The Airbus A400M Atlas – Part 3 (A Multi-Purpose Platform)

Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules

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

Part 1 – Background, Progress and Keeping 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

In the last couple of posts I have taken an optimistic view of the A400M Atlas programme and aircraft itself. That is not to say we should ignore the lessons about multinational programmes, risk and political influence on major projects but the simple fact is this; the A400M is coming into service with the RAF and is intended to replace all models of the C130 by the early 2022.

The arguments about whether it should or should not; would more Chinook and A330 would be better and discussions about the merits of the aircraft itself are all interesting and well worth discussing but ultimately, they are academic.

In this post I am going to look beyond the initial air transport roles and take a wander through the potential for other roles.

There has been a recent trend in the defence aerospace market to leverage the significant cost in ‘platforms’ by making divorcing them from ‘payloads’. This has resulted in a very clear demand from military users for multi role equipment. Just look at the F35 for a clear indication of this trend.

Whilst there are even more interesting arguments (see this cracker from Chris) about single v multi role the trend is at least clear.

So sidestepping the argument for a moment I am going to assume for this post that going multi role is something, conceptually at least, worth considering.

What base attributes does the A400M Atlas bring to the multi role party?

First and foremost; it will be in service with an established logistics and support system in place, aircrew and ground crew training established and in operation, simulators developed and plugged in and development costs bought and paid for.

Secondly; the aircraft itself has an interesting set of flight characteristics; jet like cruise speed, stability, enormous unrefuelled range, large payload, a high wing and advanced avionics

Thirdly; its multi-purpose credentials will be impressive because there will be an easy upgrade path to providing AAR capabilities and this means a plumbed in high capacity pylon under each wing already exists.

Fourth; the wiring system is based on a shared network model, not individual cables to each and every end point, this makes integration of new bits and bobs much easier.

Finally; the underlying flight and mission control software architecture is designed to be modular and modified in a much simpler way.

If one looks at the Hercules, a comparable (if smaller) 4 engine turboprop, it has spawned a huge number of variants, all based on the same base platform.

Variants have included an airborne tanker, maritime patrol, gunship, electronic warfare, AEW, SIGINT and various flavours of special operations support aircraft. The overall concept is well proven although what might have prevented more widespread adoption is the speed and in some cases, altitude of the C130, two areas where the A400 excels.

The A400 has pretty impressive payload, range and altitude characteristics so could it form a common base platform, much like the CVR(T) or FRES common base platform that is used as the basis for a number of specialist variants?

The A400M might not be a cheap common base platform but if there is one thing we all know it is that commonality relentlessly drives down overall cost, back to my first point above.

If the C130 can be utilised in the maritime patrol, gunship, tanker, AEW, ELINT and ISR role; why not the A400M?

Some missions might be easier than others to cover with an A400M variant and it would all come down to a spreadsheet analysis on cost but when you think about for a while, it might not be as barking mad as it sounds.

Funnily enough, the Hercules is a good model to look at for inspiration and examples. Some might think this is a good means of retaining the C130J in service but where would the fun be in that!

I am going to look at three examples, airborne refuelling, maritime patrol and the multi role USMC tanker/transport/attack variant of the Hercules Tanker, the KC-130 Harvest Hawk.


For a more up to date look at modular capabilities for transport aircraft click the link below

Airborne Refuelling

The good thing about the A400M Atlas is that the Airborne Refuelling Variant is not actually a variant at all, the base aircraft will come ready wired, ready plumbed and mission ready. All an operator need to do is buy the Cobham refuelling equipment and complete any training or local certification activity.

Actually, it is not quite as simple as that.

All A400M Atlas users start with the Common Standard Aircraft and then pick from the ‘optional extras list’

Germany, for example, will only have 24 aircraft equipped with the Forward looking Infra-Red Enhanced Vision System (EVS) and the UK has a specially strengthened floor able to take the weight distribution of the Terrier armoured engineer vehicle. Although the common standard aircraft has the necessary structural and cabling/pipework for the airborne refuelling equipment the actual equipment for AAR is variable and includes items such as video cameras, centreline fuel dispenser hose drums, a ramp variant to allow the aircraft to be used for centreline refuelling without lowering the ramp and depressurising, cargo hold fuel cells and the pylon mounted refuelling pods from Cobham.

The simplest installation is two wing pylon mounted 908E pods from Cobham. These can be quickly installed, offload fuel at a rate of 1.26 tonnes per minute and are a version of the 905E’s that will be fitted to the A330 based Voyager.

Click here for a brochure

Airbus A400M AAR
Airbus A400M AAR

More capability can be provided by a centreline hose drum unit and cargo fuel tanks (holding 5.7 tonnes of fuel) that are both pallet mounted. To use the centreline fuel refuelling unit a specially designed rear ramp is used that enables the hose and drogue to be deployed whilst the aircraft is still pressurised. The centreline unit when combined with the cargo hold fuel tanks can be used to dispense a different fuel type if needed, normally, the aircrafts own fuel tanks are used to store fuel used for dispensing.

One of the main advantages of the A400M Atlas in the airborne refuelling mission is that it can refuel both slow/low helicopters and fast/high jets. The diagram below shows the A400M’s flight envelope and the same for helicopters and fast jets.

Airbus A400M Atlas Airborne Refuelling Chart
Airbus A400M Atlas Airborne Refuelling Chart

This makes the A400M extremely versatile in the role and for the UK; that got rid of its C130 based tankers many years ago, would be a new capability that would greatly enhance the special-forces and amphibious capability as the Chinook, Puma and Merlin are all capable of being modified to accept refuelling probes, even though they are not in service with the UK.

Providing support to allies such as the US Marine Corps with their airborne refuelling capable CH53K’s and MV-22 Osprey’s would also be hugely valuable.

Just because the A400M is not CVF capable does not of course mean it cannot support carrier and/or amphibious operations, far from it. In fact, the more I think about it, this would provide a dramatic uplift in our amphibious assault capability and greatly enhance the utility of CVF/JCA for not a lot of cost.

A typical operation like Ellamy would make use of both land and sea based tactical aircraft both supported by a mix of A400M and Voyager tankers, a flexible and powerful combination.

The combination of AAR capable Merlins/Chinooks and an AAR equipped A400M Atlas would also allow the UK to provide combat search and rescue, another capability we have had to rely on the US for as evidenced by US helicopters operating from HMS Ocean off Libya.

As the US shifts its focus to the Pacific it is this type of mission that the UK, Europe and wider NATO countries are going to have to resource themselves.

Airbis A400M Refuelling Helicopters
Airbis A400M Refuelling Helicopters

The diagram below shows fuel offload, time on station and radius of action.

Airbus A400M Atlas Airborne Refuelling Fuel Offload Chart
Airbus A400M Atlas Airborne Refuelling Fuel Offload Chart

From the diagram, a typical mission at 500nm (926km) could offload 35 tonnes of fuel during two hours on station.

One thing that an A400M tanker has over a Voyager is its ability to take on fuel itself and that can be used to both extend range and increase offload capacity.

In sustained operations refuelling aircraft might not actually offload all their fuel and in the Voyagers case, this would have to be taken back to base which is costly and inefficient.

Too much fuel equals too much weigh equals to much fuel consumption equals too much cost!

When using A400M’s as the refuelling aircraft that unused fuel could be simply transferred to the next aircraft in line and the first landed as light as possible.

If the future involves refuelling unmanned aircraft then the medium speed types might be unable to take on fuel from a Voyager but the lower speed and medium altitude flight profiles offered by the A400M could be a good match.

The A400M Atlas is no Voyager and we shouldn’t think of it as a replacement but more of a complimentary capability for missions where the Voyager is less suited.

These are in theatre support for close air support aircraft and refuelling helicopters, there is also the UK specific requirement for the Falkland Islands.

Currently, the UK maintains a VC10 and Hercules at RAF Mount Pleasant to support the Typhoon flight, garrison transport and Search and Rescue.

At some point in the future this option will be removed and there will as a minimum be an A400M and A330 Voyager instead. At a higher risk this pair might be replaced with a single A400M tanker variant or more sensibly, two A400M’s.

The single VC10 is obviously a single point of failure and whilst the Voyager will be a step change in reliability and availability there is always the unforeseen, one of anything is always a risk.

Two A400M’s, both equipped for airborne refuelling, would offer an improvement in capability for the air transport role and also provide a more robust and lower risk airborne refuelling capability.

All this eminently sensible talk all comes crashing down to earth when we consider the commercial arrangements involved with the FSTA PFI. Much of the actual contract conditions are commercially confidential but whilst the MoD is free to pursue airborne refuelling from other countries, other aircraft or even other commercial providers the simple fact is there will have to be penalties paid to Air Tanker who more or less have first dibs on any airborne refuelling.

If the UK is to take advantage of the significant capability and flexibility afforded by the A400M Atlas’s airborne refuelling facilities the commercial arrangements between Air Tanker and the MoD will need to be addressed, perhaps the MoD could make them contingent on approving the BAE/EADS merger given EADS are a major Airtanker shareholder!

Long Range Search and Rescue

Perhaps the most attractive feature of the airborne refuelling capability is its minimal impact on the aircraft and is therefore a relatively low cost (from an equipment perspective) means of dramatically improving utility.

The next question, could the A400M Atlas provide a long range search and rescue capability with equally low impact on the aircraft?

The payload weight for the role would be modest so the resultant range and endurance would be exceptional, even in comparison with the ‘Sea Herc’. A lot of the advanced communications, navigation and information equipment needed is already fitted as standard in the A400M and there is no reason why it could not make use of same type of palletised role equipment, consoles and similar as either the C295 family or that proposed Sea Hercules.

Instead of maintaining two fleets of aircraft we could realise the significant through life cost benefits of only having one; training, logistics and operating facilities would all be the same, or at least, very similar.

Any requirement for a Sea Atlas would depend on whether the Department for Transports Search and Rescue responsibility is fulfilled via some form of government industry partnership but the recent controversy with the Olympics and G4S and the very clearly stated intention to use the armed forces for more ‘homeland’ type roles means a clear case could be made for the mission to stay within the military domain.

For the MoD, search and rescue is one those missions that has very little military utility and should in a rational world be somewhere else, but for any number of reasons the public seem to like it just where it is. Despite the intention to outsource the rotary SAR mission to a civilian provider and the long range role being effectively gapped, in the future, it might attract enough funding to be covered.

That does not mean that it should be delivered by a Sea Atlas but it does mean it should be considered, the US Coastguard have for decades used a 4 engine turboprop platform in the role, the HC-130

US Coastguard HC-130
US Coastguard HC-130

The UK is currently operating at risk for both the search and rescue oriented patrol role and the anti-submarine role, this is well known and well understood. There are any number of combinations, permutations and likely options; the P8 Poseidon or the EADS Casa C235 represent two ends of the spectrum and either would be certainly better than nothing.

A Sea Atlas is another option to consider, primarily because of my first and foremost factor at the beginning of this post, the base aircraft would already be in service.

Operating in support of the civilian oriented Search and Rescue mission would need relatively little in the way of additional equipment apart from airdrop supplies such as life rafts or medical equipment which can be ramp deployed as per the video below from the Irish Air Corps

Manufacturers include Life Support International or Airborne Systems

The radar planned to be fitted on the A400M is the Northrop Grumman AN/APN-241 Tactical Transport Radar, the same as fitted to the C130J and C295. This might not be best suited to the maritime patrol role where something like the Selex Seaspray 7500 would be more appropriate. This radar was selected by the US Coast Guardfor their Hercules HC-130H upgrade programme, it would not be an insurmountable challenge to swap out the APN 241 should it be required and we already have in service members of the Seaspray family of radars.

However, if the radar was changed then it does of course eliminate some of the commonality advantages and ability to use any of the available aircraft from the fleet, so this might not be such a good idea.

An airborne AIS transponder and display would allow the crew to take advantage of ships identification transponder information and an off the shelf electro optical turret should be another simple addition and likely installed on the A400’s at some point anyway (more on this later)

Something like the L3 Wescam MX20HD or Selex Titan 385ES’s that are currently being fitted to RAF Chinooks under the £408m Project Julius.

Even pod mounted searchlights are available off the shelf (we could always reuse those off the Nimrods) and an observer window in the paratroop door might also be possible at very little cost.

To deliver against the long range search and rescue role it does not seem like a big jump, yes we can improve things with a more appropriate radar fit, an electro optical turret, crew station and ramp or door launched rescue equipment but the basic aircraft is not that far off.

A Sea Atlas would certainly be able to cover the UK’s extensive Search and Rescue Region with considerable time on station. This long time on station would be especially advantageous for searches or maintaining top cover/coordination.

UK SAR Region Map
UK SAR Region Map

As has been noted previously there is a significant difference between the long range search and rescue and anti-submarine roles.

Sensors and weapons needs for the latter are not particularly easy to address.

In addition to radar, electro-optical, particulate, ESM and other sensors, there is the need to carry and deploy sonobouys, torpedoes, complex mission consoles and more crew etc.

If our objective is to avoid costly airframe modifications and cutting holes in the skin wherever possible the challenge of integrating additional equipment becomes acute.

Which brings me on to by next section; a blatant knock off of the USMC Harvest Hawk

ASW, ISR and Ground Attack

Airborne refuelling and long range search and rescue, as above, could realistically be met with a modest investment but building on the concept there are possibilities to extend it and use the A400M Atlas in a much wider role.

Mounting Options

Sensors, weapons and mission systems aren’t the problem; they all exist off the shelf. It is the physical integration with the airframe that is tricky, as above, avoiding drilling holes at all costs.

Luckily, the A400M Atlas (and Hercules) has a number of potentials solutions; underwing pylons, the cargo ramp and paratrooper doors.

Using a pod mounted multi mission fit on the C130 is not a new idea, the SAMPSON pod, amusingly called the Special Avionics Mission Strap On Now, was developed in the mid-eighties and flown on the High Technology Test Bed (HTTB) aircraft.


SAMPSON was based on a 1,360 gallon external fuel tank modified to take a range of avionics and sensor equipment with a ram air turbine providing the power. Instead of copper cabling the data link used an infra-red transmitter on the side of the pod and a receiver inside the aircraft looking through a passenger window. It was much like a TV remote control although as the picture below shows, rather larger

SAMPSON Pod receiving equipment
SAMPSON Pod receiving equipment

The SAMPSON pod was used for many years by to support the Open Skies initiative, click here for a good read on this fascinating subject.

Podded systems are an obvious means of mounting sensors and weapons but I mentioned the cargo ramp and paratrooper doors,  so what about them.

Before looking at the options I would like to talk about crevasses, not crevices

(just wanted to use the word crevice in a post, as Captain Blackadder quite rightly states, crevice is a naughty word!)

What has a crack in the ice got to do with multi role aircraft?

The LC-130 ‘Skidbirds’ from the 109th Airlift Wing of the USAF National Guard have been providing transport facilities to Antarctic stations for decades. There have been a number of aircraft losses due to undetected crevasse formations in the landing and take off areas so in 2006 the New York Air National Guard funded a programme by Sandia Labs to study an X-Band ice penetrating radar that could be mounted on its aircraft, principally the LC-130’s and Twin Otters then used for airborne ice field landing site reconnaissance, prior to landing.

C130 Crevasse Landing
C130 Crevasse Landing
C130 Crevasse Damage
C130 Crevasse Damage

Click here to read about the science.

What this project did (that is related to this post) is prove that a payload pod could be carried on a door mounted arm or stub wing. The benefit of using the paratrooper door is that if the aircraft is unlikely to be recreating the Arnhem landings then the door is somewhat surplus to requirements and represents a decent attachment point because it negates the need for complex airframe integration and can be easily swapped in and out as needs dictate.

It is an ingenious solution.

The company responsible for the design and manufacture of the door kit is called Airdyne Aerospace of Canada and the USA with their marketing partner HISS

Their main product is called SABIR, Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response and has been continually improved since the initial work on the crevasse radar.

SABIR has a number of components, mounting solutions, integral operator seats, workstations, tube ejectors and the pods themselves.

Airdyne SABIR Systems Concept
Airdyne SABIR Systems Concept

This allows the user to mix and match depending on requirements and because there is no airframe modification they can be tested/integrated off board at a low cost.

Various workstations, observer/operator seats and equipment racks can be fitted to the pallet.

Airdyne SABIR Systems Concept
Airdyne SABIR Systems Concept

The pods themselves are attached to the swing arm with it being raised for take-off and landing and lowered when airborne.

Airdyne have a good description for the pods

In essence, SABIR pods are similar to smart phones – all you have to do is select a pod and add your sensor application. Because the pod form factor is already flight rated, customers save cost and schedule by only having to focus on what goes into the pod.

Multiple SABIR systems can be deployed on the same aircraft to maximise sensor variety or ability to observe multiple locations.

Airdyne SABIR Systems Concept
Airdyne SABIR Systems Concept

Skip forward a few years and we have Harvest Hawk, Vigilant Watch and Vigilant Stare, all variations on the SABIR/SAMPSON theme.

Harvest Hawk is a sensible programme driven by the USMC, started in 2008/9, that seeks to squeeze maximum benefit from a common platform, using roll on roll off kits  including podded sensors and weapons that extends the capability of the C130 tanker to include gunship and surveillance.

Defence Industry Daily has maintained a very comprehensive page on the US Marines Harvest Hawk, click here, well worth a read, plenty of great information and images.

One of the key features of the recent Harvest Hawk upgrade is the Derringer Doorwhich is in simple terms a pressurised launch tube for the Raytheon Griffin and MBDA Viper Strike missiles mounted on a modified paratrooper door, the racks in the image are for storage. In its initial guise, the Harvest hawk used a ramp mounted launch rack but this required time consuming depressurisation.

Harvest Hawk Derringer Door KC 130J
Harvest Hawk Derringer Door KC 130J

The Derringer Door allows the weapons to be launched from a higher altitude, both keeping the aircraft out of the automatic weapon threat zone and allowing a larger area to be covered.

Harvest Hawk also uses a pod mounted sensor package with the original refuelling pod on one wing and the sensor pod on the other, both occupying the inboard pylon. Hellfire launch racks were also fitted to the outboard pylon location and the fire control system is a straight lift from the AH-1Z Cobra gunship parts bin.

There have been plans to mount an automatic weapon into the door mechanism as well, the ATK 30mm Bushmaster which has recently been type certified.

The original mission Harvest hawk mission kit cost the grand sum of $22m and other sources cite a figure as low as $10m, which for what it delivers I think is pretty damned cheap.

The SABIR arm uses a standard Marvin Engineering BRU-12 ejector rack.

They even have a sonobouys ejector tube version

SABIR Sonobuoy Ejector
SABIR Sonobuoy Ejector

What strikes me most about this is that the sub systems are entirely off the shelf, weapons, sensors, fire control systems and ejector racks are all from the parts bin. Combining them with a bit of clever engineering and ingenuity has created a seriously cost effective ‘whole’

It is also clear that should we choose the A400M to do similar, at least conceptually, the same mounting options are viable even if the A400M paratrooper door is physically different and integrated with the undercarriage fairing

A400M Paratroop Door
A400M Paratroop Door

[EDIT] As one of our commenters notes, the paratrooper doors required considerable work to get right and ensure the airflow was paratrooper friendly so the door option might not be the first choice. Perhaps for launch tubes rather than an extendable arm for a sensor pod.

A final advantage of mounting complex sensors and systems on the A400M is that the aircraft still looks like an ordinary transport aircraft.

Sensors and Systems

The basic concept of roll on roll off systems has been developed by Lockheed Martin with their Vigilant Hawk proposal which expands on the Harvest Hawk and secret squirrel hyper spectral imaging Shadow Harvest programmes.

There is also the Senior Scout product.

From the Senior Scout product page

Senior Scout is an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system built into a trailer-like container that can be rolled on and off C-130 aircraft. This ISR suite of equipment rapidly configures standard C-130 aircraft for tactical signals intelligence, providing capabilities that exploit, geo-locate and report communications intelligence and signals of interest to air and ground component commanders

Senior Scout has COMINT, SIGINT and ELINT operators and as the description above, the cabin simply plugs in with the antennas already having been fitted, yet again, to custom doors, pods and even undercarriage doors.

Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules
Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules
Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules
Senior Scout Signal Intelligence C130 Hercules

Wonder how a Senior Scout like system designed for the A400M would compare to to the AirSeeker Rivet Joint aircraft, of which we will have three.

Thales even make an ELINT pod for the C130, click here to read.

The USMC has also been exploring how they can use the Harvest Hawk in different ways and their MAPS/SABIR concept is creating a Direct Airborne Air Support centre by using palletised work stations.

Direct Air Support onboard a C130 Hercules
Direct Air Support onboard a C130 Hercules

Going back to Airdyne and a look at their pods;

Airdyne SABIR 09
Airdyne SABIR
Airdyne SABIR 07
Airdyne SABIR
Airdyne SABIR 06
Airdyne SABIR
Airdyne SABIR Systems (01)
Airdyne SABIR

When one thinks about, the A400M Atlas wing hard points could be used for pretty much any off the shelf sensor pod or new concepts developed.

Muli Mission Pods
Muli Mission Pods

In the image above, one of the concepts is a strike pod that combines munitions with a SAR and EO sensors, the same for the maritime version, combining sonobouys, EO turret and search radar. A large pod allows these combinations and might negate the need for a door solution altogether.

Persistent wide area surveillance is especially useful for potential future operations in urban areas where there might be a lot going in in a relatively small area.

We might assume that is what we have Watchkeeper for, with either existing Reapers of a future replacement in the form of Telemos for example and that would be fair enough but as ever with the manned v unmanned debate, the answers are never clear cut.

One US programme I have been following quite closely is the Northrop Grumman Firebird (click here, here and here) because I think it represents a couple of important trends; apart from the common electronic backbone to make integration of different sensors much simpler it also introduces the simple concept of multiple sensors of the same type on one aircraft.

Instead of one payload it is designed to carry four

This makes perfect sense, if a target group in a vehicle stops and splits up a conventional solution might have a problem maintaining continuous coverage for example. I have looked at wide area systems like the US Gorgon Stare a few times with the most recent here

One of the limiting factors with existing systems is that in general, they can only look at one place at a time. Even accepting the wide area radar view being able to cross cue optical sensors from different or the same collector platform we are still suffering from looking through the proverbial soda straw and in general, full motion video is used for the ‘here and now’ rather than piecing together a long term wide area picture. You may have heard of the term ‘patterns of life’ and this is used to describe this wide area medium term view, by understanding how people move (or not), distribution of indicators like crop harvesting and other fiendishly clever analysis a great deal can be ascertained. Although we have used this in the context of COIN type operations where analysing patterns of movement of the civilian population can deliver vital clues about enemy activity, contraband smuggling and IED emplacement it also has utility in more intensive combat operations as well as long as the aerial platforms can remain aloft.

Gorgon Stare, or to give it its proper name, the Wide Area Airborne Surveillance (WAAS) pod is a Sierra Nevada system of five electro-optical still cameras and four infrared cameras for day and night wide-area surveillance. It provides multiple views of the battlefield and is mounted in a couple of pods on the Reaper UAV. Operating in conjunction with the Distributed Common Ground System it stitches together the multiple views into a single composite feed. Displayed as multiple tiles or if needed, single or smaller number of tiles can be composited. Because of the huge data rate it would not be possible to transmit at the full motion video of 25-30 frames per second so instead scales this down to 2 frames per second, which is entirely adequate for its intended use. The initial versions monitor everything in a 4km by 4km square but this will be increased with later versions. Coupled with this wide area view is its ability to provide forensic replays, an IED goes off in a particular area for example and an analyst can simply rewind the image square for that area, picking up the people who laid it, where they came from, how they moved and potentially, where they are now. Automated image analysis tools are also being used to maximise the benefit of all this data and video compression technology based on fourier transfoms is also improving, better compression effectively means more data down a limited bandwidth pipe.

With constant improvement in solid state storage and video compression techniques it could be feasible to provide video storage/caching as part of the observation payload, thus reducing the amount of backhaul bandwidth.

The space on offer from an A400M based collection platform is that much of the processor and storage intensive analysis could be carried out on board and only relevant information relayed to ground commanders.

In effect, the aerial platform becomes a large Sky Plus / TIVO box or town centre CCTV system

Things have moved on since that TD post, the pace of change is incredible.

Whether using something as advanced as Gorgon Stare/Argus or just a handful of conventional electro optical turrets they are inherently suitable for pod mounting and have been demonstrated as such.

In 2011 I had a look at the Lockheed martin Vigilance Pod system that is being proposed as a replacement for the ASaC Mk7 Sea King’s, perhaps this might also find a use in an A400M podded solution. It is from the same family as the F35 radar and therefore at the cutting edge with some very interesting capabilities.

The A400 wing pylons are stressed for at least 600Kg so one could imagine an A400 Atlas operating in the persistent airborne ISR role with a couple of pods, each pod with four, five or even six turrets. This would offer a step change in full motion video for ground commanders.

As we have seen with Watchkeeper cross cueing from a lightweight Synthetic Aperture Radar such as the Thales i-Master can provide dramatic improvements in capability, is there any reason the 32Kg i-Master could not be fitted into one of these multi sensor pods?

Having all those sensors is one thing but doing something with that data and turning data into intelligence is another, practical bandwidth constraints might prevent full utilisation but the size of the A400 means that initial processing and analysis could take place onboard.

A crew pod fitted into the cargo hold could house any number of mission specialists, command and control personnel and processing equipment, a data centre in the sky.

Add in multi-channel radio rebroadcast or even a high altitude TETRA base station with satellite reach back and you have a collection of useful systems on a single long endurance platform.

The A400M has the space and performance to do these things.

As can be seen from the Senior Scout system and the numerous VIP pods available the mission specialists and operators do not need to be housed in the noisy cargo hold, even though the A400M is much less noisy that the C130. Palletised shelters are available from VRR Aviation in Holland or Knight Aerospace in the USA. (take some time on the Knight Aerospace page, some great images)

Boeing have offered a range of installable mission systems and there is also the EADS Fully Integrated Tactical System (FITS) available, the latter would offer an easier industrial path but how FITS compares to the Boeing systems is a bit vague.

If you look at the video below on the C295 it shows FITS in action

For the maritime surveillance role mounting a large diameter rotating array might be difficult with a door or pod system though, that said, the Thales Ocean Master is only 85Kg

Weapons and Consumables

Sonobouys are launched at low and high altitude but the same basic system from Airdyne would be suitable for both. Nimrod had two rotary dispensers and two single compartment pressurised launchers with storage racks for extra. A door mounted sonobouy dispenser with additional storage elsewhere in the aircraft would at least on face value offer a solution. Telemetry and receiving systems, from Ultra Flightline, would need to be fitted as well.

If a door mounted launcher was not possible then the same system as used for the centreline hose unit could be used instead.

Weapons fitted would depend on the mission, missiles overland or if we were looking at this for the anti-submarine role then torpedoes.

Stingray torpedo carriage and release is a much more difficult problem to solve, they can’t just be slung off the ramp.

The A400 comes equipped with a pair of under wing pylons for carriage of the Cobham 908Erefuelling pod. The Stingray Mod 1 Lightweight Torpedoweighs in at just over 260kg each. According to the datasheet the 900 series pod weight over 600kg so carriage of a single Stingray under each wing would not be a problem from a weight perspective. If the pylon can carry a little more, and that would be a reasonable assumption given it would also have fuel in it then it might even be possible to carry a pair per pylon on a multi rail launcher.

Pylon space is precious though and this would be a problem, even with the combined sensor/weapon pods in the Vigilant Watch graphic above.

For overland weapons the obvious contenders would be something like the Viper Strike or Hellfire.

The GBU-44 Viper Strike is now owned by our very own MBDA.

The video below shows tests using the C130 paratrooper door launching mechanism

Viper Strike is a mature, low cost system that has been recently updated to enable attacks against high speed vehicles.

Another option would be an automatic cannon.

The ATK Mk44 30mm cannon has only a few months ago been type certified by the USAF as the GAU23 for use on AC130 gunships and Alenia proposed the same weapon for their MC-27J Spartangunship concept (more pictures here and here), at the link for the MC-27J it mentions a proposed C295 gunship would use the ATK M230LF (similar to the chain gun on the Apache) chambered for 30mm RARDEN ammunition. The 40mm CTA gun would be even more powerful. ATK have a brochure for their palletised system called PaWSand click herefor a video.

The Airbus Military has a tantalising paragraph on the special missions section of its website

In future the A400M has the potential to be an exceptionally powerful gunship able to carry a wide range of weapons including the largest guns with their heavy ammunition loads. It could be equipped with a sophisticated mission system for the modern network-centric battlefield and has an extensive defensive aids suite for self-protection. The A400M’s exceptional speed range and agile night low-flying capability will let it deploy rapidly to assist ground troops and then manoeuvre smoothly to ensure accurate targeting

Combine the A400’s impressive speed and endurance, add in a palletised weapon fit, pylon mounted Brimstone/Hellfire/Viper Strike, a few extra sensors, a collection of radio rebroadcast equipment and even a centreline refuelling unit and you have an exceptionally versatile aircraft that can deliver against a variety of requirements.

None of them described above would seem to present impossible engineering challenges as much of the equipment exists, have already been integrated with other aircraft, in some cases by Airbus themselves.

As I mentioned above, mounting positions are scarce but sensors on the wing pods and weapons through the paratrooper doors does not sound like an impossible pipe dream.

We could even go into the realms of fantasy fleet with the non-penetrating transport bomber which seems a perennial discussion favourite but is always the bridesmaid never the bride.

One could think of any number of reasons why this would be a bad idea but I do sometimes get the impression that the RAF and USAF aren’t interested in any solution that threatens their bomber of fighter fleets and have a little difficulty with non-conventional solutions. Look how fast the RAF’s FOAS concept that originally aired the prospect of transport aircraft air launched cruise missiles was dropped.

I have defended the RAF’s long range strikes against Libya because they demonstrated perfectly a prompt strike response capability against difficult targets and when Tornado retires that capability might well pass to Typhoon or maybe (an outside chance) the F35B.

But imagine a repeat scenario in the mid 2020’s with an A400M Atlas based delivery option, no airborne refuelling, multiple launches, loitering for hours in response to changing target conditions or post-strike assessments and a fraction of delivery cost in comparison.

What makes this interesting, in comparison with C130 options, is the A400M’s speed, space and range, it makes the arguments against a little more tenuous.

I don’t want to get too carried away with notions of hoofing Storm Shadow off the ramp of an A400M but food for thought nevertheless!

Just for fun, have a look at these videos, here, here, here, here, here, and best of all, the one below


It will not have escaped your attention that pretty much all of the systems described are C130 based so they would actually strengthen the argument for either retention of the Hercules fleet or the buying of more to compliment the A400M’s.

It’s not a bad idea really, but as I have repeatedly said, the UK intends to withdraw the C130 fleet by 2022 and we don’t save money by keeping multiple legacy fleets in service.

To maximise savings we must have commonality and as few aircraft types in service as possible. I am going to explore options for a smaller compliment to the A400M Atlas in the final part of this series but it will be for something smaller than the C130.

I should be crystal clear here; this is not a proposal to use the already too small A400M Atlas fleet for every mission under the sun but to make use of them in two ways.

The first is to use the additional features like airborne refuelling to provide sensible complimentary capabilities in certain areas, the Falkland Islands being an obvious answer.

Secondly, use the aircraft as a base platform for specific missions.

It is foolish to think that the aircraft can be a tanker one day and an anti-submarine aircraft the next.

The numerous realities of aircraft availability, safety and aircrew training will prevent that but let’s not forget that Germany is trying to offload 13 aircraft from its production order that it does not want.

The various suggestions, from Marshalls and Lockheed Martin, for Hercules based stop gaps seem like desperately clutching at straws and fail to recognise the shagged out state of the existing fleet or the simple fact that no programmes or funding exists.

If we are to take advantage of the A400M Atlas platform for use across multiple roles then it has to be at the centre of a coherent and funded programme, not some last minute lash up.

The Lockheed Martin marketing slogan for the multi role capabilities of the c130J is;

Buy an aircraft, get an air force

So apart from seeing the slogan elsewhere on the web, often used as a title, and excusing the hyperbole a bit, the multi role flexibility offered by a tactical transport aircraft really is self-evident.

Swap out some of the US specific systems for those already in the UK’s inventory and the maintenance of a minimal new equipment objective could still be met.

With these multi role capabilities on offer the equipment is but a small fraction on the route into service, qualification, safety cases, crew training, airframe availability and ongoing support are all significant barriers.

None of these ideas might be ultimately worth pursuing but there are imaginative solutions out there that are worthy of consideration and employing the aircraft types you already have in service is one them.


Incidentally, if you want to read loads of presentations on the Lockheed Martin C130 multi role capabilities and much more you can click on the presentation library for the Hercules Operators Council

2010 here

2011 here

2012 here

Loads of great stuff there, you could spend days and write umpteen posts using them as a jump off point!

With ones specifically on the subject below






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