The air assets of the German Armed Forces are in a even more deplorable state that before, and is becoming worse and worse. Helicopters, transport aircraft and combat jets are spending so much time on the ground that it hurts the defence capabilities of one of Europe’s biggest countries way too much. Many aircraft are not available for any duties they are so needed for, at home or with the 13 deployments abroad, including the “flashy” new Airbus A400Ms.
“The German airlift capabilities have become so weak that days of delays and cancellations of (planned) flights into and from areas of deployment are almost a normality,” Bartels says. “The status of materiel is equally bad and in many occasions even worse than during my first inspection visit in 2015. At the end of last year not a single of the 14 newly commissioned A400M transport aircraft was available. Eurofighter, Tornado, Transall, CH-53, Tiger, NH90 … the flying units rightfully complain they fail in having the appropriate flight hours for their crews because too many machines too many days a year are not ready to fly.”
Even the operation platforms of the German Navy helicopter fleet of Westland Sea Lynxes and in the future NH90 Sea Lion are far less than the German Ministry of Defence has promised to be available. Of the planned 15 frigates only 9 are in use and even they are often not able to sail with longer maintenance times in the shipyard for the aging vessels. Of the 220,000 job positions in the German Armed Forces, a massive 21,000 are vacant. Many troops lack winter uniforms or flack jackets.
Germany is seeking compensation for various issues and delays with its troubled Airbus A400M airlifters. Berlin also wants the aircraft manufacturer to come up with a plan to solve the issues, and meanwhile does not rule out the purchase of another transport aircraft to ensure operational capability.
The A400M has been causing head aches in Berlin since delivery of the first aircraft in late 2014. Since, only a handful of aircraft found their way to Germany. Negative headlines did find their way to German media however, quoting various technical and operational difficulties. Most recently, a fault in the engines sparked another run of headlines criticizing the A400M
The German struggle is remarkable, as other operators of the type seem to be just fine with the A400M. France, the UK, Turkey and Malaysia operate the type as well, and the first aircraft for Spain now nears delivery.
Airbus nevertheless acknownledges issues with the A400M, promising to tackle those issues.
Where’s a gas station when you need it? That’s exactly what’s going in the minds of a Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) KDC-10 crew as they look for the French C-135 Stratotanker that should be flying somewhere ahead of them. Seconds later, they find the French aircraft and move in closer. It’s an obvious metaphor for closing the infamous European tanker gap. The solution comes in two shapes: the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and the Airbus A400M.
Over the North Sea and to the crew of the KDC-10, that’s all distant music. As participants in the European Air Refuelling Training (EART) at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, they have just finished air-to-air refuelling (AAR) twelve F-16s that take part in action packed exercise Frisian Flag 2016. Somewhere ahead and beneath them, the French KC-135 also just finished refuelling fighter jets, as did the German Airbus A310 that’s also nearby.
That’s three air-to-air refuellers in the same patch of sky, a sight not often seen as tanker aircraft are usually hard to find in Europe. The overall goal of EART is to improve flexability, efficiency and effectiveness of the combined tanker force of all zeven nations (the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, France, Spain and Italy) that handed command over their assets over to the European Air Transport Command (EATC). From Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, EATC commands 19 tanker aircraft of various types from all seven nations. That number equals 65 percent of all AAR platforms available in Europe.
Compared to the hundreds of air refuelling aircraft available to the US, the European numbers fall far short, hence the ‘tanker gap’. However, that gap may soon be a thing of the past, given the increasing number of Airbus A400M available to France and Germany, plus Spain and Belgium in the near future. By 2025, EATC should have 80 or so A400Ms at its disposal, with roughly 40 air refuelling kits available for those aircraft. The new Airbus aircraft has been involved in AAR tests.
Moreover, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg and Poland are on course to jointly buy and operate the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). During EART, it emerged that a Memorandum of Understanding is to be signed during the NATO summit in July in Warsaw, with a contract for three or four aircraft to be signed that same month during the Farnborough Airshow.
The shared pool should grow to eight Airbus A330 MRTTs eventually. Belgium, Germany and Spain have already expressed interest in particpating in the program as well.
“EATC has been asked to harmonize A400M and A330 MRTT operations in the future”, says Colonel Jurgen van der Biezen, a RNLAF-delegate to the joint European command in Eindhoven. “What we are looking for, is an air-to-air refuelling hub that is very similar in operation to the European Heavy Airlift Wing operating from Hungary.”
Introducing the A400M and A330 MRTT as tankers increases EATC’s refuelling fleet to 69 assets, equal to 82 percent of all similar capacity in Europe. It’s a signifant increase compared to today’s situation, an increase that enables European nations to support their own – plus each other’s – operations.
It’s an idea that gets the thumbs up from all within EATC, just like the thumbs up shown by the crew of a Dutch KDC-10 tanker over the North Sea. They successfully performed some formation flying with the other two tankers in the same patch of sky. After leaving the formation, they are on their own again. But with a different feeling this time. There are others out there.
Airbus delivered a significant number of A400M military transport aircraft to costumers in December, bringing to an end a year marked by the fatal crash of an A400M in Seville on 9 May. The program seems to have overcome the tragedy however.
In December, Germany received both its second and third A400M, while France took delivery of its eight aircraft. Also, Turkey and Malaysia got their hands on their third and second aircraft respectively. The latter was handed over to the Royal Malaysian Air Force in Seville on Wednesday 23 December and will head East soon.
The year 2015 saw four deliveries to the Royal Air Force (RAF), who declared the A400M Atlas C1 ‘ready for worldwide tasks’ last September. Meanwhile, Airbus reports it is making progress in assembling the first aircraft for Spain.
The very first Airbus A400M went on display in the Musée Aeroscopia in Toulouse on Thursday 16 July. The aircraft, known as Grizzly 1, joins a collection of other Airbus aircraft in the museum just outside Toulouse Blagnac airport.
It was this aircraft that performed the maiden A400M flight on 11 December 2009. It flew for the last time on 4 November 2012, acquiring only 1.448 flight hours in those three years of test flying. Airbus A400M test flights are now being done with two other company test aircraft.