Berlin airlift impasse

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Douglas Barrie/LONDON

The sight of an airlifter over Berlin used to be welcome. In the case of the Antonov An-70, making its Western show debut, there will be those among the crowd who wish it had remained in Ukraine.

The An-70 is being championed by none other than Volker Rühe,Germany's defence minister, to meet Europe's longstanding plan to modernise its air forces' tactical airlifter capabilities.The Ukrainian aircraft is viewed by many, however, as an interloper in addressing the European Staff Requirement (ESR). Not least of all by those within Airbus Military Company (AMC), also in attendance at the show, which is working to meet the ESR with the Future Large Aircraft (FLA).

Germany was the first to sign the ESR in 1996, some 14 years after the initial multi-Future International Military Airlifter (FIMA) was launched to address the programme. The AMC FLA project grew from the governmental partnership agreement between Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Turkey and, with the occasional opt out, the UK, to come up with a joint solution for the requirement. The nations opted in late 1993 to place the previous government-led European Future Large Aircraft Group under the auspices of a commercial organisation, Airbus Industrie. Since then, what is now AMC (although it has yet to be legally registered) has been working on the FLA to meet the partner nations' needs for a tactical airlift successor to the Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules.

European requirements included the ability to carry a 25t load 3,880km (2,100nm), or a 16t load 5,800km.

Following years of prevarication and debate, the programme appeared to be on the brink of genuinely getting under way with the release of a request for proposals to AMC in July last year, a date which also saw the UK formally rejoin the project. Just, however, when the FLA was, belatedly, taking shape, Germany gave the programme another nudge toward the abyss.

Rühe decided in late 1997 that the Ukrainian An-70 should be considered for German air force needs , and that it should be considered as the basis for the FLA. This idea initially was met with incredulity by Airbus and derision by some of the European defence ministries. The An-70 has nevertheless increasingly appeared to be a credible political option for certain FLA partner nations. It had already been examined by the industrial partners as an FLA-platform in the early 1990s, only to be rejected.

For Rühe, the attraction of an An-70 based-programme lies in its potential as an example of "Ostpolitik". There is much political impetus to forging a German, Russian, and Ukrainian military transport axis, as Bonn searches for a route to providing industrial aid to the East. AMC set about reviewing the An-70 as a potential FLA contender, at least appearing to address Rühe's request. The results are due to be discussed by the partner nations during the air show.

Industry sources close to the programme claim that the study rejects the An-70 as a candidate airframe for the FLA on both cost and risk grounds. While perhaps superficially attractive, converting the An-70, which was designed to meet the then Soviet Union's requirement for an Ilyushin Il-76 Candid replacement, to a Western standard configuration poses many problems.

The aircraft's Progress D-27 propfans would have to be replaced with Western powerplants and propellers, and a European digital cockpit would also figure.

As Lockheed Martin has learned to its embarrassment on the C-130J Hercules, the introduction of a new engine (the Allison AE2100D3) and propeller configuration (the Dowty six-bladed unit) can have unforeseen and undesirable effects on wing performance. The integration of a digital cockpit is also a task not to be underestimated.

For what was billed as a relatively simple upgrade, Lockheed Martin's first C-130J customer, the Royal Air Force, is having to wait two years longer than planned for its first aircraft. It will receive its first Hercules in September.

Problematically for the AMCpartners and their joint An-70 study, Rühe also instigated an independent German review, the outcome of which is not due to released until mid-1999.

The AMC partners are keen to get the pre-launch activities phase of the project officially under way. This segment will provide detailed technical, contractual and production proposals, and AMC is already working to address these areas.

Continuing delays to the overall programme have inevitably had an adverse impact on the FLA's development time scale. In 1995, first deliveries were projected for 2003, but some three years later this has slipped to at least 2004.

Military sources claim that a realistic date for a service entry of the aircraft is 2008, although AMC says the delay will not be this great. For the likes of the RAF, this presents a difficulty in that it is looking to replace its second tranche of C-130Ks from 2004.

Regarding this as a difficulty, however, may be a matter of perspective. The RAF remains cool over the FLA: its transport priority is for a genuine strategic airlifter in the class of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. It is also disinclined to operate a three-type transport fleet - the implication of acquiring both a strategic transport and the FLA to deploy alongside its C-130Js.

In pursuing the An-70 option, Rühe has found support among at least one of the other FLA partner nations. According to programme sources, senior Italian defence ministry officials visited Russia at the end of March to discuss possible areas of defence collaboration. One of these is believed to be the An-70. The Italian air force has also been instructed by its political masters to re-evaluate the aircraft as a potential candidate to meet its future lift requirements.

A common thread among the major FLA partner nations is that politics has taken precedence over military requirements, irrespective of whether the FLA is the correct aircraft.

Rühe's An-70 gambit is driven not by any burning desire to see the German air force receive the best possible aircraft to meet its needs, suggest Bonn sources, but rather to address German political issues. In the UK, the RAF has effectively been told to keep its own council on the FLA, rather than embarrass a government which is keen to flag up its European credentials.

That there is a basic need for European air forces to address tactical transport requirements is not in question. What is under examination by Germany and the UK is whether the FLA is the right aircraft.

While, for instance, AMC has argued that deployment of the UK's Joint Rapid Deployment Force is best served by an all-FLA fleet, the RAF continues to hanker after what it views as a genuine strategic airlift aircraft. Germany is also understood to be interested in an outsize military airlift capability in support of a rapid deployment capacity for some of its armed forces.

In looking at this, the partner nations, with Germany a likely observer, may issue what is effectively an ESR request for proposals (RFP)to other manufacturers, the most significant of which are Boeing and Lockheed Martin, by the end of the second quarter of this year.

STALKING HORSES

The An-70 is not the only stalking horse in the FLA procurement saga, as the responses will make all too apparent. Lockheed Martin and Airbus Industrie have courted each other in the past in attempting to fulfil their own strategic aspirations. The US defence giant has offered its New Strategic Airlifter (NSA) family, coupled with the C-130J, to address European tactical and strategic airlift requirements.

Airbus Industrie, meanwhile, had looked to use the former's interest in pushing its airlifter products into the European theatre as an enticement to draw Lockheed Martin into its 450-plus-seat A3XX airliner. Lockheed Martin, however, was unconvinced by the business case for a risk -sharing partnership on the A3XX.

It continues, however, to harbour aspirations about a transatlantic military transport project encompassing Airbus Industrie. The latest iteration of this desire is its Advanced Mobility Aircraft (AMA) concept.

The AMA is intended to address eventual US Air Force requirements to replace its Boeing KC-135 tanker in the third decade of the next century and to provide additional lift capability, which the company believes is required because of the withdrawal of the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter fleet.

The latter is being replaced by the C-17 Globemaster III, but on nowhere near a one-to-one basis. The AMA envisages a family of twin-engined aircraft, the largest of which would address the KC-135 replacement, while smaller versions could meet an FLA type role.

In part, the issue for Lockheed Martin is trying to reconcile the gap in timescales between European and US Air Force requirements if the AMA is to address fully the FLA requirement. The low-end tactical requirement could yet be addressed by the C-130J.

What Lockheed Martin could still benefit from is that while there is the facade of a common European programme, with shared aims, it is in reality two-faced. Rühe is looking east, toward Ukraine and Russia, while other partner nations are looking to a further industrial consolidation around Airbus, through AMC. Others may be attracted to a transatlantic partnership with Lockheed Martin.

This option would become more attractive if the FLA fragments because of Rühe's predilection for the An-70. Sources within AMC express doubt as to whether Airbus Industrie would be willing to take on such a risky burden, while Airbus pointedly refuses to discuss FLA in any shape or form.

If Rühe opts for the An-70, it would involve German and Italian industry, at least, teaming with Eastern partners.

In the light of such a move, it is difficult to conceive of the remaining partners continuing to pursue the project. Instead, the C-130J could yet emerge as the only viable tactical airlift option for those states which decide against the An-70 for their tactical airlift requirements in the early decades of the next century.

With the FLA no longer an issue of contention, Lockheed Martin and Airbus Industrie might find the collaborative path on a project such as the AMA much less difficult to negotiate. This, of course, is dependent on Airbus remaining interested in the military sector. Some might opine that given its experience so far with the FLA, this is by no means a foregone conclusion.

It also remains to be seen whether both the An-70, and its main proponent, Rühe, continue to address European lift requirements in 1999.

Germany will hold elections late this year. Many within AMC are awaiting the outcome with great interest. Few at Airbus in Toulouse would shed tears were Rühe to lose his seat.