SEVILLA, Spain --- Now that its A400M has won its European certification, and with the first production aircraft due to be delivered to the French air force later this month, Airbus Military is ready to begin to seriously market the aircraft world-wide.
“Until now, we’ve been really focused on certification and on making sure that production deliveries go through as planned, with no last-minute hitches,” says Damien Allard, Airbus Military’s market development manager. “Now this is done, we can move on to the next job, which is international sales,” he told defense-aerospace.com April 25.
Thanks to 174 orders (170 from the program partners and 4 from Malaysia), the A400M took a 32% share of the Western world’s heavy lift market during the past decade (2002-2013); Boeing’s C-17 has 27% with 145 aircraft while the market leader, Lockheed Martin’s C-130J, has a 41% share with 218 aircraft sold.
Flexibility Is Main Sales Pitch
Airbus Military’s main sales pitch is that the A400M, larger and more capable than the C-130J and more flexible than the C-17, offers a multi-mission capability than either competitor, since a single A400M can be used for tactical transport to soft, unprepared airfields near the front line; for strategic transport of large payloads over long distances, and – after two hours’ modification work – as an aerial tanker.
Furthermore, notes Allard, “it can carry 90% of equipment in service with Western militaries; the remaining 10%, mainly main battle tanks, heavy self-propelled artillery and such,” are generally sea-lifted or airlifted by Antonov An-124. And, he adds, the A400M offers nearly twice the payload over the same range as the stretched C-130J-30, or the same payload over twice the range.
In fact, Airbus briefing slides claim an A400M can carry a payload of 20 metric tonnes over 3,450 nautical miles, whereas with the same payload the C-130J-30’s range is of only 1,600 nm. The C-17’s performance is immaterial, as that aircraft has nearly reached the end of its production life.
Several A400Ms are visible on the final assembly line here, including MSN 9, the first aircraft due to be delivered to Turkey later this year; three aircraft will also be delivered to France.
The A400M’s production rate could prove something of an obstacle to future export sales. Airbus officials say it will gradually increase to 2.5 aircraft per month by 2015, or roughly 26-27 per year. This means that Airbus will need more than six years to deliver the 172 aircraft ordered by its original partner countries, so unless these are willing to surrender delivery slots a new buyer would not be able to receive its own A400Ms until after the turn of the decade. Such a wait could well prove dissuasive, especially since it would increase with each successive export order.
Airlift in France’s Operations in Mali
Using open sources, Airbus Military also looked at how France deployed its forces to Mali for operation Serval, and at how the A400M would have fared in the same mission.
Most significantly, France had to use C-17 and An-124 transports to ferry heavy equipment to Mali (a distance of 2,200 nautical miles), as neither its C-160 Transalls nor its C-130s can carry outsize loads.
The heavy carriers had to land in Bamako, about 900 km from the operations area, as they require concrete runways. This forced the French army to drive its heavy vehicles from Bamako to Gao – a 5-day trip for convoys – to get them where they were needed.
The A400M, Allard says, would have been able to fly its loads directly to Gao, Timbuktu or Kidal - a distance of 1,945 nm from France. The A400M is unique in that it can deliver “a 25-tonne (55,000 lb) payload into a 750 m (2500 ft) unpaved airstrip,” he says.
Lockheed C-130J Is Only Direct Competitor
Other simulations carried out by Airbus Military claim that “4 A400Ms offer the same productivity as 9 C-130J-30s,” Allard says, adding “But the A400M fleet has 35% lower Life-Cycle Costs than the C-130J fleet.” He however declined to say what LCC prices for both aircraft were used for the comparison.
The comparison with the C-130J is particularly significant as this will be the A400M’s primary competitor over the coming decades. And as over 2,500 C-130s were built (Flight International estimates the global C-130 fleet, including the C-130J, at 1,130 aircraft), and it is in service with 72 countries over 50 years after it entered production, the replacement market is both huge and imminent.
Lockheed hopes the C-130J variant will take up much of this market since, as it notes on its website, “the C-130J is always the logical, low risk, proven answer.” Hardly a ringing endorsement of its capabilities, certainly, but these arguments could prove persuasive for countries which do not need strategic airlift. And operators of older C-130s, for whom the C-130J allows savings in terms of personnel training and logistic environments, could also prefer to buy the “J”, as the fact that 15 countries have bought it can attest.
After capabilities, costs are a major factor for prospective buyers. According to the latest US Air Force fact sheet, the C-130J costs $48.5 million (in FY 1998 constant dollars), which works out to about $70 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. However, the single C-130J bought by the US Air Force in FY 2012 cost $186.4 million (see http://comptroller.defense.gov/defbudget/fy2013/FY2013_Weapons.pdf, page 12).
No recent price estimate is available for the A400M; a recent news story in the Telegraph Online puts the program’s acquisition cost at $3.26 billion for 22 aircraft, or a unit cost of about £140 million; or about $192 million. If confirmed, this would make the A400M very competitive compared to the C-130J.
-- updated May 18 to correct the number of aircraft on order (174, not 172), to clarify heavy vehicle transport capabiity, and for minor editing for style.