Air Transportation: Airbus Tries Again And Again

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October 13, 2019: European aircraft maker Airbus achieved another milestone with its troubled and much delayed A400M military transport as it successfully demonstrated that the A400M could also be used for aerial refueling. During the September tests an A400M successfully refueled an H160 helicopter in flight. This event was doubly important because the H160 is another new Airbus product and Airbus wants H160 to enter service quickly and without all the problems the A400M has undergone.

At the moment A400M development and deliveries are going smoothly. That in itself is unusual because as recently as 2017 Germany complained out that at the end of 2016 only one of its seven A400Ms was available for service. One was stranded in Lithuania because of oil leaks in the engines. Two others were undergoing scheduled inspections and one was undergoing scheduled upgrades. Another was undergoing acceptance tests and only one was available for use. Germany has already demanded $42 million in fines (as per the contract) for late delivery of the first five aircraft. Germany is a major investor in the A400M program and the largest customer. But it has seen its share of the costs rise nearly 20 percent even while deliveries were delayed and more problems kept showing up. The Germans were so angry that they cut their order and sought to sell the last 13 A400Ms they had received. The A400M reputation was so bad that Germany could find no buyers, even at a deeply discounted price. As an alternative disposal method, the Germans contributed those 13 aircraft to be the multinational air transport unit being formed by NATO countries. That way future problems with these A400Ms would be shared by all NATO members.

After Germany, France is the next largest customer and the French took the lead in going after AirBus to get the aircraft operational and capable of doing what customers needed done. In 2016 this pressure resulted in AirBus agreeing to rapidly implement changes to produce a “tactical” A400M 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 came after France complained that the first A400Ms 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. Airbus was only able to deliver three of the updated A400Ms by the end of 2016. The others will be available in 2017. In light of the problems, Germany and France are having the other A400M customers also demand that Airbus do more to deliver what they promised and do it on time.

As of mid-2019 Airbus had delivered 81 A400Ms and still had 93 on order. Germany had cut its order from 60 to 53 and already had 30 (including the 13 it tried to sell). France has 15 out of 50 on order. Spain has received four but has delayed deliveries of the other 23. Britain has received 20 but reduced its order from 25 to 22. Malaysia, the one and so far only non-NATO export customer has received all four it ordered.

At this point, not a lot of potential export customers are inclined to buy the A400M. The American C-17 and C-130J picked up most of the lost or canceled A400M orders. The C-130J was a success even without the A400M-based orders and now has a lot more credibility among potential A400M customers. The C-17 was to have ended production by now but the assembly line was kept open with orders from frustrated A400M customers.

Meanwhile there is the H160M. In mid-2018 France ordered 38 of the new Airbus H160M helicopters, to be used as replacements for 420 existing (and aging) helicopters. The older helicopters comprise six different models serving with the army, navy and air force. The military would eventually buy 190 H160Ms to replace the existing helicopters as they retire over the next fifteen years. The military chose one light helicopter model to replace all the existing models because manufacturer Airbus has, so far, made good on its plan to rapidly design, develop test and get certified the existing civilian version of the H160. Work began on the H160 in 2011 and the prototype was delivered in 2015. The first flight took place in mid-2015. Testing and final development took another four years.

The H160 takes advantage of new design and construction technologies Airbus (and other major aircraft builders) have adopted in the last two decades. For example, the H160 makes extensive use of computer-based design and manufacturing as well as electronic control and monitoring systems. This meant the H160 uses a lot of composites and has fly-by-wire flight controls which eliminate most of the hydraulics. The H160 is much quieter than existing designs and delivers a much smoother ride. Compared to existing designs, the H160 is 15 percent lighter, has 15 percent lower operating costs and is easier to maintain and can achieve higher readiness rates. Greater use of computers also provides simpler flight controls and standard capabilities like computer-assisted landing. The first H160M is supposed to be delivered to customers by 2022. The first deliveries of the non-military H160 were in 2019.

The twin-engine H160 is a 6 ton transport that can carry 1.7 ton payload. That means up to ten passengers. Max speed is 325 kilometers an hour while cruise speed is 287 kilometers. Range is 852 kilometers and average endurance is 2.5 hours. Max altitude is 5,900 meters (19,300 feet). Additional  features needed for the H160M mean deliveries of this model won’t begin until 2022. The H160M also has to be modified for search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare, electronic surveillance and general reconnaissance. The H160M can be armed with a 20mm autocannon and guided missiles (like the 70mm unguided rocket equipped with a laser guidance system). The military also wants to equip the H160M with sensors to detect small UAVs so that they can be taken down electronically or using a sniper. The smooth ride of the H160 makes a sniper a viable alternative to a light machine-gun. Another military option is air-to-air refueling to extend the range for some missions. The military version used for special operations will also be equipped for all-weather and night flying. In addition to equipping the military version for all these specialist tasks, there is also a list of mechanical and electronic upgrades to be installed over the next 5-10 years as the new tech completes development and certification, meaning that all versions of the H160M won’t be available until the late 2020s.

Airbus is under a lot of pressure to deliver H160M on time and prove they have learned how to avoid problems with earlier military helicopters like the NH90 transport and Tiger gunship. Then there is the problem-plagued A400M, which is a prime example of what not to do. Airbus eventually got all the A400M problems fixed but that did not encourage customers to regard AirBus with much confidence. The H160M is the opportunity to show that Airbus can do the job as effectively as their American (and eventually Chinese) competitors.

When it comes to military helicopters, Airbus also has to watch out for South Korea, which has also entered the market. France firms are major components of the Airbus consortium so the French military is taking a chance as well. If the first 38 A160Ms are as troublesome as other recent Airbus helicopters, additional orders will be cut or canceled and Airbus will have a difficult (and unprofitable) time trying to stay in the military helicopter business.

In mid-2016 AirBus managers were forced 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. It turned out that a lot of these minor problems were not so easy to fix and getting it done took a lot longer.

Meanwhile, France was forced to improvise to get the tactical transport capabilities it needed. 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 on order. France already operated 14 of the older C-130H aircraft and was not expected to order the latest J model because France was a major backer, and customer, for the A400M. But the A400M 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. 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. After that deliveries were more frequent. 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 the production of prototypes began in 2007. Each one costs about $180 million.

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 many versions of the C-130 are used by more than 50 countries over the last half century.

The A400M had an opportunity to give the C-130 a lot of competition, but this opportunity was squandered with the delivery problems. Still, the C-130 does now have the most formidable competitor it has ever faced.

During the Cold War air transports were a 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 was right next door in East Germany ready to do so. But now all the action is far away, and the military needs air freight for emergencies and other peacekeeping or counter-terrorism missions. The American C-17 can carry up to 84 tons over a longer distance but the advantage of the smaller 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's features for these missions.

 


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