PARIS — France's planned acquisition of four C-130 Hercules for €330 million (US $361 million) has fueled a debate between the armed forces and procurement officials over buying the US airlifter, while Airbus scrambles to develop a competing offer, defense executive and analyst sources said.
The financial details from the US are eagerly awaited as the revised multi-year budget sets aside funds for the four C-130s, two of which will be fitted for helicopter in-flight refueling.
The office of the defense minister asked for an official letter of request to be sent to the US as there was concern over an unofficial French estimate of US $800 million for four C-130Js and two years of maintenance, the specialist said. The price of the C-130J is tightly held, so the US reply will help Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian decide the procurement path by year's end.
Airlifters are a key asset, air chief Gen. André Lanata told the parliamentary defense committee.
French authorities are studying two options: buying older, secondhand aircraft or new planes from the US, he said.
That acquisition would modernize the capability and deliver a long-term solution as the service would fly the A400M as a "strategic" cargo lifter, and the C-130 for "medium" loads, which would help the special forces, he said. "The two fleets … would be complementary," he said.
The French forces asked for the C-130s to support troops deployed against insurgents across the sub-Saharan Sahel in Africa. That request reflects a late delivery of the A400M and its lack of helicopter aerial refueling in the present version.
A key mission for the special forces is to fly helicopters for combat search and rescue missions.
A slow and complex acquisition of the Hercules is seen as helping Airbus, which could compete with its C-295 and A400M airlifters.
The Direction Générale de l'Armement — the French defense procurement agency — was unavailable for comment.
Airbus is developing a refueling kit for its C-295 medium transport, Miguel Angel Morell, head of engineering at Airbus Defence & Space, told journalists on Oct. 27 in Seville. The kit also would fit on the C-235 light transport, allowing the planes to carry respectively nine and six tons of fuel.
The transport planes could refuel helicopters, turboprop aircraft and UAVs. Airbus aims to build a new control system for hose and drogue, and update technology that stems from the 1950s and 1970s.
Airbus aims to be ready this year to deploy in flight a hose and drogue on the C-295. A ground test bench has started for system validation, with a hose installed.
Other work on the C-295 includes an extreme short take-off and landing under 500 meters, and a new defensive aids suite using a directional infrared countermeasure against missile attacks.
Airbus is working to find a solution to helicopter refueling on the A400M, a contractual capability which has generated technical problems, as the four powerful turboprop engines generate aerodynamic risk for helicopters.
Airbus is in advanced negotiations on the A400M with nine prospective clients, said Antonio Rodriguez Barberan, head of military aircraft sales.
The French Air Force has 27 Transall C-160s, which are nearing the end of operational life, 14 Hercules, and 27 CN-235.
Britain is considering extending the operational life of the C130-Js, and the strategic defense and security review may refer to the Hercules.