The Airbus A400M Atlas – Part 2 (What is So Good about It Anyway)
This is a five part series on the A400M Atlas transport aircraft
Beyond its potential as a multi role base platform to cover a number of new and existing mission requirements what is it that makes the A400 Atlas worth all the trouble, we know the C17/C130 combination would be easier as they are both available of the nice shelves of the US defence industry.
This is the crux of the argument for the A400; it has to offer more than just industrial or political benefits for it to be judged a success. Despite the numerous development problems we have to try and look at the aircraft and its specification in isolation, forget the political and industrial backdrop and ask ourselves if it is worth having.
To remind ourselves, the A400M Atlas is officially defined as;
A400M is planned to provide tactical and strategic mobility to all three Services. The required capabilities include: operations from airfields and semi-prepared rough landing areas in extreme climates and all weather conditions by day and night; carrying a variety of equipment including vehicles and troops over extended ranges; air dropping paratroops and equipment; and being unloaded with the minimum of ground handling equipment.
One of the taglines for the A400 is that it can ‘transport what the C130 cannot to places that the C17 can’t’ which neatly sums it up but misses many of the other advantages of the A400.
It is no C17 and it is no C130 either but that is exactly the point, it is not meant to be but it will always be compared to them.
The A400M is designed to replace the C130’s and C160’s in service with the launch customers.
Cargo Bay and Payload
The maximum payload of the A400M Atlas has yet to be fully released but the design objective is 37 tonnes compared with 19.1 tonnes for the C130J or 19.6 for the C130J-30 although the USAF C130 datasheetactually shows the normal maximum C130J payload as 15.422 tonnes and 16.329 tonnes for the J and J-30 models respectively.
The weight of a vehicle is usually readily available from open sources and equally the payload of the aircraft, so most high level analyses tend to start here.
However, there are many other factors that need to be taken into account; dimensions, weight distribution, uniformity of shape, securing practice and safety considerations all determine whether an aircraft can carry a vehicle, they will also need to undergo air carriage trials to confirm.
Despite this being the job of qualification and air despatch professionals we can still sneak a peek at those open source numbers and whilst accepting the unknown unknowns that only the professional will know, still get a reasonable idea of feasibility and come to reasonable conclusions.
We also have to be careful to understand what kind of weight we are quoting, is it kerb weight or gross vehicle weight. Kerb weight has a number of different definitions but generally is taken as including the vehicle, a single driver, fuel and fluids but excluding payload. The kerb weight plus maximum payload is often called the gross vehicle weight. For air carriage purposes a vehicle would generally be transported in as light a configuration as possible but if it needs to be ready shortly after it rolls off the ramp for tactical reasons then it might be required to have the full payload and therefore move over the limit for one aircraft or the other.
Equipment might also have its dimensions changed depending on the degree of readiness at the point of embarkation, radio antenna or bar armour could be fitted quickly after landing and some of the more modern vehicles are specifically designed with modular armour that can be removed for air carriage. The German Puma, for example, was specifically designed with A400M carriage in mind having modular armour that was built around the weight limitations, five A400M’s were designed to air transport four Pumas with their modular armour in the final aircraft.
One of the key factors of the sales pitch for the A400M Atlas is that equipment, plant and vehicles are getting bigger and heavier whilst the C130J isn’t. Airbus also makes the point that the A400M can deliver everything the C130J can into exactly the same austere locations but also a subset of the C17’s payload into locations it cannot.
The traditional hub and spoke model will use aircraft like large civilian transporters or C17’s deliver equipment into a Main Operating Base with tactical aircraft like C130J’s being used to fly it forward into Forward Operating Bases. I know the C17 can be used in extremis to fly direct into an austere forward location but as noted, this would need significant surface improvement if it were more than a one off and expensive maintenance activity after. This is a superb capability to have, no doubt, but not one to be used regularly.
With the turnaround speed, austere location capability and intermediate weight and volume capabilities the argument for the A400M is that in some scenarios, this hub and spoke arrangement can be collapsed. It is not claimed that it can do this with main battle tank class equipment but armoured vehicles of around 30 tonnes and other equipment, plant and vehicles that exceeds the 2.74m height and 3.12m width of the C130J.
The equipment and more importantly, combinations of equipment, that falls into this category is where the interesting analysis lies.
Something that always amuses when reading about the A400M is the notion that Airbus woke up one morning and picked the specifications out of their collective arses. The cargo bay is 3.85m high because that is what the launch customers wanted, not 3.86 or 10.54 but 3.85. The same is true for all the other characteristics, driven from user requirements that would have been the result of detailed and exhaustive operational analysis.
Detractors of the A400M would do well to understand who it is they are aiming their criticism at!
When defining the payload characteristics of the A400M Atlas, Airbus Military and the launch customers looked at four sets of influencing factors;
The first is that equipment would grow in volume and weight beyond that of the C130 and thus decrease the proportion of inventory which could be airlifted into austere locations on a sustainable basis.
Second, users would want to realise the operational and economic benefit of collapsing the hub and spoke arrangement in some scenarios.
Third, the demand for delivering heavy and bulky equipment closer to the point of need would grow, especially for disaster response and humanitarian support, a key aspect of predicted future military operations.
Finally, carrying more for a given crew size within the constraints of the payload envelope would generate savings in people, the largest cost component.
Although Airbus Military and the launch customers could not have predicted the impact of the IED on vehicle design and the need to increase protection against a range of threats the A400M has benefited somewhat, call it hindsight or call it luck but their first influencing factor, this increase in size and weight, has been fully reflected by the reality of Afghanistan and Iraq. Additional bar armour adds weight and width/length whilst ECM and protected weapon stations, either manned or remote, adds height. For example, the BAE Haggluns BvS10 Viking is only 2.2m high in the fresh from the factory version but adding the Platt MR550 ring mount, air conditioning and ECM adds just under a metre in height, pushing it from C130 to A400M carriage.
I have started to create a database of all relevant UK military equipment with dimensions and weights etc. (using manufacturer data) just to illustrate how things have changed and will post this in the future but to illustrate the trend of increasing size and weight, a selected group is shown below.
Land Rover WMIK >> Jackal
The Land Rover WMIK or even cut down recce wagon has now been replaced by the Supacat Jackal. Accepting there are many variants of the WMIK the approximate dimensions are similar, comparing the two, the Jackal is between 15% and 25% larger and just under twice the kerb weight.
As it happens, they can both easily be carried by the C130J but even for a stripped down lightweight system like this, the size and weight growth is obvious.
Land Rover Snatch >> Foxhound LPPV
The same volume and weight increases can be seen in the evolution of the Foxhound which is approximately 15% large in all three axis and again, nearly twice the weight.
Bedford MJ /Leyland DAF >> MAN SP Cargo Vehicle Light
What about the workhouse of any Army, its basic green truck. The Leyland DAF was slightly larger than the venerable Bedford MJ but the jump between the DAF and the MAN SP Cargo Vehicle Light is approximately 15% larger and heavier.
Add in a protected cab, some bar armour and a weapon station and it is no longer capable of being carried by a C130J.
Combat Engineer Tractor (CET) >> Terrier
The Terrier Manoeuvre Support Vehicle is actually slightly more compact that the CET it is replacing and thus might be seen to buck the trend but it ioeen to buck the trend but it os over 30% he the impact of the IED on vehicle design e by C130J os over 30% heavier and the British versions of the A400M will have a cargo floor specifically strengthened to accommodate it.
Saxon AT105 >> Mastiff 3
Whether Mastiff remains in service after Afghanistan or not here is a clear evolution in the kind of protected mobility vehicle that can now be used. The IED has precipitated a volume and weight growth which is unlikely to be reversed.
Mastiff is between 19% and 35% larger than the Saxon and at least a third heavier, because of its size it is unable to be carried aboard a C130J but can be accommodated by the A400M.
Bv206 >> BvS10 >> Warthog
A small number of the original Bv206’s are still in service and they show exactly the size and weight inflation trend through to the theatre entry Warthog.
The size increase is between 20% and 30% but the weight increase is a whopping 75%
The second factor informing the design of the A400M was the desire to carry a greater percentage of the overall inventory, not items that had seen size and weight growth but that were beyond the capabilities of the C130 or C160 in the first place.
Looking at singleton carriage, the following equipment cannot be carried on the C130J but by virtue of greater payload and a bigger cargo bay can be accommodated by the A400M Atlas;
Armoured Combat and Protected Mobility Vehicles
Non TES variants of the Warrior, FRES Scout and variants (initial estimate based on kerb weight), BvS10 Viking (TES), Warthog (TES), Mastiff, Ridgeback and variants, Wolfhound, CVR(T) Scimitar Mk2, Husky (TES)
Royal Artillery Arthur locating radar, GMLRS including payload, GMLRS Recovery
Engineering and Logistics
4 Wheels: DAF 4 Tonne T45 Dropside, MAN SV Cargo Light (Medium Mobility HX60)
6 Wheels: MAN SV Cargo Medium (Medium Mobility HX58), MAN SV Unit Support Tanker (Improved Medium Mobility SX44), MAN SV Unit Support Tanker (Medium Mobility HX58), Bedford TM 6×6 14 Tonne cargo (legacy fleet), Volvo FL12 Cargo truck with Jib (legacy fleet), Foden Recovery Vehicle
8 Wheels: Alvis Unipower BR90 Bridging Vehicle, Alvis Unipower BR90 Automated Bridge Laying Equipment vehicle, Alvis Unipower Tank Bridge Transporter (without bridge set), MGB Pallet Set on FODEN DROPS, Foden DROPS Improved Medium Mobility, Leyland DROPS Medium Mobility, MAN SV Cargo Heavy Medium Mobility HX77 8×8, MAN SV Cargo Heavy Medium Mobility HX77 8×8 EPLS
Tractor and Trailer: Seddon Atkinson 24.38 6×4 Tractor Unit Light Equipment Tractor, Foden 4380 MWAD 8×6 articulated 20,000L water tanker (Legacy fleet), Heavy Equipment Tractor 1070F (Oshkosh), Broshuis and King heavy trailers, 40 foot ISO container
Engineering Plant: Dump Truck Med 6×6 A3-6RA – Foden (legacy fleet), Case 721 BXT Rough Terrain Forklift (legacy), Case 721 CXT Armoured Loader Wheeled (legacy), Caterpillar 972G Loader (Armoured), Ingersol Trailer Mounted Compressor, Iveco tracker 6×6 Volumetric Mixer Volumetric Mixer, Medium Crawler Tractor (MCT) Caterpillar D5N DZ10 Tracked DZ11, Drilling Machine Rotary Truck Mounted Well Drill, Comacchio MC 450 – Drill Rotary EOD, Terex AC35 – Medium Crane Truck MTD 20-30 Tonne, Iveco tracker 6×6 Truck Mounted Loader (TML), Iveco Tracker 6×6 Dump Truck Self Loading, Tractor Wheeled Medium and Rough Terrain Fork Lift, Bomag BW 177 DH-4 (Roller Motorised Smooth Drum), Excavator Crawler Mounted Medium (Volvo EC210), Excavator Wheeled Medium (Volvo EW180C)
Surveillance and Communication
Falcon when mounted on MAN Support Vehicle
Aircraft and Aviation Support
Chinook (rear rotor disassembled), Apache Attack Helicopter (with stub wings and rotor head removed), Wildcat with only main rotor blades removed,
This is not and exhaustive list but it should provide some insight into the potential transformative effects delivered by the A400M.
The core role of tactical air transport is to deliver and sustain land forces, if by concentrating our resources on legacy aircraft like the C130 we deny ourselves the ability to discharge that fundamental role fully.
The fundamental truth is this, plant and vehicles are getter bigger and the C130 cargo box isn’t
Although it is easy to concentrate on these singular large payloads, it is combination loads of vehicles, plant, pallets and people enabled by the 4m by 3.85m by 17m cargo box of the A400M that are interesting.
A great deal of military equipment is designed with the C17 cargo box dimensions in mind, especially its height under the wing of 3.76m. The A400M Atlas has a minimum height of 3.85m compared with 2.74m for the C130J. Height is often the critical limiting factor for air carriage and in the kit lists above it is height more often that rules out C130 carriage.
Width is 4m compared with 5.5m for the C17 and 3.12m for the C130J but width is less of an issue for vehicles and equipment. Only really large loads like helicopters or main battle tanks and their derivatives need this width although double row pallet carriage is supported by the C17’s width.
Even if you look at shifting some Land Rovers, a single A400 can move 6 plus trailers, 3 times a C130J.
The C17 though can carry a whopping 18 463L pallets but this is reduced to 9 if one wants the seats folded down, which is exactly the same as the A400.
The C130J can carry six 463L military pallets but there are restrictions on dimensions and direction in order to maintain a safe exit path. The C130J-30 only carries one less pallet than the A400M but in order to do so, the seats have to be folded up and therefore, it is unable to carry personnel. The A400M on the other hand can carry the A400 can carry nine 463L pallets and 54 personnel at the same time
Different aircraft have different ramp loading weights; the A400M for example can carry a 6 tonne bundle on the ramp, the C130J much less than this. This also impacts on the maximum weight that can be air dropped. Floor loading factors limit weight distribution and the overhang or ramp area can be used for outsize cargos like gun barrels on vehicles or crane jibs on construction plant, if the floor length would indicate a piece of equipment could not be carried it might still be possible by using the ramp void.
A 2010 trial included a Ridgeback and Panther and the report in Flight International made the point that the A400M could not only accommodate the TES versions of these two vehicles but also a couple of pallets on the ramp and 50 odd personnel seated.
Some of the datasheet figures stand out, the C17 is stated as having a seating capacity of 102 against 128 for the C130J-30 or 116 for the A400M and yet the floor lengths are similar. The c130J-30 stretched variant has a longer fuselage and the same engines as the normal version but can carry 900kg greater payload.
The maximum payload figures might look impressive on one aircraft or the other but what does that do to the range?
Cargo hold heights are not uniform, the lowest point is usually under the wing area, whilst this will limit loads of a continuous height, some equipment might be shorter at one end that the other and so whilst the cargo hold dimension limit might preclude it, the actual situation might be different. The aircraft under consideration here are not uniform in width, the cargo bed will be narrower than the widest point so for vehicles and equipment that overhang above their wheelbase this might again change the carriage capability. Bar or slat armour will increase the width of a vehicle but not right down to the surface of the aircraft load bed and so this might be accommodated by the natural shape of the aircraft.
A larger height could allow loads to be carried on trailers or vehicles ready for drive away or simply to maximise volume. A good example is the Iveco Tracker 6×6 truck and JCB Telehandlers; these two generally go together with the telehandler being carried to site on the back of the Tracker. They are both individually transportable by C130J but not when the telehandler is secured onto the cargo load bed of the truck. In the A400 on the other hand, both can be carried together, thus minimising floor space used and maximising the volume of the aircraft whilst reducing handling at the destination.
Many modern vehicles in their Theatre Entry Specification (TES) have additional fittings such as remote weapon stations or ECM and communication ‘roof racks’ so the extra height would not normally find itself into the vehicle specification sheets. This extra height might tip it over from one aircraft to the next, the Panther being a good example. In the much rarer scenarios of vehicles needing to be ready (almost) to fight the moment they roll off the ramp this might be important but in other less dramatic scenarios it might simply reduce the overhead in putting the vehicles back together again after they have been broken down ready for transport. This might seem like a trivial saving in time but a) it is not and b) every person counts on operations as they have to be fed, protected and otherwise sustained at great cost.
What I am trying to get at here is that just looking at maximum payload, cargo bed width or numbers of pallets only gets you so far, these are important but have to be balanced against potential restrictions, range implications and how loads are mixed. The ability of aircraft A to carry equipment B is also not as simple as it may look because of non-uniform dimensions of both aircraft and equipment, variation in floor loading and other factors.
The loads and volumes would also then be used to establish likely scenarios and resultant plans, phasing equipment, vehicles, stores and personnel to a predetermined logistic plan for operation of one type or another, working out sustainment mission load patterns, where these loads would need to be delivered and how that would dictate plans.
It is very complex so comparing aircraft by cost per tonne or cost per meter cubed might be an interesting exercise, as is looking at equipment dimensions and seeing if they fit but there is more to it than that.
The RAF’s C130J’s use the Dash 4a Cargo Handling System from AAR Corp that is not the same as that on the older C130K’s that use the old Skydel system or the newer Enhanced Cargo Handling System (ECHS) fitted to most C130J’s. I read that the RAF C130’s were delivered without a cargo handling system and old ones fitted at Marshalls because LM would not sign off on the Skydel, ECHS was too expensive and Lockheed Martin’s construction quality was compromised by old jigs that meant the floor beams did not fit. Either way, we seem to have ended up with a mish-mash of systems that are ill suited to modern operations.
The UK versions of the A400M will be delivered without a roller/restraint system that would allow carriage of civilian 125 inch wide Unit Load Device pallets and underfloor winch to save money but will instead be strengthened to allow the Terrier armoured engineer vehicle to be carried. If one reads the NAO report the civilian pallet system was deleted to save a few million pounds and I hope that yet again, the cargo handling system on a new aircraft is not being de-specified in order to save tiny sums of money.
The large wheel wells provide aerodynamic improvements that allow simultaneous paratroop and cargo despatch and create space inside which is used for equipment that might otherwise impinge on the cargo bay.
Air dropping of equipment and supplies is an interesting concept and one that has seen a resurgence in the last decade or so, especially for air despatch of supplies as opposed to personnel and vehicles.
I covered the subject in some detail a couple of years ago, click here, looking at that article it is probably due a refresh.
The A400M will be able to air drop single loads up to 16 tonnes and with the higher ramp loading limits and very carefully designed aerodynamics air despatch and dropping paratroopers should be a very strong point for the A400M. The challenge will be to manage trials, certification and getting around to actually replacing some of the ancient platforms and associated equipment still in service.
We should most definitely not concentrate solely on outsize loads because it is unlikely that the RAF will be flying Mastiffs into a rough field, but the plant and vehicle changes are real and cannot be simply dismissed by saying, well, we don’t do it that much anyway or they can just drive in from a C17 concrete runway.
By keeping the C130 and not moving on, we are tacitly accepting that more and more of the types of equipment that used to go in the back of a Hercules now need to go via C17. This would be fair enough if we had loads of C17’s which were cheap to operate, low maintenance and able to repeatedly operate from austere locations, but it does not and cannot.
What is the point of a tactical airlifter that cannot airlift an increasing number of items in the inventory?
With a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet and cruise speed up to Mach 0.72 the A400M Atlas can fly in regular civilian airspace.
Testing is confirming that the aircraft has excellent aerodynamic performance and very stable in normal flight but extremely agile for such a large aircraft. It has been noted that this aerodynamic stability and clean air flow over the rear of the aircraft will allow some interesting thoughts on payload delivery to develop, launching UAV’s and cruise missiles looks less like a load of nonsense now!
In addition to the excellent handling characteristics and speed it is range that the A400M Atlas is quite impressive.
The map below shows the range of the A400M from Brize Norton; 3,300km at 37 tonnes, 4,500km at 30 tonnes, 6,400 at 20 tonnes and 8,700km ferry range.
And again from RAF Mount Pleasant, Al Udeid in Qatar, Wideawake at Ascension and RAF Akrotiri
A comparison with the C130J is also shown below, the two circles represent the C130J and A400M at 20 tonnes payload, 1,852km km and 6,400km respectively. The C130J range at this payload has been derived from the graph on page 29 of the C130J datasheet, click here to view.
These range maps are imperfect; they assume straight lines and uniform flight profiles for example and the different fuel configurations with regards to reserves etc are not known. They provide a good indicator though.
The UK is planned to be largely out of Afghanistan well before the A400M comes into service but we are currently flying a hub and spoke from the UK to the Middle East and then into Afghanistan, trooping flights using C17’s are very wasteful of precious and expensive aircraft hours but the A400M in this situation could fly direct to Bastion from Brize Norton with a mixed load of pallets and personnel up to 20 tonnes at a significantly lower cost than the hub and spoke currently being used.
It will be able to lift 20 tonnes from Ascension to Mount Pleasant. Cyprus is well placed for operations into North Africa and the Middle East and Qatar, Oman or Bahrain puts large areas in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East within reach without resorting to stop overs or airborne refuelling.
All this at relatively high cruising speeds and altitudes as well and the similarity to the UK’s C17 fleet means that the complex task of ‘flow management’ will be made easier. Speed also reduces duty cycles for crew which will result in cost savings as less crew will be needed for a given task in comparison to the C130J.
For air dropping these circles will obviously reduce unless airborne refuelling is used but because the A400M can be used in the AAR role it could be used to self-deploy multiples and the return leg.
The specification of the A400M Atlas requires it to match or improve upon the short field performance of the equipment it is replacing, namely the C160 Transal and C130 Hercules. If it does not do this it will have failed against one of the key design metrics so Airbus have aimed for a significant improvement.
If one looks at the undercarriage arrangement, the nose wheel and main wheels it is obvious that they are big, have a large footprint and designed to spread the load out across a larger area, thus reducing ground pressure.
The A400M has been designed not just to land and take off from rough and soft surfaces but to do so repeatedly. On a CBR 6 surface it can land, unload and take off 40 times before the runway is unusable without improvement with a mixed fuel/payload load of 30 tonnes. On a CBR 8 surface this raises to 225 missions.
It can land 27 tonnes onto an 830m soft strip
To enable operations at austere locations the A400M Atlas can kneel and roll so that equipment can be loaded on uneven ground and it can reverse up a 2 degree slope or 1 degree when fully loaded without a ground tug.
Messier Bugatti have designed the Steering/Landing/Kneeling system to allow, for example, a wheel to be changed by raising the aircraft. There are three positions
The Thales Top Owl helmet mounted sight has been selected for A400M Atlas flight tests and this will probably flow through to production aircraft. Thales has also been selected to provide the flight simulators for the RAF, Rockwell Collins for the HF-9500 radio system and Rode and Schwarzfor the VHF/UHF radios..
There is a full fly by wire flight envelope system that has been derived from the A380 and uses the very latest full duplex dual speed network called Avionics Full Duplex Switched Ethernet or ADFX. The benefits of this, as opposed to the traditional means of connectivity is it provides quality of service, can hugely improve resilience and lowers the amount of cabling used, with obvious weight benefits. This is linked to the Integrated Modular Avionics system using a range of interactive LCD displays and computing modules, this modular approach is predicted to decrease maintenance, support and upgrade costs significantly. If one looks at the cutthroat world of commercial aviation where through life costs are under constant downward pressure, the A400M Atlas is benefiting from technology proven elsewhere.
The defensive aids will be equally impressive, the Thales Multi-colour Infrared Alerting Sensors (MIRAS) system and Indra ALR-400 provides advanced detection with a range of chaff/flare launchers from MBDAand towed radar decoys providing protection. A Directed Infra-Red Countermeasure (DIRCM) system may also be fitted but the final configuration and fit for the RAF may not be decided until closer to in service. Defensive systems, fuel tank inerting and other protection systems may have been subject to budget based reduction in the past but with the A400M Atlas they have been a very high priority and it is an area that European industry excels at. The National Audit Office major projects reports do indicate that not all aircraft will be initially fitted with the full compliment but I find it hard to believe that when in service the aircraft fleet will not be fully configured, you never know though.
Germany has decided to forego their original automatic terrain masking low level flight system but the standard system is still impressive and will continuously compare the aircrafts position by GPS and INS with a database of elevation and obstructions with the resultant information being passed back to the flight control system.
Airbus have many years of driving down support costs but a military aircraft self-evidently is subject to a different set of stresses to their civilian models, that said, many of the concepts of integrated logistics support are still applicable.
The maintenance downtime is designed to be only 84 days with three levels of checks; Line (A Check) every 150 days, Base (B Check) every 24 months and Depot (C Check) every 72 months. One of the key selling points of the A400M is its low operating costs.
There is a maintenance free operating period of 15 days during which only minimal serving is needed which can be carried out by the aircrew and with supplies carried on board. A Ground Kit and Long Deployment Kit are also available which contains a range of tools and spares and extended this maintenance free autonomous period to 150 days or 500 flight hours.
These remain to be proven of course.
Despite all its trials and tribulations the A400M Atlas is approaching the end of the initial development programme, users will be able to start exploring just what it can do, pushing the performance envelope and realising the considerable investment made.
In Part 1 I looked at the background and industrial issues but in this part I have tried to explain how the A400M is worth the wait and money.
If we look back at bit of equipment that were hard to replace, the Bedford 4 tonner being a good example, there was an enormous resistance to venturing into new areas but the MAN Support Vehicle which is a big step forward has been a real success. Change is always difficult but sometimes a revolution is better than an evolution so whilst the C130J is no doubt a big act to follow I think the A400M represents that break with the past that is long overdue.
The next part will look at the potential of the A400M in missions other than transport.