Why wait for the Airbus?
05 May 2009
Wing Commander (Ret'd) Roger Green argues that delays in the A400M programme offer a window of opportunity to commit to the proven C-17 and C-130J transporter aircraft.
On 9th January 2009, EADS announced a further delay in the A400M programme. EADS and Airbus Military are in talks to discuss the programme schedule and other changes to the contract concerning 'certain technical characteristics' of the aircraft. The proposed change to the programme schedule is that the first production aircraft delivery to the French AF would take place three years after the prototype's first flight. EADS wishes to complete a significant portion of the flight trials programme to validate the production design before committing to the production line. The first flight is not now expected to take place until mid-2009 at the earliest. This would mean that the first delivery to the RAF would not take place until 2014. The MoD said that such a delay was unacceptable and that it would monitor the situation closely. The statement went further to state that the MoD would resist any call for increased spending on the fixed-price contract, and that it would look at alternative short-term options. EADS has suggested that nations might consider leasing A330 Airbus aircraft to bridge the gap. OCCAR (the European organisation for joint armament co-operation) has said that buyers can cancel the deal as long as all of them agree to do so.
The 25 A400Ms contracted by the UK are planned to replace the Hercules C-130K aircraft that have been in service for 43 years and are well beyond their planned out-of-service date. The number of C-130Ks has already been reduced to 19 with fleet extensions planned until 2012, when the A400M was due to be delivered. Some of these have been earmarked for up to a further two years according to an MoD statement. The A400M would also provide for the loss of the freight capacity of the three Tristar KC1s that will be retired, along with the other Tristar K1s and C2s, when the A330-200 tanker/transports are delivered starting in 2011.
What would be the impact of the UK abandoning the A400M purchase? This project has suffered many delays, not least because nations were politically reticent to commit themselves to achieve a guaranteed production of 180 aircraft required by EADS for the project to proceed. Eventually, nations signed up to exactly that number, and the A400M became the launch aircraft for the formation of Airbus Military. The project delays have already seen a significant charge against EADS and because the contracts signed by launch nations were fixed-price, EADS may have to absorb significant further charges if other nations insist that the project continues following a withdrawal by the UK. The MoD would likely have to write off their share of initial costs funded by nations to set up the Airbus Military production line, but the purchase costs of the 25 aircraft would be saved.
In commenting on the seriousness of the delay, the MoD stated that it would consider extending the life of the C-130Ks, and leasing or procuring additional airlift assets such as C-17s and C-130Js. As the MoD is now taking a wide view of the problem that it faces in sustaining its operational transport cargo capacity over a period when UK forces will still be committed in Afghanistan, it is perhaps timely to look at the available options in some detail.
Extending the life of the C-130Ks is feasible but certainly not desirable considering the age of the aircraft. The Hercules aircraft does not have a finite fatigue life, as most of the aircraft can be replaced when worn out. However, the cost of extensive refurbishment rises ever more steeply the older the aircraft becomes. With increased maintenance time, the availability of the aircraft for operational tasks is markedly reduced. If the C-130K's avionics and systems are maintained at their present capability, the aircraft will have increasingly less overall utility in operational theatres, and will be able to undertake an ever smaller proportion of the Hercules fleet tasks. This will place an increasing burden on the already fully tasked C-130J force. Also, there is the question of the aircrew. The C-130K training and simulator capacity is already limited, and would need to be extended with additional costs to maintain safety. The C-130K carries a specialist navigator and flight engineer as part of the basic flight crew. Navigators and flight engineers are being phased out of the RAF, and those still remaining on C-130Ks are a dwindling resource through retirement, career moves, or for other service or personal reasons. It may be possible to freeze the appointments of some serving on the aircraft, but the numbers will inevitably diminish and training new replacements for a short time would be neither practical nor cost-effective. Therefore, extending the service life of the C-130K will be costly, and will carry a level of risk in terms of operational availability and capability.
The suggestion by EADS that nations should lease A330s to bridge the gap is unlikely to be taken seriously by the MoD. The MoD's main concern will be loss of cargo capacity, and the A330s do not have a main-deck heavy cargo capability or access door. The underfloor cargo holds do not offer sufficient utility for military freight and will not offset the late delivery of the A400Ms. There is also the issue of finding and training additional aircrews for these aircraft at a time when the training and support organisation for the A330-200 tanker/transport aircraft will be working up. These EADS-leased A330s will presumably be fitted to a civilian standard, bringing the added complication of them working in the military air environment of operational theatres. That would give the RAF a major problem over integrating them into the overall air transport operation.
The acquisition by short-term lease or purchase of additional C-17s or C-130Js would seem to offer the most attractive solution for the MoD. The strategic lift is currently provided by six C-17s that are tasked to capacity, with the 24 C-130Js undertaking the tactical lift and providing some supplementary strategic lift. These two types are a good complementary mix, and the fewer types that the RAF operates in the transport role, the simpler the maintenance and ground support equipment, and the less costly the overall training costs of aircrew, engineers and movements personnel. It also simplifies the task planning and load allocation for the transport force. There is a significant mutual support factor when operating away from the UK base in that the UK's main allies, comprising the Americans, Australians and Canadians, all operate transport fleets of C-17s and C-130Js. The other planned A400M operators are all European air forces, plus the possibility of the South African AF. There is no reason to believe at this stage in the project that the A400M will not ultimately deliver the performance that is promised. However, this delay in the delivery of the A400M is an unexpected opportunity to revisit the RAF's future transport fleet mix, and judge whether a two aircraft-type force is more cost and operationally efficient than a three aircraft-type force.
RAF operations over the past two decades have seen an emphasis on strategic lift not present during the Cold War that led to the initial lease and then purchase by the MoD of the C-17. Whilst there is no question that the A400M offers a better strategic lift capability than the Hercules to supplement the C-17, there is a substantial cost in terms of extra fleet training, simulator, engineering and spares organisations. Aircraft unserviceability down route on an operational task can cause greater force disruption when a third type is involved because loads invariably cannot be transferred quickly or easily to another type. Further, the A400M will not be able to carry any of the main 'outsize' loads also denied to the Hercules. Therefore, there would seem to be a prima facie case to capitalise on recent operational experience, and optimise in terms of cost and efficiency the RAF transport force operation with two fleet types by abandoning the A400M contract. The C-17 has proved itself with the RAF in the strategic lift role, surpassing all expectations of reliability and maintenance. An early commitment to a substantial purchase of additional C-17s now, whilst the Boeing production line is still open, would solve the RAF's strategic lift requirements for many years to come. The nature of theatre air logistics support is better suited to the C-130J – which was designed primarily as a tactical airlifter to operate in theatre conditions – than to the A400M, which is a compromise design trying to fulfil both the strategic and tactical roles. A mix of C-130Js and A400Ms in theatre doing the same tactical role but with different load capabilities and operating characteristics will unnecessarily complicate combat tasking when it is imperative that it is kept simple and straightforward. A purchase of additional C-130J aircraft would meet the tactical requirements and simplify operations. The savings from the A400M contract would largely offset new C-17 and C-130J purchase costs. There would be a substantial cost in expanding the existing C-17 and C-130J support organisations to support larger fleet sizes, but that would be less than setting up a completely new support architecture for the A400M. A balanced force of strategic C-17s and tactical C-130Js would represent an optimal and long-term solution for the RAF with minimal risk to operations.
HAVE YOUR SAY
05 May 2009
well said, hopefully the MoD and Mr Hutton will get on with it and order C17, another 25 would be nice...
michael - London
06 May 2009
It was the European nations that decided to choose the engine that has caused all the delays in the programme. If Airbus had there way they would have chosen a proven engine and the project would be on time. How hypocritical.
james - london
06 May 2009
Good article. however I think the cargo deck of the A400M will be more close to the C-17 then C-130. The C-130's deck is becoming to small rapidly. New combat vehicles just don't fit in.
The C-17 is a great aircraft but 4x as heavy/powerfull and expensive as the C-130. The A400 is about twice as big as the C-130.
With C-17s and C-130s only the RAF would be stuck with aircraft that are mostly either to small or serious overkill. Both have a important role and will have so for decades to come.
But something A400 sized is required. And not only for the RAF. I guess the A400M will become a hit in the end. It just has the right dimensions.
I think even the USAF will not be able to ignore it and probably build a version locally. Congress will bow, kicking and screeming..
keesje - Netherlands
08 May 2009
With domestic political problems dominating Whitehall just at the moment,I guess not much time is being devoted to the looming A400M disaster. This sober assessment of what is a fraught and complex international/technical/commercialproblem provides, in my opinion, an analysis that should steel the government's nerve. The final paragraph puts an incontrovertible case for a buy of C-17 and C-130J. Please, no more euro-dithering: the MODUK decision should be taken now. Wing Commander, we are indebted to you, and I only hope that there remains a spark of common-sense somewhere in Whitehall!
roy giles - oxford
15 May 2009
An excellent article by someone who plainly has a extensive experience of what military airlift capability is all about, while also considering the engineering, logistics and training issues.
12 June 2009
Bearing in mind the likelihood that the A400M will, in practice, only be able to carry slightly over 80% of its originally specified payload, approximately 6 new C17s & 6 new C130Js would be able to do the same work that the A400M was desgned for. And for around US$1 billion less. What an easy choice, if only euro-politics could be kept out of the decision-making!
Terra Dactyl - Hobart, TAS