Embargo 7 am Nov. 2
SEVILLE, Spain — Airbus is seeking ways pressing ahead in a search for solutions to allow the A400M to refuel helicopters and airdrop paratroopers on both sides of the fuselage, two capabilities seen as key for the military transport, said Fernando Alonso, head of military aircraft.

The plane is a "fantastic platform," but Airbus Defense & Space knows air forces of the client nations are "very frustrated" and eager to have the capabilities fitted, Alonso told journalists Oct. 26.

Air-to-air refueling is a vital function for special forces helicopters flying in the vast sub-Saharan Sahel region as that capability reduces contact with the harsh, gritty sand that is wearing down helicopter engines. That is one of the capabilities contracted but which is late to be fitted on the new transport.

Air-to-air refueling is a vital function for French special forces deployed in the vast sub-Saharan Sahel region, where landing in harsh grit swiftly wears down helicopter engines. That was just one of the capabilities contracted but which are late to be fitted on the new transport.

Refueling helicopters will be "very difficult to achieve," but Airbus has not abandoned the capability, Alonso said. An option to be explored is to use a 120- to 150-foot hose, compared to the present 90-foot hose, to allow helicopters to fly a safe distance as they refuel.

A longer hose might cut aerodynamic risk but could boost the unpredictability as the drogue dangles behind four powerful turboprop engines. Building, testing and certifying a new hose will take time and money. Onera, the aerospace research office, could be asked to look for a solution, an industry executive said.

"The situation is not satisfactory," Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian Oct. 21 told the parliamentary defense committee Oct. 21, when asked about the A400M program. The capability gaps are airdrops, self defense systems and aerial refueling of helicopters, he said.

"Airbus has to fix these problems, but the steps taken have not delivered satisfactory results, as I understand it," he said. He hoped the deliveries would be made on time.  

France hopes to have 11 A400Ms by the end of 2016, of which six should be fitted with the capabilities for self defense, airdrops and landing on rough strips, Le Drian said. "There are problems, and my relations with the company are on the lively side. That is my job."

France has agreed to deliver for helicopter refueling to be delivered at a later stage, procurement chief Laurent Collet-Billon told Oct. 7 the parliamentary defense committee Oct. 7. But Paris asked Airbus to "make an effort" in speeding up development, particularly the parachute capability, as the latest trials "were not completely satisfactory".

Other features that need attention are software for airdrops of heavy cargo loads and self-protection systems, he said. Those issues were included in talks over the summer between the seven client countries and Airbus. French officials set their requests "in a tough way," he said.

An urgent need for helicopter refueling is reflected in the French plan to acquire four C-130s, of which two will be equipped for that mission.

France recently wrote had a few days ago written to the US Air Force about on the C-130, and the service understood the need, Collet-Billon told the committee.

The Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office also is looking in Europe for second-hand C-130Hs, with two units for transport and two for helicopter refueling, and also for a company to convert a C-130 to refueling, he said.

The €330 million (US$361.2 million) set in the revised budget law is too small for the C-130J model, but the DGA could order a mix of H and J units and ask the minister to decide by the end of the year the delivery of which model should be postponed, he said.

Among the Airbus research projects being conducted is the fitting of the C-295 medium transport for in-flight refueling.

Another key capability is paratroopers jumping simultaneously from the side doors. The computer modeling shows a risk of the parachutes converging and colliding as they open, a critical moment in the airdrop.

One of the possible solution might involve using a specific kind of parachute, the executive said.

Free-fall jumping from one of the doors, from the ramp, and a static line automatic release from the ramp have been certified, said Kurt Rossner, head of the A400M program.

The UK has four units, dubbed Atlas, in service and received three more, which are undergoing tests. The British units will be fitted with a specific defensive aids subsystem,one similar to the directional infrared countermeasure installed on the Voyager A330 multirole tanker transport (MRTT) flown by the Royal Air Force. Britain gets that system as London has cleared the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

There are talks on a final review for deliveries and retrofit of capabilities, which are expected to close by mid-2016, with Airbus in talks with the Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation, the European procurement agency, and the client countries.

A full set of capabilities, including low-level flight, is due to be fitted in 2018 to achieve the full common standard capability.

Airbus plans to deliver between 13 and 17 units this year, with the last four due in December. A previous schedule set a minimum of 14 deliveries but a deadly crash on May 9 of an A400M due for Turkey reduced that number by one.

Next year, 23 units are due for delivery as production speeds up. That compares to seven or eight delivered last year.

France (7), Britain (4), Germany (1), Turkey (1) and Malaysia (1) have the plane in service, with Spain due to receive its first unit in the second quarter 2016, and one for Belgium and Luxemburg in the first half 2019.

Airbus group took a charge of €290 million ($318 million) in the first half of 2015 results to cover the development on the A400M, adding to the €551 million booked for 2014.

Airbus is in "serious negotiations" with potential export clients for the A400M, helped by the plane now being operational, said Antonio Rodriguez Barberan, head of sales for military aircraft. Sales of more than 300 units over the next 30 years are expected. Three South American countries have asked for extra information.

On the MRTT, there is ample room to fit sensors to gather intelligence, Alonso said. The potential applications will be part of a wide-ranging review intended to deliver by the end of next year a strategic road map for future military aircraft. That study will consider what future combat will look like, and assess the need for manned and unmanned aircraft, stealth, data cloud, space and systems such as the Zephyr, a high altitude pseudo satellite.

For some time there has been talk in France of arming the A400M with cruise missiles, effectively creating a low-cost, long-range bomber from a transport. Those conversions are underway already for the light C-235 and medium C-295 planes. Jordan signed June 2014 an agreement in June 2014 with Airbus and ATK to convert a C-295 into a gunship, similar to the two C-235 light gunships converted by ATK for the Arab nation.

One of the pressing concerns Airbus now confronts is the client's request for delivery "tomorrow" of military aircraft, cutting down time for development and calling for "agility," Alonso said.

Tom Cruise showed that agility when he ran on the wing and climbed onto the fuselage as an A400M took off in the film "Mission Impossible — Rogue Nation."

Email: ptran@defensenews.com

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