Airbus A400’s mercy role could be its best

 - February 17, 2008, 5:12 PM

The Airbus A400M is not just a military airlifter, according to Peter Scoffham, vice president of customer marketing for Airbus Military, speaking at the 2007 Military Airlift in London. It is also well-suited to the transport of humanitarian aid, which, he said, is one reason Malaysia has chosen the aircraft for its fleet.

The United Nations responded to more than 80 natural disasters in 2005-06, all of which required rapid response, Scoffham noted. Airlift is crucial during the first seven days of emergencies such as the aftermath of the Asian tsunami in 2004 and the Indonesian earthquake and Philippine typhoons in 2006. The most urgent need in those circumstances is for heavy engineering equipment to help rescue people from collapsed buildings, as well as boats and helicopters to perform search and rescue operations and to transport large volumes of medical equipment. Almost as important is the rapid delivery of electrical generators, water-purification equipment, sanitation plants and prefabricated shelters.

Existing airlifters have done great service in recent disasters, but in Scoffham’s view they all have drawbacks. “The C-130 Hercules has good tactical performance, but cannot carry the outsize loads,” he told the recent Military Airlift conference in London. “The C-17 can do it, but is too expensive and there are questions about whether it can operate into soft, unprepared airstrips. The An-124s are scarce and expensive and have no short- or soft-field capability.”

The A400M will fill this requirement gap, he said. Its four powerful yet fuel-efficient turboprop engines confer excellent tactical performance and a fast Mach 0.72 cruise at high altitude. This makes the new European airlifter suitable for both long- and short-haul transport, Scoffham said. “After the tsunami, the A400M could have reached Aceh, Indonesia, from the UK in one crew duty day, with only one stop and carrying a payload of 24 metric tons,” he said. “The aircraft is also capable of taking 25 metric tons into a 2,500-foot airstrip while holding enough fuel for a return trip of 1,000 nautical miles,” he added. 

The maximum payload of the A400M is actually 37 metric tons, although the European launch countries demanded only 32 metric tons. Crucially, the aircraft’s cross-section is large enough to carry a wide range of relief equipment–for example, a mobile crane, large rescue boat or two CM MED excavators. Regarding the latter, Scoffham noted that during the campaign to evict Serbian forces from Kosovo in 1999, NATO forces simply did not have sufficient airlift. “We urgently needed mechanical diggers, but we couldn’t get them into Skopje, Macedonia, because the airfield was too small for the C-17 and the An-124, and they wouldn’t fit into a C-130,” he explained.

The A400M has a floor-to-ceiling height similar to that of the C-17 and can therefore carry a partially disassembled Chinook helicopter or an NH-90 helicopter with the rotor head removed. A single loadmaster will be able to unload many payloads within 10 minutes, or on-load within 15 minutes, thanks to powered winches and a five-metric-ton onboard crane. The A400M can also “kneel” its undercarriage and has hydraulic stabilizing struts that can adjust the height of the ramp.

Where no landing strip is available, the aircraft can provide accurate aerial delivery to a computed air release point. It can deliver by parachute a payload of 19 to 20 metric tons or by gravity (four metric tons).

What does this capability cost? Scoffham said the unit price of an A400M would be approximately 50 percent more than that of a C-130J, but 25 to 50 percent less than that of a C-17–approximately $90 million to $120 million per aircraft.
Despite the recent delays in the A400M development program, Airbus Military told AIN that Malaysia should still receive the first of its four aircraft in 2013. The first flight of the A400M is due later this year, at least six months behind the originally scheduled target date.

Together with South Africa, Malaysia acquired a special status as an industrial partner, when it committed to the A400M in 2005. It is producing–and in some cases designing–composite and metallic parts for the aircraft, worth almost an initial $300 million.

For more information on the annual Military Airlift conference and Defence IQ, a division of IQPC, visit www.defenceiq.com. Delegates to the conference included senior military, government and industry representatives from across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Australasia.     –Ed.