Airbus Eyes Opening Into U.S. Military Airlift Market
RAF officials hailed the Stryker load and tie-down trial as a watershed event that kicks off the process for certifying that their A400M aircraft is capable of carrying U.S. combat vehicles into battle. To military commanders, the demonstration was a step toward greater interoperability between equipment from different NATO countries. To Airbus, it marked the “soft rollout” of its A400M tactical airlifter into a tough U.S. military market that is already owned by Boeing’s C-17 and Lockheed Martin’s C-130 cargo aircraft.
Airbus is positioning the A400M, not as a competitor to existing cargo planes, but as an aircraft that could fill gaps in the fleet. “It is a capability that does not exist today in the U.S. inventory,” said Allan McArtor, chairman and CEO of Airbus Group Inc.
McArtor is well aware of the political obstacles of selling a European plane to the Defense Department, a challenge that Airbus lost five years ago when it competed for a contract to supply refueling tankers to the U.S. Air Force.
Airbus executives have been marketing the A400M at the Pentagon for some time, pointing out that it can carry heavier loads than the C-130 and can land where a C-17 can’t. “It fits into a very attractive niche,” McArtor told National Defense in an interview. “It’s an important missing piece for U.S. airlift.”
The aircraft is not yet ready for prime time. It is still experiencing growing pains and recovering from the fallout of a deadly crash in Spain last year, but the company is taking the long view.
“Given some time I think we’ll have a very competitive airplane,” said McArtor. The A400M also is being proposed as a refueling tanker that could land in unprepared strips. Airbus executives have computer models that show that the availability of an A400M refueling tanker would allow U.S. and NATO forces more flexibility to operate on islands where there may not be big enough airfields to land conventional tankers.
“We still have a lot of work to do to mature the airplane,” said McArtor. There are still software glitches that are being fixed, not an uncommon problem in new aircraft. “It’s a little early for us to have a very aggressive campaign, but it will come,” he added. “We have a continuing dialogue with the air staff. They talk to their counterparts in the U.K. and other nations that have it. [Air Force Chief of Staff] Gen. Mark Welsh has been in the airplane twice.”
While there are no plans today to build the A400M in the United States, McArtor said the company would consider producing the aircraft in Mobile, Alabama, where it recently opened a commercial airliner assembly plant.
A central player in deciding what cargo planes the Pentagon buys is the Army, which makes the Stryker demonstration — conducted in late September at Fort Bliss, Texas — all the more noteworthy. “We have to demonstrate the airplane in a tactical setting,” said McArtor. The test at Fort Bliss is just a “data point in building confidence in the airplane.”
The commander of the Royal Air Force 70 Squadron that plans to operate the A400, Wing Commander Simon Boyle, said he was excited to work with the U.S. Army at a time when NATO countries worry about security challenges in Europe.
The Stryker trial has “significant implications for future NATO and U.K./U.S. interoperability as the loading exercise links directly to the vehicle’s certification for carriage in the A400M,” he said in a RAF news release. At the NATO 2014 Wales summit, leaders agreed to establish a rapid-response force able to deploy on short notice. The Stryker vehicle is one of the primary combat platforms of the U.S. Army 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Vilseck, Germany.
“With interoperability at the heart of the A400M program, the opportunity to load a core fighting vehicle of the U.S. Army into a RAF A400M has provided a clear demonstration of the aircraft’s utility in the coalition operating environment,” Boyle noted.
The U.K. team worked with A Company 4th Battalion 17th Infantry Regiment 1st Brigade 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss to load, tie down and unload a Stryker infantry combat vehicle variant. The data from the test will be used to seek air transportation certification for the Stryker in the A400M.
The RAF recently accepted the eighth of the 22 aircraft that it has ordered, with a goal of declaring the fleet operational by 2017. The A400 was initially conceived as a replacement to the C-130K that would work alongside the C-130J fleet. But the Ministry of Defence decided in 2010 to retire the Hercules by 2022 and make the Atlas the United Kingdom’s principal tactical airlifter.
“In terms of physical size, the aircraft sits almost midway between the C-17 and C-130J although because its wingspan is only about 2 meters wider than a C-130J, it has a very similar ground footprint,” Air Commander David Lee, assistant chief of staff for air capability, air mobility and air enablers, told an industry conference in September.
With regard to speed and range, he said, the A400M is closer to a C-17 than to the C-130J. The size and shape of the cargo bay is a significant feature, Lee added. “Of the equipment declared to be air transportable by Defence, Atlas meets 80 percent whereas the C-130J can only carry 29 percent.”
The Stryker vehicle used in the Fort Bliss test — part of a broader Army equipment demonstration called “network integration evaluation” — weighed around 36,000 pounds.
The Air Force has transported Stryker vehicles in C-130s without slat armor, but it did not provide clearances on the sides as required by regulation and could not land on a dirt strip with an eight-person crew. Airbus officials said the A400M would be able to transport a 9-foot wide Stryker with the slat armor, although one side would have to be installed after landing.
According to company marketing materials, the A400M cargo box size is 3 feet wider and 3.5 feet taller than the C-130 and can carry a much bigger tactical load, or about 66,000 pounds. Air Force fact sheets indicate the maximum load for the C-130J-30 is 36,000 pounds.
The C-130J-30 is known as the “stretch” model — it is 15 feet longer than the conventional version — and makes up a majority of combat C-130Js that are being delivered, said Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Stephanie Sonnenfeld Stinn. The company is “constantly evaluating the needs of our customer and works to meet those needs to the maximum extent possible,” she told National Defense in a statement.
Airbus officials insist they are not seeking to displace the C-130 but rather fill demands that the Hercules can’t meet. More than 60 nations operate the C-130 and Lockheed so far has delivered more than 2,300 aircraft since 1956.
Meanwhile, eight countries have placed orders for 174 A400M aircraft and so far have received 16. Buyers include Belgium (seven), France (50), Germany (53), Luxemburg (one), Spain (27), Turkey (10), the United Kingdom (22) and Malaysia (four).
U.S. industry insiders have been skeptical about the A400M’s chances in the United States. “The C-130 has been around since the Vietnam War and has been a very capable aircraft,” said Air Force veteran and former C-130 pilot Steve Griffin. “It has met the Army’s needs for intra-theater lift.” But he does not discount the possibility that the Army may one day push for the acquisition of the A400M. “They would like it because it’s a turboprop.”
Griffin said he would expect Lockheed Martin to make whatever modifications were needed in the C-130 to keep the A400M from encroaching in its market. “If the Army says they need to transport a heavier Stryker, I think Lockheed will make that happen.”
Stephen D. Mundt, a retired Army brigadier general and now senior vice president of Airbus, has been pleading his case to Air Force leaders. “We need something to move supplies in austere theaters,” he told National Defense during an industry conference earlier this year.
“The C-130 is a great tactical aircraft to bring people and pallets. But if you want to bring tactical vehicles, it doesn’t do that. The C-17 will do that, but it won’t land at the point of employment. What tactical vehicles can you put in a C-130?”