Director of Airbus UK Military Affairs, Sir Kevin Leeson faced some pretty hostile questioning during Tuesday’s House of Commons Defence Select Committee (HCDC) defence procurement hearing particularly when the subject of the RAF A400M ‘Atlas’ engine and gearbox issues came up and on whether the aircraft was yet cleared to perform all of the various requirements of UK Special Forces.
Although life extended by a further three months, having already put the C-130J fleet that the now fully delivered fleet of 22 A400M ‘Atlas’ aircraft acquired by the MOD was designed to replace, up for sale, it appears that the MOD in its infinite wisdom remains determined to retire the 14 strong fleet of Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft that have and continue to provide capability excellence for the Royal Air Force, sometime during 2023. I have written before on this and continue to take the view that allowing C-130J to leave the RAF fleet prematurely would be a great mistake and one that we may well live to regret.
Implying that shortfalls in A400M availability during the summer and which I believe refers to shortages of spare parts, have now been satisfactorily addressed and despite emphasising that while progress is being made in order to remedy what Sir Kevin termed as ‘long-term issues with the EuroProp International TP400-D6 turboprop engines’ that power the A400M military transport and that specifically relate to accelerated wear affecting its propeller gearbox, some of his answers clearly failed to impress at least a couple HCDC members in the form of Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham and Mark Francois, MP for Rayleigh and Wickford.
That the engine/gearbox issues on the RAF fleet of A400M military transports remains serious in respect of capacity and availability and will likely remain so for some years yet has not been lost on those who follow the programme closely. However, Sir Kevin told the committee that “on the problem of the IPA gear deterioration we are essentially through this in design terms” adding that “the Mod Pack 2 [gearbox update] is already in delivery and also that “we have accommodations for those aircraft that are still pre-modification and where the gearboxes carried on the TP400-D6 still don’t have the life expectancy that they should.”
In hindsight, perhaps by referring to issues that have caused so many problems on the A400M programme as having been “a regrettable collection of discoveries in the engine which hindered operations by the RAF’s A400M fleet earlier this year”, could justifiably be seen by some of those impacted by a variety of issues as being an understatement. After all, it is well known that capacity and availability problems caused by the gearbox problems have been impacting on the Royal Air Force and other A400M partner air forces for several years past.
Nevertheless, Sir Kevin went on to tell the committee that he was pleased to say that ‘we are completely through’ the problems and that Airbus has “borne the burden” of funding remedial action required. Referring to the RAF’s assets, and not surprisingly without being able to disclose specific figures, Sir Kevin concluded this part of his evidence in respect of A400M saying that “We don’t have any aeroplanes in the first-line fleet that are short of engines or gearboxes.”
Ongoing engine issues aside, it would once again be Mark Francois MP with some serious assistance from Kevan Jones who gave Sir Kevin the most difficult time in respect of whether the A400M could yet perform all the tasks required by UK Special Forces and that include high-altitude parachuting capability along with that of low-level parachuting and on whether the A400M could land and take off on very short runways as the C130J can and of what the aircraft has been cleared by the Military Aviation Authority to so far do.
Without having specific knowledge of MOD A400M capability requirements it is all the more difficult for me to quantify, but Sir Kevin’s point in regard of Airbus itself having signed off most performance requirement clearances while the MAA has not is noted.
Leeson emphasised that a large number of required capabilities for UK Special Forces mission activity was already in place and that others within the overall capability plan will be delivered within the next few months, noting also that some of these are within the training and government release mechanism area. He also said that Airbus was confident that in terms of the priorities that they had been set that “we can meet the requirements”.
While details of performance requirements for military aircraft carrying ‘special forces’ must obviously remain confidential, Sir Kevin began his second element of A400M capability defence telling the Committee that the aircraft is “substantially more capable” than the RAF’s current C130J Hercules such as the ability of the aircraft to carry double payload, or the same amount of equipment twice as far, whilst also being able to take off from austere landing strip and requiring only a slightly longer distance to take off than the C130J.
He suggested that ‘clearances’ are already in place for ‘paratrooper jumps’ performed from the aircraft’s rear cargo ramp and side doors but accepted that MAA approvals have yet to be secured for simultaneous deployment from either side of the aircraft.
I am in no doubt that that the A400M is a superb aircraft and I recognise, as Sir Kevin himself pointed out, that large aircraft programmes have a long history of hitting problems. As I well recall back in the 1980’s , the Boeing C-17 Globemaster development programme was another example of and new large and sophisticated military aircraft development that had early problems albeit one that turned out to be absolutely brilliant Heavy Lift military aircraft capability and one that also serves many international air forces. I am sure that A400M will also be a great success in the years to come.
But in finishing and as an issue that came up during the HCDC hearing on Tuesday, let me say loud and clear that allowing the current fleet of 14 C-130J to be withdrawn from the RAF and subsequently sold to other military air forces on the basis of saving cost over that of accepting the importance and requirement of the brilliant capability it provides to the RAF is a crass error of judgement on the part of the MOD and one that I and others sincerely hope will be reversed in the upcoming review of the 2021 Integrated Review that has attempted, for all the wrong reasons, to cast this fine and much needed capability aside.
CHW (London – 1st December 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785