Sooooo, having finally squeezed in the time to sit down and finish this off, I present to you my assembled ramblings about the A400M, or Atlas C.1 in RAF service. You can have a point if you got the title without having to check.
So far Think Defence has produced two articles of a five part series on the A400M. Part one and part two. In addition he's provided a paper from France (presented in English) discussing how Airbus hope to provide better availability with the A400M. And lastly a draft copy of Airbus Military's plan for in-service support. I'd advise taking the time to read these at some point. As you would expect from Think Defence, the depth of the articles research and coverage is quite extensive, and the Airbus documents provide you with the official lines from the horses mouth.
So what is the A400M/Atlas, why am I opposed to it, and quite why do I keep starting paragraphs with "so"? The answer to the final question comes from not paying enough attention during English lessons, which had I done, would probably have lead to a series of much more interestingly written pieces that caressed the English language onto the page, instead of dumping it in odd piles like sand from a construction tipper.
The Atlas on the other hand is a four turbo prop powered, 76.5 ton large transport aircraft, designed and built by Airbus Military in order to replace (and surpass) a wide range of military transports such as the Lockheed Martin C-130 "Hercules" and the Transall C-160. It's designed to carry a maximum payload of 37 tons (to a range of over 2,000 miles) or loads of around 20 tons out to around 4,000 miles. Without question, it's a very capable aircraft on paper.
But is it the right choice for the UK?
The A400M program dates back to the early 80's, with plans to replace ageing transport aircraft in Europe with a brand new lifter. What follows will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of joint European defence projects. Squabbling over the precise requirements and work shares (stop me if you've heard this before) led to the project breaking down after around 8 years with no progress made. Eventually an agreement was reached by the late 90's, and things were starting to move again.
It is here that we have to assess the condition of air transport in the UK. We must always be vigilant about imposing our current knowledge, supplemented as it is by hindsight, onto decision makers of the past.
The UK back then relied on a mixture of aircraft for transport purposes. Tankers like the Tri-Star and VC-10 could double as passenger aircraft as well as carrying a small amount of cargo in their holds. For larger items the only real option was the C-130. If it couldn't be carried by the venerable Hercules then it would have to be shipped to the destination, or transported on a commercially contracted cargo aircraft.
Under this light, the Atlas makes a lot of sense. It's range is much greater than the Hercules, it can carry more cargo by weight, and critically it's cargo bay is much wider, longer, and taller, permitting it the ability to carry greater sized loads than a Hercules could, even if the load didn't exceed the Hercules's weight limit.
About the only thing that the Atlas wouldn't be able to carry would be very heavy loads like Challenger tanks and AS90 guns. That's not really much of an issue. Seldom has there been a requirement to deliver penny packets of heavy armour to a location, though I guess it's a nice trick to have up your sleeve. Predominantly you would expect armour to be delivered by ship, in quantity, with all its necessary support.
Replacing the excellent rough field performance of the Hercules wasn't much of a barrier either. A report by the National Audit Office shows that prior to 2003 the vast majority of Hercules flights were from one fixed airfield to another, taking off and landing on solid surfaces, and usually conducting flights lasting over 4 hours in duration, suggesting long range as a requirement.
Looking at it in this light, Atlas seems like an almost perfect fit. But events were to turn against it I feel.
As the 20th Century gave way to the 21st, the UK government was getting frustrated with the lack of progress on the A400M project, leading to the decision to lease four C-17 Globemasters from Boeing, with an option to purchase them at the end of the lease. Then in 2001 the horrific events of 9/11 took place in the US, which prompted an invasion of Afghanistan that would eventually lead to a significant counter-insurgency campaign.
In 2003 the war in Iraq began, then ended, and then transitioned into an ongoing counter-insurgency campaign requiring a persistent logistical supply chain. At around the same time Airbus Military was trying to select the engine it wanted for its new aircraft, the Pratt & Whitney Canada PW180. Thanks to what was essentially a make-work political fudge (stop me if you've heard this before) the Europrop TP400 was selected instead (Europrop being a consortium of engine manufacturers from Germany, France, Spain and the UK).
By 2006 the various partner nations had signed up for the aircraft, South Africa had been brought into the program (including a work share), the war in Afghanistan was ramping up, and no aircraft had been built yet, despite deliveries being due to start in the next three years. The RAF had already announced that it was purchasing the original four C-17's at the end of the lease and a fifth was now being ordered as well.
It's here that I think the Atlas proposal lost its value. With five C-17's set to permanently enter service with the RAF, I think the long range strategic transport angle was well on the way to being covered. By the next year a sixth aircraft had been ordered. By '09 Airbus was issuing warnings about delays when it was supposed to be delivering the first examples into service, not least caused by issues with the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) on the Europrop engine. The RAF got itself an order for a seventh C-17 that same year, followed by an eighth ordered in February of this year (2012).
The RAF now possessed an aircraft with greater range, greater cargo hold volume and greater weight carrying capacity than the Atlas/A400M. It had the rough field performance to match Atlas, but perhaps more importantly (as the USAF had previously found out) it - like Atlas - could use shorter, prepared airstrips that otherwise weren't suitable for large cargo planes. The reason for purchasing Atlas had largely disappeared.
By this point a new problem was starting to emerge; cost. South Africa had withdrawn from its proposed purchase, citing the high costs. They pegged their Atlas buy, including spares and limited initial support, at a little over $300 million per aircraft. Italy had also left the program, seeking to buy C-130's instead. A bid by Airbus military to tempt Canada had also failed, with the Canadians opting for a mixed buy of C-17/C-130 instead.
And here in lies the fundamental problem I have with the Atlas - it's bloody expensive for what it is.
I'm assured that it will come in for a price of around $250-280 million with an initial load of spares and some support, but that's not exactly that tempting on balance. It's not a huge amount less than the C-17 that we already possess and have integrated into the RAF, including training, spares and support. It's certainly a long shot over the top of the C-130, that even for newer users is only coming in at about $80-100 million. Again, we already have the C-130J in service, so we can expect our costs to be closer to the lower end than the higher.
That's basically a three to one ratio. And I'm not even convinced that Atlas will make its price target. Just this year a number of airshow demonstrations have been cancelled because of problems with the aircraft's engine and gearbox. I keep hearing about how easy this thing will be to maintain, how it will achieve high service availability and how cheap its support will be. All the evidence currently points in the opposite direction.
Even the rough field performance has been suspect. When one aircraft showed up in Germany for a week of rough field testing it suffered what Airbus calls a "minor incident" on the second day. An incident so minor that the rest of the weeks testing was cancelled. Still, Airbus rated the Atlas's performance as "excellent". Sceptical yet?
You should be. I think this is an aircraft now looking for a job, at least from the UK's perspective. It won't replace the C-17 and considering the C-130 will be kept in service for special forces, it's not even going to replace that. Its sort of lingering in the middle, half way between the two. And that's what worries me the most.
I've always been a bit sceptical when someone says the word "medium" in relation to military equipment. There are some perfectly suitable pieces of medium equipment, like the General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG) which serves as a middle ground between the light machine gun used by the infantry section and the heavy 0.5inch machine gun which is more of a vehicle mounted job.
But to me "medium" represents "compromise". Now compromise in negotiations is great. Not so much in military aircraft I think. If you're an optimist you might say that compromise means taking the best parts of a smaller, lighter option, and blending them with the extra capability of something larger, but without the excessive price.
To me, a realist (or so I like to believe), medium usually means too big for the little tasks and too small for the big tasks. It's here that we progress to the Afghanistan theatre, where various reports from the front line tell us something very interesting about the Hercules. Because even though it's on the lighter end of the scale it appears the main problem Hercules has is not its carrying capacity or its cargo hold volume, but the fact that there simply aren't enough of them (or at least with the dual pressure of Iraq there weren't).
The National Audit Office (NAO) noted in it's 2008 report about the Hercules that the poor old Herc's were being flogged hard to keep up with the amount of lifting being done. Much of it was very short range flying, less than two hours, and often involved things like cargo drops to ground forces. A video posted by British Forces News last year would seem to confirm this.
The aircraft is described as being a "taxi cab" and the presenter makes the point that flying from Kandahar airfield to Camp Bastion was the most common task. Air drop loads were described as being around 2.5 tons, something which data from the 2008 NAO report would broadly support. The main problem mentioned by the commanding officer in the video is not the inability of the C-130 to carry the loads requested, but the need to maintain high levels of readiness and availability in the fleet.
This would suggest further that numbers are more of an issue than anything else. That makes me question the sense behind replacing what was once a quite sizable Hercules fleet with a much smaller fleet of big lifters like Atlas. With the introduction into service now of the Voyager tanker/personnel transport based on the A330, the RAF seems to be reasonably well set for long range deployment of men and equipment going forward past 2015. The more acute problem looks like it's going to be the shorter ranged, in theatre movements (I believe Think Defence is planning to end his series on the Atlas/A400M by looking at options related to this aspect).
I personally don't see the value of phasing out of service a type that has proved invaluable for hard work in theatre to be replaced by something much bigger than really needed, in smaller numbers than needed.
What would I do differently then? I'm glad you asked... (shut up, yes you did).
For me the future lies in what has already been written; a two tier fleet of large and small transports. We have (or will have) eight C-17 now, and I'd like to see that fleet increased. I think now that we have the aircraft in service, have Atlas as a backup and that Boeing's line for the aircraft runs out in the next few years, we're in the perfect position to turn the screws a little on the defence industry for once and get a good price for a multiple aircraft purchase.
Given the current projected cost of Atlas, assuming there are no more delays, cost over runs, bailouts or price inflation's in the service cost (any and all of which I think could occur), I think you could probably get C-17 now for a very similar price. The MoD pegged the eighth C-17 at about $300 million according to Defense Industry Daily, and that was believed to include a number of additional engines. Even with some of the more optimistic price tags for Atlas that means you're looking at a 4:3 purchase ratio of Atlas to C-17. I think we could nab at least four more Globemasters for a decent price given those numbers.
As for the rest of the cash? Well, a few more Voyager tankers wouldn't go a miss, except not on Private Finance Initiative (PFI) this time, and built to the proper full cargo spec, which means the top deck could be used for palletised cargo and/or seats, instead of just the pure seat arrangement used by the PFI Voyagers. With compensation for strengthening the top deck floor, an A330 cargo variant can carry about 70 tons and do so to a greater distance than even the C-17, albeit without the rear ramp, to longer runways, and requiring commercial style lifts to get up to the cargo door. For moving basic pallet loads and men from the UK to foreign hub airports (like Kandahar) that's still a very impressive capability.
What to do with the spare change? That would have to be fed into the low end and for me that settles on two choices; C-130J-30 Hercules (the extended version) or C-27J Spartans.
The advantage with the Hercules is that it's already in service (as Hercules C.4), it's a known and supported quantity to us, has proved itself admirably, and it's cheap. The advantage of the C-27 is that
although it is somewhat payload challenged compared to the Hercules (11.5 tons to 17), has a smaller cargo hold volume and shorter range (1000 miles with 10 tons), it should still be more than adequate for in theatre work, running personnel and cargo about, doing payload drops etc, while being easier to maintain (two vs four engines) and cheaper to buy.
The estimated cost for entry into service for C-27 appears to be about $50 million per aircraft. For the UK that would likely be a little cheaper, as the C-27 was rather cleverly designed to run the same engine as the Hercules to reduce costs, and it just so happens that we use those very same Rolls-Royce AE2100 on our Hercs. Which you take - Hercules or Spartan - is up for debate.
But I definitely think the choice should, by now, exclude Atlas. Its soaring cost for a very middle ground capability is, to me, difficult to justify. I think there are better options on the table for us, options that achieve what the UK needs in a more comprehensive and cost effective manner.
Thank you and good night.
(I have to be up at 7).