Tactical decision: Europe’s military airlift

Europe’s airlift fleet is dominated by European and US platforms, although Brazil’s Embraer is seeking to capture a greater share of the continent’s market. Gordon Arthur reports.

A number of countries in Europe operate the A400M transporter, including the continent’s three major military powers. Credit: US Army

International options for tactical and strategic transport aircraft are somewhat limited, but Europe has traditionally preferred home-grown and North American solutions. However, that is beginning to change as Embraer of Brazil starts to prise market share on the continent.

European entrants

Airbus and Leonardo offer European-built solutions. The former offers the C295 medium airlifter that can carry 9,250kg payloads, with more than 180 of 258 on order globally having been delivered to date. In Europe the C295 is flown by the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Serbia, and Spain. Last December, Spain ordered 16 C295 maritime patrol aircraft variants for €1.695bn ($1.84bn).

However, Airbus’ ultimate airlifter is the A400M. European customers Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Turkey, and the UK have ordered 170 A400Ms between them, of which more than 120 have been delivered.

Asked about the A400M’s key features, an Airbus spokesperson highlighted to Global Defence Technology the aircraft’s versatility. “It can do the work of three aircraft: it can be used as a transporter, tanker, and medevac aircraft. What’s more, the A400M can take off and land almost anywhere, even on small and unprepared airstrips.”

With a 37-tonne payload capacity, it can carry outsized loads as large as Chinook helicopters, or heavy vehicles and equipment for humanitarian missions, at better ranges, speeds, and altitudes than legacy airlifters.

The A400M continues to evolve, such as contributing to the Future Combat Air System. In a December 2022 test, an A400M deployed and controlled unmanned aerial vehicles. Additionally, Airbus is developing a new roll-on/roll-off firefighting prototype kit; its most recent test campaign occurred in December 2023.

Airbus provides full maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) services from its main MRO base in Manching near Munich, as well as Wunstorf Air Base and Hannover Airport. Furthermore, Airbus is constructing a new A400M maintenance facility close to Wunstorf. Due to commence operations in 2027, it will perform MRO and also host the Airbus A400M Support Centre with a workforce of approximately 300. Furthermore, six A400M training centres possess full flight simulators.

The C-27J Spartan from Leonardo is available in different versions, including the multi-mission MC-27J that is pictured here. Credit: Leonard

The company spokesperson said they “expect the A400M to keep playing a key role for several decades. First deliveries happened in 2013, and we foresee the A400M to remain a key asset until the 2050s. What will come later will depend on the evolution of both technologies (civil and military) and customer needs.”

However, Airbus is ready to build upon current platforms with the Future Midsize Tactical Cargo (FMTC) programme. “Airbus has been conducting internal studies for years to mature the idea of the tactical transport aircraft of the future, focused on 20 tonnes of payload. We believe a new-generation tactical transport aircraft in this category would be well received in both the European and international markets, which is why Airbus has launched initial activities for the FMTC programme.”

As part of the FMTC’s first stage, Airbus is coordinating the Future Air System for European Tactical Transportation (FASETT), a European Commission-funded collaborative defence research and development project. The company noted: “This feasibility study has an 18-month duration, with a cost of €30 million and more than 30 European companies involved. The objective of this phase is to carry out a concept-of-operation study of the aircraft, identifying and responding to tactical and operational needs of EU member states in the 2030-40 horizon, while analysing our customers’ transport aircraft replacement needs...”

Airbus added: “We believe this initiative will have a double positive effect of great magnitude: on the one hand we’ll reinforce the fleets of EU countries with a 100%-European state-of-the-art platform, and on the other hand it will allow us to develop and position European industry in state-of-the-art current technology.”

Elsewhere, France, Nato, Spain, and the UK operate Airbus’ A330 Multirole Tanker Transport (MRTT). The spokesperson said: “In a world that’s more and more global and connected, strategic transport is a very important role for any advanced air force. The A330 MRTT, as a multirole aircraft, can be tasked at any moment, without the need of any reconfiguration, to perform high-capacity transport missions for passengers (up to 300 in a single-class cabin) and/or palletised cargo (up to 37 tonnes in the lower cargo decks), covering very long distances in an effective and efficient manner.”

An example of the MRTT’s utility was France sending reinforcements to New Caledonia in the wake of civil unrest in May 2024.

The C-27J Spartan, Leonardo’s twin turboprop with 11.5-tonne cargo capacity, is operated in Europe by Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In 2020, Leonardo launched the C-27J Spartan Next Generation, whose key modifications included new avionics, performance-based navigation, and winglets. Maritime patrol/anti-submarine warfare, electronic warfare and search-and-rescue variants are available

Herculean effort

Both the UK and Nato operate Boeing’s C-17A Globemaster III, but production of this large transporter has ceased. Instead, Nato’s tactical-transport backbone is undoubtedly Lockheed Martin’s C-130. Used by ten European nations, they own 22% of the entire C-130 global fleet, with Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, and Norway flying the latest C-130J/C-130J-30 version.

Norway has received one of four C-130J-30s, while Germany received its final aircraft in April. Interestingly, Germany’s three C-130J-30s and three KC-130Js operate alongside France’s two C-130J-30s and two KC-130Js. This Franco-German unit represents the first binational C-130 fleet.

Speaking with Global Defence Technology, Nicholas Smythe, director of International Campaigns, Air Mobility & Maritime Missions at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said: “European operators demonstrate time and time again the importance of the C-130 in the critical ‘last mile’ into an operational theatre.”

This Lockheed Martin KC-130J, a refuelling tanker variant of the popular Super Hercules, belongs to the French Air Force. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin is promoting the Super Hercules to new Nato member Sweden, while Greece is another potential customer. The Super Hercules, which carries 21,183kg of cargo, has been chosen by 22 nations, with more than 540 aircraft delivered and three million flight hours clocked up.

Asked about the Super Hercules’ credentials, Smythe highlighted its tactical nature (including an ability to fly at low altitudes and slow speeds); global interoperability; flying capabilities (short-field take-off/landing performance, and lower fuel consumption); value (thanks to a stable production line, global supply chain, joint user groups and worldwide support system); continued innovation (e.g. connectivity, block upgrade programme and incremental power plant improvements); and proven performance.

European operators demonstrate time and time again the importance of the C-130 in the critical ‘last mile’ into an operational theatre.

Nicholas Smythe, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics

The Super Hercules will soon receive an aerial spraying capability, whilst the US Air Force is exploring the feasibility of airdropping palletised effects too. Block 8.1 software and hardware upgrades are installed on newly delivered aircraft, which include a new flight management system, civil GPS, updated identification friend or foe, enhanced intercom and better approach/landing systems.

Smythe addressed the C-130’s future too: “…The Super Herc’s place in the future battlespace is being planned today. JADC2 [Joint All Domain Command and Control] node capability, 5G.Mil connectivity, enhanced communications systems and open mission architecture are some of the technologies that support the C-130J’s continued evolution. With strong demand for the C-130J and multiple advancements in work for the Super Herc, we are focused on meeting our operator’s current and future tactical airlift requirements.”

With so many C-130s in service, there is a large market for MRO and upgrades in Europe. Lockheed Martin has certified 16 service centres globally, including four in Europe: Marshall Aerospace and Vector Aerospace in the UK, Sabena Aerospace in France, and Leonardo in Italy. Hercules wheeling and dealing goes on in the second-hand market too. For example, in March 2023 the Royal Air Force took the unusual step of divesting its single C-130J and 13 C-130J-30 aircraft, and these are now available to foreign buyers.

Embraer: carving a niche

With its C-390 Millennium that has a 26-tonne cargo capacity, Brazilian firm Embraer is carving out a niche in the European market. It has been selected by Austria and the Czech Republic, and logged sales to Hungary (x2), the Netherlands (x5) and Portugal (x5).

Jonatas Torresan, Embraer’s corporate communications officer, said the above list reflect the C-390’s “growing international appeal and acknowledgment of its superior capabilities, reliability and performance”. The first European C-390 entered Portuguese service in October 2023, while another will soon reach Hungarian hands.

The first Embraer C-390 Millennium transport aircraft is seen here being handed over to a European customer, the Portuguese Air Force. Credit: OGMA

Asked about the aircraft’s capabilities, Torresan said it features “the latest advancements in tactical radar, self-protection mechanisms, avionics, vision enhancement, as well as advanced cargo handling and airdrop technologies. Its versatile ‘one aircraft, many capabilities’ design philosophy enables rapid reconfiguration for an extensive variety of operations, encompassing aerial resupply, air assault, air-to-air refuelling (with the KC-390 variant), aerial firefighting, search and rescue, humanitarian aid, medical evacuation and special operations support.”

Additionally, a detachable electro-optical/infrared pod broadens its operational scope for maritime patrol, special operations and search and rescue.

Torresan added: “Embraer offers full support to all our countries, including training, maintenance, parts and engineering services with offices, warehouses and teams located all across Europe.” OGMA in Portugal is Europe’s first C-390 authorised service centre.

European market promises continuity

With Moscow embroiled in the Ukraine war, Russian-built aircraft are anathema to most of Europe. However, two Asian-built transport aircraft also exist – the Japanese C-2 and Chinese Y-20 – although neither has achieved sales outside their domestic markets. Furthermore, the Y-20’s European appeal will be limited because of political reasons. Korea Aerospace Industries is currently designing the 30-tonne-class MC-X Orca, but production is at least eleven years from commencing.

This all means that American, Brazilian, and European tactical and strategic airlifters will potentially continue to dominate Europe’s regional sales for the foreseeable future.

Caption: The Combined Force Space Component Command Operations Directorate team stands at the first “Rapid Tiger” advanced training event from 28-31 March, 2022. Credit: US Space Force/Lt. Col. Mae-Li Allison

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Australia could be one of the main beneficiaries of this dramatic increase in demand, where private companies and local governments alike are eager to expand the country’s nascent rare earths production. In 2021, Australia produced the fourth-most rare earths in the world. It’s total annual production of 19,958 tonnes remains significantly less than the mammoth 152,407 tonnes produced by China, but a dramatic improvement over the 1,995 tonnes produced domestically in 2011.

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Total annual production

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Phillip Day. Credit: Scotgold Resources