Bigger, faster, cheaper, better: European air forces ask much of the A400M and hope to be rewarded with a transport aircraft that will provide years of service

Around two decades in the creation and still five years away from its entry into service, Airbus Military's A400M transport could have been sidelined as Europe's operational requirements evolved. Instead, the multinational project remains one of the most important - and, at €20 billion ($25.4 billion), expensive - military equipment acquisitions under way on the continent, with the airlifter's promised capabilities now in severe shortage among the seven partner nations. While ongoing delays to projects such as the four-nation Eurofighter have prompted some opposition to militaries spending money on capabilities perceived to be outdated, recent operations have only underlined the need for a new-generation transport aircraft.

Despite its years of programme delays and frustrations, the A400M promises to provide Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK with a transformational, yet affordable solution to their airlift requirements until around 2040. The aircraft has a vital part to play in rectifying some of the gaps exposed during operations such as 1999's NATO-led "Allied Force" campaign in Kosovo, which led the alliance to identify strategic airlift and in-flight refuelling as key capability shortfalls.

European operators have long been aware of the limitations of their legacy Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules and Transall C160 fleets, and their recent and growing need to deploy forces and equipment rapidly over long distances has underlined the need for a new solution. Formally launched under a multinational European Staff Requirement signed in 1996, the A400M project has moved at an often tortuous pace during its first years, and a less critical requirement could well have collapsed altogether amid the budget difficulties that faced some of its original partner nations.

Two of these - Italy and Portugal - quit the programme, but for the seven nations now aboard there was no affordable or viable alternative to moving ahead with a shared commitment for 180 A400Ms - the same number of Boeing C-17 Globemaster strategic transports now on order for the US Air Force. Likely to come in at around half the unit cost of the larger US aircraft, the A400M will be identified by its key design traits of affordability, reliability and versatility - demands laid down by partner air forces almost a decade ago.

Range and reliability

The A400M has been designed to replace the C-130 and the C160, with the new aircraft to have a greater range and increased lift capability, while also being more reliable and easier to operate than its predecessors. It will have a maximum cargo capacity of 37,000kg (81,600lb) - twice that of Lockheed Martin's new-generation C-130J tactical transport, but less than half that of the C-17.

The A400M will carry a maximum of 116 troops; or 54 plus nine NATO-standard pallets in a mixed configuration; or outsized loads such as armoured personnel carriers or attack and support helicopters. The aircraft will have an unrefuelled ferry range of 9,075km (4,900nm), with this performance falling to 6,570km carrying a 20,000kg cargo and 4,540km with a 30,000kg load. The aircraft's cargo hold has been designed with a width of 4m (13ft), and a box height set at 3.85m.

The A400M will be more like an airliner than its military predecessors, with sophisticated navigation, communications and collision-avoidance systems to enable it to operate in the same airspace - and at the same altitude - as commercial traffic. It will also be capable of low-level, low-speed flight for tasks such as the aerial delivery of equipment or personnel, or the in-flight refuelling of support helicopters. The aircraft will also use Airbus's proven fly-by-wire technology to operate safely across its flight envelope, down to flight just 5kt (9km/h) above its stall speed.

Altitude advantage

The aircraft will routinely fly at an altitude of 37,000ft, and up to 40,000ft in some configurations, placing it above the C-130J's 30,000ft maximum at full weight and near the C-17's service ceiling. The aircraft's Mach 0.68-0.72 cruise speed will also approach the capabilities of the C-17.

Rather than undergo a lengthy period of user acceptance trials, the aircraft will also arrived fully certificated, a commercial-style advance that the UK expects to enable the type to receive clearances to fly tactical operations by day or night, in bad weather and under hostile conditions within a year of accepting its first aircraft in 2010.

With a maximum take-off weight of 130,000kg, the A400M will blur the boundary between tactical and strategic airlifters, offering the ability to fly both intra- and inter-theatre missions. This trait will deliver transformational performance in support of future operations by the partner nations on an individual basis, or in support of NATO's newly operational Joint Rapid Reaction Force. Designed to operate from established air bases or semi-prepared, rough landing strips with limited infrastructure using its short-field capabilities, the A400M will increasingly enable its operators to fly equipment, personnel and supplies directly to an area of need.

The A400M will not need additional ground-support equipment, increasing utility while operating from austere facilities. This ability will be particularly important during operations such as last year's Iraq conflict, where regional basing options were limited. A key element of the staff requirement which led to its design, autonomous ground operations will be possible through the A400M's ability to "kneel" during the offload of cargo, and by using its smart cargo-handling system. Yet to be finalised, this will feature capabilities similar to those on the C-17 and C-130J, with a rapidly reconfigurable roller and rail flooring system to be managed by the aircraft's one loadmaster. Ground operations will be further enhanced by the aircraft's tight turning circle of just under 30m.

Unsupported operations from austere facilities will also be made possible through a mandated European requirement for the A400M to operate over a 15-day period without maintenance beyond that conducted by its loadmaster using onboard equipment. The aircraft will also be capable of operating for 150 days, or 500 flight hours, without scheduled maintenance, further enhancing its ability to conduct forward-deployed operations. The aircraft's impressive short-field performance will enable it achieve a 1,000m take-off distance at an all-up weight of 100,000kg, and to land at the same weight in just 1,480m.

With its ability to operate under austere conditions near the front line, the A400M's missions will also call for it to be equipped with sophisticated countermeasures equipment to defend against possible attack by surface-to-air missiles. However, like the ability to provide the aircraft with cockpit armour, the provision of defensive aids subsystem (DASS) equipment will be optional. The UK, for example, intends to acquire DASS equipment for just nine of its 25 A400Ms, in a move which it expects to save almost £15 million ($27.5 million) for each unequipped airframe.

The aircraft's countermeasures suite will comprise laser-, missile- and radar-warning receivers, a directional infrared countermeasures system, towed radar decoys and chaff and flare dispensers. The DASS suite will operate in automatic, semi-automatic or manual modes, according to requirements.

Refuelling benefit

Another transformational benefit of the A400M comes through its inherent ability to act as an in-flight refueller for fighters and helicopters, made possible by its wide flight envelope. While most of the partner nations already possess varying levels of tanker capability, the option to equip the A400M with pod-housed and roll-on, roll-off tanker equipment will offer operational flexibility during future training and war-fighting commitments.

With every A400M piped to receive fuel from a tanker aircraft and able to carry two wing-mounted hose and drogue pods and a pallet-housed centreline hose drum unit, the European partners stand to boost significantly the number of refuelling aircraft available to support NATO duties and other missions.

If used as a dedicated tanker, the A400M can be equipped with two cargo bay fuel tanks with a combined capacity of 12,000kg, and the aircraft will be capable of carrying a fuel load of around 40,000kg for transfer to other aircraft.

Unlike the C-17, Europe's A400M will not be able to deploy a main battle tank, but the platform's use in support of operations involving NATO's Joint Rapid Reaction Force will not require the carriage of such an offensive asset, with lighter, more mobile vehicles such as armoured personnel carriers a more likely cargo. Each A400M will be capable of carrying three of these or two attack or support helicopters. As the C-17 is likely to stay beyond the financial reach of most - the UK is the lone export customer for the type to date, having decided to buy five - the A400M will provide a one-size-fits-all solution for most of the programme's current partners.

Compared with Airbus's flagship A380, progress on the A400M is moving at a conservative pace, with the design to enter service with launch operator the French air force in late 2009. Several years later than initially expected, the delayed availability of the new European airlifter has caused difficulties for its future operators, which must foot the bill to ensure operations of their existing transports can continue until the new aircraft is available.

Germany, for example, earlier this year had to inspect the fuel tanks of its C160 fleet and perform modifications to avert the risk of fires, restricting operations for some time. The partners have also had to accept a higher unit cost caused by their reduced off-take of 180 A400Ms. However, the project's comparatively slow development pace will benefit through design commonality with the A380, removing risk from the project in critical areas such as avionics and supportability.

For some, the delays and uncertainty of the A400M's past proved too great a risk, forcing Italy to break ranks and procure a mixed fleet of C-130Js and Lockheed Martin/Alenia C-27Js. Portugal also left the project and is seeking to buy 12 medium transports - probably the C-27J or EADS Casa's C-295 - to augment its C-130s.

Airbus Military is confident that the design requirements agreed for its A400M almost a decade ago will meet the needs of several additional countries, taking it at least part of the way towards a target build of up to 380 of the aircraft.



Source: Flight International