Leveraging an Enhanced Fixed Wing Lift Force Within the German Armed Forces

By Robbin Laird

In this series, I have focused of the shift to forward defense by German armed forces.

And for the remainder of the series, I am going to focus on the lift aspect of this strategic shift.

I put this aspect of the shift as follows in a previous article:

“How can Germany leverage its lift capabilities more effectively to deliver the kind of sustainment to a forward deployed force within Europe, and one which needs to be able to have mobile agile force capability as well?

“This challenge is certainly not unique to Germany, but it revolves around how to get full value out of it’s A-400M force, its C-130J force and adding a rotorcraft lift capability which extends both the capabilities of what Germany already has acquired and shapes an innovative way forward to support a forward deployed, agile and mobile combined arms force.”

Let me start with the A400M component of the lift force.

I have followed the A400M from the time that it was the FLA or the Future Large Aircraft.

It went through many design iterations, but from the outset was designed to be a lift aircraft between the size of the C-17 and the C-130.

EADS was the prime contractor and then when the name was changed to Airbus Defence and Space, it became an Airbus product.

The project faced several delays, in terms of design the biggest delay was due to conflict among the partners with regard to the engine.

Rather than picking a Pratt and Whitney Canada engine which was already available, the partner nations focused on building a European engine which did not yet exist and which took some time to develop.

Tom Enders, a former German military officer whom I first met in the 1980s when a student in Bonn, and then later became CEO of Airbus, noted in 2016 that some of the “massive problems” of the A400M were due to the engine selection issue.

“We underestimated the engine problems…Airbus had let itself be persuaded by some well-known European leaders into using an engine made by an inexperienced consortium.” He also noted that Airbus had taken full responsibility for delivering the engine, which he also considered to be a mistake.

The Germans had originally ordered 53 of the aircraft but then the government announced that after accepting the first 40 aircraft they would sell the remaining 13 on order.

But then in 2019, the government reversed course and announced that the remaining 13 aircraft would be used to form a multinational airlift wing to be based in Germany.

The Luftwaffe used the A400M for the first time in combat in 2018 in Afghanistan.

And it played an important role in the evacuation from Afghanistan when President Biden decided on a precipitous withdrawal last year.

I have flown on the aircraft a couple of times and have spent time with the French Air Force at their A400 M base in France as well.

The aircraft has several impressive capabilities.

Modern aerospace technology on the aircraft makes it clearly a 21st century aircraft, and its three-man crew can operate an aircraft carrying an impressive load as well.

The engines allow for rapid lift from a variety of airfields, including very rough landing strips.

But the power of the turboprop engines has created a problem for one function which was desired for the aircraft, namely, rapid refueling of helicopters.

In fact, difficulties in this domain have led the French and the Germans to establish a joint C-130J force, a subject I will turn to in the next piece.

But it is really simply since around 2017 that the A400M has been making its presence known to the USAF and allied air forces, and the aircraft is clearly making an important contribution to the lift mission for the nations operating the aircraft and for their allies.

Part of the 21st century character of that aircraft provide a baseline for whatever else Germany would add to its lift fleet.

In a 2016 interview, I discussed the digital side of the aircraft with the head of Airbus Military Aircraft and with the chief engineer of the A400M.

They emphasized:

“Onboard the aircraft are sensors which can provide real time data on the performance of the aircraft and this data can clearly provide key information to shape both an understanding of its operation but provide data for more effective maintenance.

“The sensors are there, but the system to exploit the data generated by the sensors is a work in progress. We can shape a lifetime maintenance system. We can process on the ground by the maintenance system which can process this data which can shape a customized maintenance system.

“You can maintain the aircraft based on real need rather than having predetermined maintenance points. When a set of conditions has been met, then the maintenance can be performed.

“In effect, demand side maintenance can be provided rather than milestone maintenance.

“We need to develop the algorithms which can translate the sensor driven data to shape the new maintenance regime which the aircraft can clearly deliver to our customers.”

In other words, the digital nature of the aircraft provides for inherent upgradeability of the aircraft and new approach to modernization.

And the data generated by the sensors provides the basis for big data management for more effective and realistic maintenance approaches.

The aircraft has been used for its primary mission of lift, but it also been used for tanking of fixed wing aircraft as well as for medevac operations.

And notably, the French, the British and Germans, all A400M users, have worked enhanced collaboration with regard to the use and sustainment of the aircraft as well.

This can prove to be very significant as Germany looks to forward defense because their aircraft can operate from other bases which also sustain and operate the A400M throughout the region as well.

And in a 2017 interview which my colleague Murielle Delaporte had with Captain Cyril who at the time was in charge of operations within the 61st Wing at Orléans Air Base, this A400M commander highlighted the advantages who saw to this new generation airlifter:

Question: As an operational transport pilot, how would you compare tactical approaches when flying a Transall or when flying an A400M?

Captain Cyril: This plane is a like big toy: it is extremely maneuvering and powerful.

It is very reactive to commands.

The general feeling is rather different than flying a Transall, because the flight commands are electrical.

The generation gap is visible even in the way we do maneuver.

When you are in a “degraded situation” [threatened environment], it is not so simple to fly 130 tons with accuracy.

Piloting aids are really very precise and non-intrusive.

And because the plane self-compensates, if I put it in a certain position, it will hold it even without automatic pilot.

The same goes when diving: if I make sure, I place the plane in the right descending angle at the right moment, then it will also holds it with barely any correction.

That was never the case with former generation transport aircrafts, which needed more adjustments.

This shift from the Transall experience to the A400M one is suggestive of the shift which the Germans armed forces might consider when looking at its decision on lift to be provided by a new rotorcraft platform as well.

The Transall’s were initially delivered in the 1960s which is similar to the initial delivery of the Chinooks as well.

If you have moved on from the Transall, why would you by its generational equivalent in rotor lift?

Featured Photo: A German air force A400M Atlas aircraft taxis at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, April 29, 2021.

April ;29, 2021

Photo by Airman Edgar Grimaldo

86th Airlift Wing/Public Affairs

For my visit to the first A400M Squadron at Bricy, see the following: