European aircraft maker AirBus has agreed to rapidly implement changes in its A400M military transport to produce a “tactical” version that is capable of dropping paratroopers, defending itself against heat-seeking missiles, has some lightweight armor for the cockpit and the capability to land on short airstrips. This comes after France complained that the first ones it received lacked all these features and that without these capabilities the A400M wasn’t very useful. AirBus assured France that it would receive six of these “tactical” A400Ms by the end of 2016. Three would be new aircraft and three would be upgraded A400Ms that France had already received. All these features have long been available on the American C-130, which the A400M was designed to compete with. France believed that AirBus understood the need to compete with the C-130. The engines are still a problem as they require so much maintenance that the A400Ms still suffers low readiness (for use) rates. France also wants the ability to have the A400M refuel helicopters in the air.
All this comes in the wake of AirBus being forced in mid-2016 to go public with the reasons for the shrinking demand for its A400M. AirBus executives admitted that they screwed up and explained that the main problems were with the engines it selected for the A400M. These came from an inexperienced supplier and AirBus was late in realizing how bad the problems were. At the time AirBus said there were many lesser problems, mainly with not adding features users needed if they were to replace existing C-130s and similar transports with the A400M.
Meanwhile France was forced to improvise to get the tactical transport capabilities its needs. In early 2016 France ordered American “Harvest Hawk” kits that can quickly turn American made C-130 transports into gunships. This came after France ordered four C-130J transports in late 2015, mainly because of delays and inadequacies of the A400Ms had ordered. France already operates 14 of the older C-130H aircraft and was not expected to order the latest model, the C-130J, because France was a major backer, and customer, for the A400M. But this aircraft was delayed repeatedly and France only began receiving it in 2013. Then it turned out that the A400M could not yet handle aerial refueling of helicopters or paratroopers jumping from the side doors. To deal with that two of the new French C-130Js are transports and two are tankers. These C-130Js will begin arriving in France by late 2017. France needs the 70 ton C-130Js to support its special forces and other overseas intervention forces. That is also the reason for a gunship conversion kit as these gunships are particularly useful for special operations troops.
France received two A400Ms in 2013 and four in 2014. It took ten years of development to get the A400M into production, which was about four more years later than originally predicted. First flight took place in 2011, and production of prototypes began in 2007. Each one costs about $180 million. About 174 are on order and the delays have cost dozens of orders (and more may still follow).
The 141 ton A400M has a cruising speed of 780 kilometers per hour, a range of 6,400 kilometers (with a 20 ton load), and normally carries about 30 tons (or 116 paratroopers or slightly more regular passengers). The nearest competitor is the American C-130 and the most common version in service is the C-130H. It has a range of 8,368 kilometers, a top speed of 601 kilometers per hour, and can carry up to 18 tons of cargo, 92 troops, or 64 paratroopers. The latest version, the C-130J, has a top speed of 644 kilometers, 40 percent more range than the C130H, and can carry 20 tons of cargo. The C-130 is used by more than 50 countries.
The A400M had an opportunity to give the C-130 a lot of competition, but this opportunity was diluted because the A400M failed to arrive on time and on budget and lacked many essential features. Still, the C-130 does now have the most formidable competitor it has ever faced.
During the Cold War air transports were very low priority in Europe because if there was a war the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union was going to deliver it and be right next door to do so. But now all the action is far away, and the military needs air freight for emergencies and other urgent missions. The American C-17 can carry up to 84 tons over longer distance. The advantage of the two smaller airlifters (C-130 and A400M) is the ability to operate from shorter unpaved runways, which makes them less dependent on existing infrastructure. This is useful for disaster relief and peacekeeping as well. But first the A400M has to match the C-130 a features needed for these missions.