Airbus A400M: New Capabilities Achieved

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Dual-Door Paratrooper Drops and Ejection Drops The A400M has also seen recent advancements, including the ability to airdrop all paratroopers through both side doors using automatic opening systems. However, not all aircraft are configured for this capability, as some can currently only perform drops from one side. The latest capability introduced within the 61st Transport Squadron is the ejection drop, which utilizes an extract parachute to pull the cargo from the cargo hold to prevent it from getting stuck on the ramp. This capability was delivered in the second half of 2022, and all crews have now been trained. This enabled a significant number of successful drops during the Orion 2 paratrooper exercise in late February in the Castres region.

Future Upgrades and Expansions

The certification process by the DGA continues into 2023, including the need to transition to automated gravity-based material drops (by tilting the aircraft), allowing multiple drops totaling up to 25 tons and performing multiple passes. The ejection drop process is also evolving: currently, only one payload can be dropped, with the goal of achieving a sequence of multiple drops, totaling 25 tons, with a maximum of 16 tons per drop.

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Special packages, like the embarkation of marine commandos using the ECUME system, are subject to specific campaigns. This is the case with the ECUME system, with campaigns planned for 2023. Currently, only the C-130H, which is limited in availability, speed, and cargo space, is qualified for dropping this equipment.

The A400M’s Future Order Changes

The 21st aircraft was received by the 61st Transport Squadron on February 24. The current delivery pace aims to have 25 aircraft in service by 2025 and 35 by 2030. However, the original target announced by France was 50 aircraft, and in January, the Minister of the Armed Forces revealed discussions with Germany and Spain (which appears to be seeking to reduce its target by half) about increasing the program’s target without specifying whether the reference was 35 or 50, a specific figure, or the timeframe to achieve it. Originally, France had indicated a need for 50 aircraft, though this target had long seemed unattainable. Moreover, following these discussions, there were speculations about a potential reduction in France’s intentions.

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Certainly, the A400M currently has no equivalent and presents the best compromise between strategic and tactical capabilities. It can carry 20 tons over 6,400 km, refuel in-flight, conduct assault landings, and fly at very low altitudes. This comprehensive package is set to expand further due to both French considerations and the requirements of other users. Strategically, the A400M is not an An-124, and the use of Russian aircraft is increasingly uncertain, while Ukrainian aircraft are limited in number.

The concept of acquiring more A400Ms (possibly through a European pool) for strategic purposes makes sense, especially given that the replacement for the American C-17 has not yet been initiated. However, these projections do not cover the succession of the C130H (14, eight of which are undergoing modernization) and the Casa 235 (26), which require a separate Medium Tactical Cargo Aircraft (FCTM) program with payload assumptions ranging from 8-10 tons to 20 tons. Studies are underway to provide the French Air and Space Army and its European partners with a clearer idea of options by 2025.

Looking to the Future

Considerations are also being made for new communication capabilities, aerodynamic delivery of effectors, and remote operation from the A400M, a component of the Future Air Combat System (SCAF). The ability to carry effectors is also of interest to the Poitou squadron, which initially gained the capability to carry lightweight Griffin missiles from the cargo hold of its C-130H aircraft, a feature that was eventually replaced by drones.

The A400M’s potential as a water bomber, showcased in Airbus’s summer test campaign, requires further exploration. While France is keeping an eye on technical advancements, the renewal of the safety authority’s CL415 aircraft was confirmed by the president in the autumn.

In the short term, user countries are contemplating future developments, with a notion of “block upgrades.” The first such upgrade, defined in terms of technical scope, may be engaged by the end of the year. This “block upgrade zero” could encompass GNSS satellite-based precision approaches (LPV), regulatory upgrades to IFF mode 5 and encrypted radios, and enhancements to the mission system.

The future also concerns personnel, with 35 crews already trained on the A400M and a target of 75 by 2035. At this stage, the addition of a third conventional squadron is not planned until the foundation of the first two squadrons (Touraine and Béarn) is solidified. In the short term, the challenge is to manage the constraints of different configurations to meet operational needs, which will inevitably be better addressed with a fully homogeneous and expanded fleet. In 2022 alone, the Atlas flew for a total of 5,800 hours.

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