Friday, 14 September 2012

Lifting up the Heavens

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).


  1. Excellent post Chris and a good counterpoint to TD's Atlas-friendly posts so far. Well that's me being nice out of the way, now I can get on with disagreeing with you!

    You advocate cancelling A400 and buying more C-17 and some new C130 and/or C27s; this will leave you with a small number of big lifters, 10-ish C-17s, instead of 22 A400s which can carry almost as much almost as far - that doesn't look like a good swap to me. As for more C130/C27s, TD makes a good point about what A400 will be carrying - vehicles are not just heavier, they are bigger and simply will not fit in the C130-size cargo box. This is a trend which is only likely to increase.

    Also, how does a C-17/C130 purchase help UK industry, always a consideration with military purchases, whether we like it or not.

    If you reply to the above, please excuse me for not responding quickly as I'm off on well deserved hols.

  2. Very nice post Chris. I do like a contrasting opinion on the same matter helps a third party with little knowledge(i.e idiot me) try and better understand the topic/subject. I agree with you about cost effectiveness and am adamantly opposed to all these multi national projects which take decades to do anything at an extremely high cost.

    WiseApe while I agree vehicle size has increased, I don't believe this is set to continue. For better or worse the NATO operation in Afghanistan will be drawn down to a very small level by 2014/15. After this why would vehicle size keep increasing? Vehicle size has massively increased recently to deal with the IED threats of the Afghanistan war but as has been shown you can only get so big before the vehicle loses its combat effectiveness. There's always going to be a bigger bomb out there that can destroy even the most protected vehicles. I personally think other ways will be sought to deal with the IED and mine threat to vehicles than simply adding armour.

    Also its not just vehicles that have to be carried, there's lots more of equipment which will fit into a smaller cheaper aircraft, leaving the C-17s to carry the rest. Also aren't we forgetting the RFA, surely if we want to move a large number of big vehicles its cheaper and makes more operational sense to ship them by sea? I understand this will take longer but in a war lasting 13 years, surely that's enough time to ship the vehicles from the uk!

  3. Evening gents. What a bugger that weekend was. Anyway, questions.

    @ Wise Ape,

    Enjoy your holidays. And if you don't read this till you get back then I hope you had a good holiday! Now I like a good disagreement! On that note.

    "... this will leave you with a small number of big lifters, 10-ish C-17s, instead of 22 A400s which can carry almost as much almost as far - that doesn't look like a good swap to me"

    -- The reduced number of C-17's is a slight issue, but it's a vastly more capable lifter. Around 75 tonnes maximum compared to around 35 tonnes for Atlas. The C-17 can carry a 40 tonne payload further than an A400M can carry 20 tonnes. That means it can carry something like the Terrier engineering vehicle (that TD mentioned recently as an example payload) a much greater distance than an A400M can, like directly into Afghanistan in a manner that Atlas can't. If heavy lift were needed to deploy Warrior IFV for some reason, you're looking at 1 in an Atlas, or three in a C-17. It truly is an impressive lifter (though still over shadowed by various Russian jobs).

    "vehicles are not just heavier, they are bigger and simply will not fit in the C130-size cargo box"
    -- In a way yes. I'd be interested to see what the list of British owned vehicles is that can't be C-130 lifted. I suspect many of them would be loads that under normal circumstances would be either shipped to the destination anyway, or sent in numbers on a C-17 or commercial An-124. I'm having difficulty picturing a vehicle that doesn't top 20 tonnes but is also too big for Hercules? Maybe some of the lorry/trailer combinations? C-17 combined with C-130 has been a good combination so far.

    I also agree with Mick, there is only so big a vehicle can really go before it starts getting absurd. American Strykers are already having issues with rollovers, and obviously standard road dimensions keep ultimate vehicle size in check, except for specialist vehicles obviously.

    "Also, how does a C-17/C130 purchase help UK industry"
    -- The C-17 doesn't I'm afraid. While I do advocate retaining a number of important design capabilities in the UK, I think there are times where we have to accept that some equipment just has to be "out sourced" as it were.

    The C-130J does do us some good. Marshalls have built a reputation for doing work on C-130's. But most importantly the engines on the Hercules are built by the North American branch of Rolls-Royce, so there is income there, although granted not sure how many UK jobs support that work.

    The Atlas itself doesn't have a huge UK industry impact. The wing work could (and I suspect would) be easily supplanted by proper Airbus work. Rolls Royce only has a percentage involvement in the engines on it.

    @ Mick 346,
    Me and TD tend to agree on a lot of things. This is one of the rare subjects we've disagreed on.

    "I agree with you about cost effectiveness and am adamantly opposed to all these multi national projects which take decades to do anything at an extremely high cost"

    Sadly that is a lesson that never seems to be learnt.

  4. I'm surprised that no-one has mentioned the driver behind the adoption of the A400 at the expense of Fat Albert. Back in the mid to late 90s and into the early noughties a fad was born. That fad was the air-transport of "future" infantry fighting vehicles (specifically what became known as FRES), direct from UK into a theatre of operations.

    While entirely logical as a concept to get round the speed limitations of sea transport, it tended to ignore the basic facts of logistics - that with vehicles come people and support equipment, all of which need protecting and then feeding with either fuel or food and water or all three! Pretty soon the sortie number requirements go through the roof....

    Suspending disbelief at the concept, the practicalities soon bit as FRES got heavier and conversely the limitations imposed by the A400 cargo envelope tended to make FRES variants with sufficient protection for the IED / Jundi threat impractical.

    Personally, if one assumes that the "air-transport a battle-group of FRES" idea is dead, I tend to agree that a C17/C130 mix is likely to be more flexible, particularly assuming higher airframe numbers. However, the moment to make that choice was SDSR and that moment has long passed.

    Like it or not, A400 (barring some catastrophe that invalidates the entire programme) is coming and not a moment too soon, as by the time we finish Herrick, the Herky-birds will be well and truly sh8gged. We will at least be able to move more "outsize" equipment, but probably less frequently.

  5. Great post Chris

    I am simply going to say you are wrong, stick my fingers in my ears and say la la la la la la



    1. Haha. I'll have to invest in a megaphone it seems.

  6. NaB, not strictly true

    The A400 can trace its design to 1982 with the Future International Military Airlifter (FIMA) group.

    In 1989 we had the Future Family of Light Armoured vehicles (FFLAV) which through a couple of incarnations turned into FRES in 2001.

    The European Staff Requirement for the Future Large Airlifter (FLA) were defined in 1995

    FRES originally defined C130 transportability as a key metric and it wasnt until 2007 that this was changed to A400M

    FRES and A400M are no doubt intertwined but I think it is a bit much to say one was driven by the other, the dates don't tally

    1. If that is the case, I fail to see why the whole air transportable battle group was the subject of extensive OA at the turn of the century (post Balkans). Nor why height / width / weight values well in excess of C130 were being assessed for AT between 2002-2007 in what was DEC(DSR), then EC(ELS). Spent some time in MB, saw the "scenarios". Wasn't convinced.

      There is no other rationale for the UK to continue with an "outsize cargo" airlifter to "compete" with C17, when the actual numbers of outsize cargo items are so low.

    2. Didn't the USAF get all excited about airlifting vehicles after the Balkans? I think that played into the rational behind Stryker and some concept of rapid global response.

      There is actually a documented case of airlifting heavy vehicles, which I'm going to address in a post in a minute. It's not exactly a precedent setter though, and if anything confirms the value of C-17 over A400M.

  7. Not saying they aren't connected because they are, a lot of it comes from Kosovo where those pesky Russians beat us to the airport at Pristina using wheeled vehicles

    Have a read of this

    The full gory details of FRES

  8. I'm back - knackered and sunburnt!

    @ChrisB - we are slightly at cross-purposes - you seem to be concentrating solely on transportation to a theatre but I am also thinking about moving stuff around within theatre, e.g. from one base to another, or to a series of bases (I think Mick 346 is doing the same - RFA aren't much use moving stuff around in a landlocked country!). I'm also not advocating buying A400s at the expense of C-17s - I see them as a replacement for Herc C130s. So for me the question is: what is your force mix, C-17 and A400; or C-17 and C130? The latter is the cheaper option but for once HMG has sanctioned what I think is the better option.

  9. @ WiseApe,

    For me the C-17 is the tool for delivering to theatre, along with things like Voyager for passengers and some cargo. Then C-130 or C-27 is the in theatre, moving to different bases type job, and doing the very common task of air dropping supply loads.

    There are two ways of looking at C-130/C-27 vs A400. You can either purchase a set number of aircraft (22) for a cheaper price, or say that for the allotted money for the program you can buy more of the first than you can of the latter. If that makes sense.

    I think C-17 + either C-130 or C-27 offers the best high/low mix.

  10. Interesting post Chris, and site as well, will scope around.

    I think A400 will be wearing HM's roundle, like it or not, though I do sternly belive the Herc should remain in some capacity.

    With your article, there was one thing;
    "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"

    Your Voyagers - they wont be in Tanker form right? To get around the insane clause of the PFI contract.

  11. @ Mike,

    Have a good scope!

    I suspect that barring some sort of disaster then yes, Atlas will end up with an RAF roundel on it. I wonder though what the cost would be of exiting the program? I just think it's the wrong plane for the wrong time.

    As for Voyager, I'm not sure what the detail is of the PFI. I think it might only cover refuelling from private vendors, or at least I bloody hope it does. If it penalises the RAF for using other assets that it owns, or using allied refuelling, then things are going to get awkward.

    The only way out of that contract at this minute would appear to be hammering the aircraft into the floor with a relentless pace of operations such that the costs begin to rack up for the airtanker consortium. It truly is a terrible deal.

    If we buy more Voyager, I'd like to see them tanker capable, and in the freight carrying version. With palletised seats that does reduce the number of spaces versus dedicated seating (along with the comfort level I'd imagine), but it opens 60 tonnes of cargo carrying capacity to ranges in excess of 4,000 miles, and 70 tonnes out to almost 3,500 miles. Just madness that we didn't take the cargo variant from day one.

  12. If we buy more Voyager, I'd like to see them tanker capable

    Do you mean capable of recieving fuel via AAR or just a tanker for the extra ones you'd like to see?

  13. Hey Topman,

    Capable of giving and receiving would be nice! I wonder how much it would cost to put a probe on Voyager? The point has been made by many others in the past that the ability to offload spare fuel to a second tanker taking over on station would be desirable.

    Do you know anymore through your service mates about the exact nature of the AirTanker PFI, specifically how far reaching this bit about the not being able to use other tankers is?

  14. Hi Chris

    On the first point it wasn't done because it happens so really because there is little need for it. The stats were taken from the Tristar fleet it happened very rarely. I think it was in single figures since the 80's for needing to take fuel from another tanker. Although don't quote me on those figures it was a while ago when I saw them. With the A330 being a lot better on fuel it would be even less likely to happen since it would need less fuel for for itself due it's fuel efficiency.

    I don't know about the AAR portion. For the pax version it's a flat 'fine' then an hourly 'fine' for every hour airborne. This is levied against the MoD when we use a charter aircraft. However this is only levied when a Voyger is not available to fill the tasking that we require. None available means no fine.

  15. I guess the only real times we'd need a tanker to top up a tanker would be something like a direct flight to the Falklands, or if our tankers routinely planned for one to replace another on station. But if we don't do it that much then yeah, not really worth the expense.

    As for the AAR, that's the intriguing question. Do we only get fined for taking fuel from chartered tankers, or from allies as well? What about from other aircraft we own? If we have a tanker available, but it's in the UK and the aircraft that need tanking are in the Middle East, does that count as the tanker being available or unavailable?

    I wish one of the MP's would put in an official question. Either way, that damn PFI is truly a horrible deal.