself as problems with the C130K Out of Service Date have been widely predicted for half a decade or more.

In 2008 the National Audit Office produced a very comprehensive report on the Hercules fleet including details of operating conditions and costs. It went into some detail about the process of bringing the C130J’s to a level of capability that would allow them to operate in the SF role by virtue of participating in the international C130J Block 7.0 upgrade programme and transferring selected items of equipment such as the advanced DAS from the existing C130K’s (C3) under Project Hermes, page 29if you fancy a read.

The Block 7.0 upgradeincludes a range of improvements such as instrumented flying civil certification, Link 16, improvements to short field performance and avionics and was to start in 2011 but with technical delays from Lockheed Martin this is not likely to be completed until after 2013 and is currently in flight testing. The Block 7.0 upgrade was cost shared amongst the C130J operators.

With the delays to the A400M Atlas and an uncertain funding pathway for this work the NAO recognised it as a significant risk to operations.

The issue surfaced again in April this year with a Defense Newspiece describing how some of the C130K’s would be retained in service whilst the C130J’s were being upgraded.

Britain’s Royal Air Force may delay taking its C-130K Hercules special-forces fleet out of service for at least a year while it waits for a delayed upgrade of the newer J variant.

The last of the Hercules K fleet was to exit service by the end of the year, but sources said that’s unlikely to happen. The availability of a vital upgrade to allow the J version to fully take on the special forces role will not be ready until at least 2013.

One Ministry of Defence source said the RAF could decide to retain maybe five or six of the K fleet for special-forces work while getting rid of the rest.

In the RAF’s C130K fleet were two variants, the C1 and C3. The C3 was a stretched version with the C.3P’s (a sub variant) equipped for in-flight refuelling.  Another sub variant was the C.3A that was fitted with a range of defensive aids equipment, avionics and other equipment, there were 6 of these conversions.

RAF Tactical Transport Hercules C17 A400M

There are only a handful of C130K’s left in service and they look as if they are up for sale

This is a convergent set of risks and timing issues caused by delays in both the C130 and A400 programmes.

As reported by the NAO and others, the existing C130J is sub-optimal in the Special Forces role until Block 7.0 is in service but this is not due until 2013 at the earliest and this assumes the RAF can make C130J airframes available for the upgrade work whilst still maintaining operational commitments, especially as one considers the likely uplift in demand as the Afghanistan withdrawal process begins.

The simple fact is the RAF’s C130’s are working flat out but hamstrung, as are all the services, by tight as a piano string support arrangements. The maintainers have to perform daily miracles and the problem with any of these aspirations is the back office support infrastructure.

The C130K can and does fulfil the SF role but they are due out of service this year. With plans already advanced to do this including training, aircrew and maintenance draw-downs  it might not be possible, or at least very difficult and expensive, to keep them in service until beyond 2013 when the C130J Block 7.0 and Project Hermes work might be complete.

The A400 can’t help; even the A400’s planned Initial Operating Capability (IOC) will be after the Afghanistan withdrawal, let alone Full Operating Capability (FOC)

With memories of the Chinook HC3 fresh in the MoD’s mind there seems to be little desire to go outside the international C130J block upgrade programme and contract with industry for a stop gap or hybrid C130J. Marshall Aerospace have recently been certified to replace C130 centre wing box sections, the only company other than Lockheed Martinto be accredited to do so and this might be significant in any decision making.

The MoD disposals website linked above shows both the C1 and C3 variant being for sale, how significant this is one can only wonder.

It could indicate that the decision on keeping the C130K’s (C1 and C3) has already been made, they are gone.

This would leave the sub-optimal C130J’s for the SF mission until the upgrade work potentially completes and then when A400 comes into service.

Alternatives might include borrowing or leasing from others or asking Mr UOR for a hand; then of course there is always the ‘capability holiday’ option.

If the C130J upgrade goes to plan they will be in service for less than a decade so the final block upgrade that the USAF have just contracted Lockheed Martin to develop would seem rather unlikely to find itself in service with the RAF.

It is easy to be critical of the MoD here; they have known for half a decade of the problem and on face value, have sleep walked into a crisis by failing to implement mitigation measures. The MoD makes its own decisions on funding priorities and has self-evidently decided to allocate funds to other projects.

That said it, is equally easy to sympathise, they have been faced with delays that are not of its making and the existing fleet was and is being worked to death on operations. What could they have done, withdraw aircraft from operations in order to upgrade them outside of the Block Upgrade programme?

One can just imagine the headlines.

We are where we are though and if the MoD disposals site is an indicator of no more C130K’s then the C130J’s are just going to have to make do.

Beyond 2022, by which time the C130J will be out of service, will the A400 be a worthy successor in the special-forces role?

There have been several reports indicating that the A400 Atlas is on the large side for the SF role and the users want to retain the C130J. This would leave the RAF with a C130J, A400m, C17 and A330 transport fleet instead of the A400, C17 and A330.

It is difficult to argue against the position of those with custody of the requirement but one of the reported problems with the A400 compared to the C130J for the Special Forces role is its size, presumably for getting into and out of small landing strips in exotic locations, turning for the return journey and perhaps weight or low flying issues.

Comparing dimensions of the A400 and C130J (not the stretch version) the wingspan difference is less than 5% or 2m. The height difference is under 3m or 20% but would this be significant? The big difference is length, at 45m the A400 is 15m or nearly 20% longer than the standard C130J although this falls to less than 15% for the J30 stretch. Again, would the length difference necessarily be a barrier to operating in smaller locations, not entirely sure?

Ground turning circles, silhouette, low flying ability, approach angles, conspicuousness or perhaps there are other reasons but the A400 has much to offer the Ninja in many other areas that would presumably be advantageous, ability to operate in civilian airspace (altitude and speed) for example or the obvious ones of payload and range.

Perhaps the main advantage for the C130 in the SF role is its ubiquity, this means interoperability with our principal allies, reduction in support costs and higher availability when operating away from main operating bases. This might be a large or small issue depending on one’s world view and predictions for where, and more importantly, with whom we will be doing the secret ninja stuff.

Am also pretty sure there will be a whole collection of other factors we don’t know, and those operators do.

As ever, swings and roundabouts but If the C130J is to be retained in service just for SF use the user will have to demonstrate a very robust case to overcome the cost, industrial and political barriers.

The Sea Hercules

If the Special Forces community can make a strong case for retaining a small number of C130J’s in service then that would add to the argument for the Sea Hercules.

At the 2012 Singapore Air Show Lockheed Martin unveiled the ‘Sea Herc’ concept that would use the C130J and combine it with a range of sensors and palletised mission systems taken from the P3.

In the second video above Jim Grant from Lockheed Martin mentions the UK, clearly the Sea Hercules is aimed squarely at being a Nimrod replacement, even as an interim.

The SDSR acknowledged some risk in cancelling the MRA4 and the MoD has been investing in the Seedcorn initiative to retain airborne maritime patrol and ASW skills. Jed and I have looked at maritime patrol quite a few times including this detailed recent post. I didn’t consider a conversion or new build Hercules in that particular post but it is an interesting option in and amongst a whole sea of others.

A number of factors would need to be considered;

If this would be an interim, what would ultimately be the objective and do we actually need an interim anyway?

Would sufficient airframes be available in serviceable condition for the conversion?

How much would a conversion be including work to refurbish the existing fleet, or elements of it?

Would it offer a capability that is better and/or cheaper than the many alternatives?

The palletised mission system is also attractive because it provides some measure of flexibility to re-role as needed. It would not likely be swapped out often but good nevertheless.

I do like the notion of reusing what we already have and the C130J has a mature supply chain but I also like the idea of reducing equipment types, ‘ruthless commonality’ being one of my favourite concepts.

Perhaps a small fleet that could be used for both SF and maritime patrol could be justified but the likelihood of a new buy would seem remote which means an upgrade/relief of the existing battered C130J fleet.

This would also mean absorbing the cost of future upgrades to the C130J (Block 8.0) and maintaining a completely different aircraft.

But, The Tyranny of Numbers

The only fly in the ointment of the A400M programme is that of numbers, let’s be clear, it is a whacking great big fly.

Clearly it is displacing a greater number of C130’s and given the load profiles of the C130 where many flights are for relatively small numbers of personnel or pallets than the additional capability of the A400M will count for nothing.

It is a classic swings and roundabouts argument.

In Part 5 I am going to look at operating a smaller airlifter as a compliment to the A400M, additional cost, of course.

However, a combination of A330, C17, A400M and something like a C235 would provide a supremely flexible mix of aircraft.


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