Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Atlas and Voyager updates


In September the Royal Air Force will receive its first aircraft A400M Atlas, MSN 15 (the 15th production A400M), after swapping two delivery slots with France. The UK was earlier expected to receive MSN 16 as first aircraft, and it would only receive 3 aircraft in 2014, but now british deliveries start one aircraft earlier, with a total of five due for the year.

The first five aircraft for the UK (MSN15, 16, 17, 20 and 21) are all already in final assembly, albeit of course at different stages of the building process.

The british aircraft will be the first A400M delivered at the SOC 1.5 standard, which includes parachute clearance and low level air drop ("initial tactical capability"). The aircraft delivered so far have reduced capabilities: the first two aircraft for France (MSN 7 and 8) plus the first aircraft for Turkey (MSN 9) have been delivered in "IOC" configuration. MSN 10, again for France, introduces SOC 1, which is the capability to carry out the "logistic" function (in other words, to fly a payload from point A to point B) and some basic air dropping. 

SOC 1.5 and 2 standards will respectively add full aerial delivery and tanker capability and enhanced tactical mission management and new functions such as polar navigation and time-on-arrival management.
In late 2017, SOC2.5 is expected to enable enhanced tanker capabilities (3-points?) and search-and-rescue patterns.

The A400M will achieve its full operational capability in 2019, with the release of SOC 3, which enables tactical low level flight and use of enhanced visual system, opening up the whole range of missions that the aircraft is meant to accomplish. Progressively, early delivery aircraft would be updated with the SOC 3 software, and cleared for full performances.

The A400M testing program is clearing more and more capabilities: over the course of this and the next month, the Atlas will begin its test programme for validating air refuelling from the centerline A330MRTT FRU (Fuselage Refuelling Unit). This will eventually ensure that RAF Voyager KC3 tankers can use their centerline drogue to refuel the Atlas in flight. 

The A400M itself can be equipped to serve as a tanker, and spanish Air Force F/A-18 already made wet and dry contacts on wing-tip refuelling HDU units fitted to A400M MSN4. The A400M can be made into an impressive tanker aircraft, and can also be fitted with a centerline refueling point. Due to the tanker role being very much "built in" into the airframe, the conversion to 2-point tanker takes as little as two hours, pretty much the time to install the pods under the wings. 

Air-to-Air Refuelling can be done either through two wing mounted hose and drogue under-wing refuelling pods or through a centre-line fuselage refuelling unit (FRU). Its built-in air-to-air refuelling capability allows it to be rapidly re-configured to become a tanker. With hard points, fuel lines and electrical connections already built into the wings, it takes under two hours to convert the A400M from an airlifter into a two-point tanker aircraft.

The two hose and drogue under-wing refuelling pods can provide a fuel flow of up to 400 US gal / 1,500 litres per minute to receiver aircraft. Refuelling can also be done through a centre-line Hose and Drum Unit (HDU) which provides a higher fuel flow of some 600 US gal / 2,250 litres per minute. Three video cameras can also be installed, to monitor the refuelling from the wing pods and the centre-line unit.
With the pods fitted under the wings, the A400M becomes a good 2-point tanker
A centerline drogue can also be added, to make it a three point tanker, capable to refuel even large receivers.
One advantage of Atlas in the tanker job is that the aircraft can fly both at the low speeds and low altitudes typically used to refuel helicopters (roughly 110 knots and 5000 feet), as well as at higher speeds and altitudes of about 290 knots kt and altitudes around 25,000 ft which are typically used for refuelling of fast jets. 
Voyager can only fly high and fast, and is not suited to refueling helicopters. The Royal Air Force, however, has currently no plan to purchase the refueler kit for the Atlas, and despite having the Merlin helicopter which can employ an AAR probe, is not in the business of refueling rotary wing aircraft in flight. 

Ahead of deliveries to the RAF, Airbus has speeded up the tests regarding the air dropping. The first phase of air dropping tests was successfully cleared back in march, after launching containers weighting up to 4 tons and bundles of up to 320 kg. 
Other tests have included operational experimentation of the Atlas in airfield assault role, carrying a combat-ready Scimitar armored vehicle, a RWMIK Land Rover with trailer and 60 troops at once. 

Airfield Assault trials
The employment of self-defense countermeasures was also tested. Particularly impressive is the launch test of flares from the Saphir-400 system. 

The most relevant capability of the Atlas, however, is its combination of "strategic" payload capability and tactical rough, short landing capability. The Atlas can land in 830 meters of Soft, unpaved strip with a 27 tons payload; or land in 750 meters soft / rough strip (CBR-6 unpaved classified) with a 25 tons payload. 
The maximum payload is 37 tons. 
The very spacious cargo bay removes the bottlenecks which limit today's C-130 compatibility with large payloads.

A french study on air logistics following operations in Mali shows the massive leap forwards in capability represented by the A400M, and highlights some of the bottlenecks developed over the years by the C-130 as the weights and volumes of vehicles, helicopters and equipment have increased beyond the capacity of the cargo bay.

Prior to the swapping of delivery slots with France, the RAF expected to receive its Atlas according to this schedule: 

2014: 3
2015: 8
2016: 6
2017: 2
2018: 2 (2 options)
2019: (1 option)
2021: 1

The options are the three aircraft that the UK cut from its initial planned order of 25 airframes to contain cost growth.
The change in the delivery schedule, with 5 aircraft now expected in 2014, is going to impact later years plans in a way that is currently unspecified. It would be nice to avoid the weird gap in deliveries between 2019 and 2021.

The RAF planned to achieve the IOC with 3 aircraft by March 2015. Getting five instead of three aircraft will have an impact on the plan, but not necessarily imply a delay to the plan.
FOC is expected in 2017, with 12 aircraft.

70 Squadron is the first unit to operate the receive and operate the Atlas. The squadron stood down in 2010 after a distinguished career on the Lockheed Martin C-130 K Hercules begun in the 1970s. 
The squadron is now preparing for its formal return later this year, when it will be reformed in RAF Brize Norton on the new aircraft.  

Two other Hercules units, 24 and 30 Squadrons, are also expected to transition to the Atlas, with 24 Squadron destined to eventually become the operational conversion unit, according to RAF sources.

Training for the A400M crews will be delivered by a £226 million specialist training school at RAF Brize Norton, in the framework of a training contract signed in March 2013 with A400M Training Services Ltd (team made up by Airbus and Thales UK), with a duration of 18 years.
The school will house two full flight simulators to train RAF pilots, a specialist workstation to train loadmasters, a fuselage mock-up to train engineers and a suite of computer-based training equipment. 

The first pilot training course will start in April 2015; until then the training for british crews is provided at San Pablo, Seville, in Spain. 

Operational evaluation on the way to entry in service is being made via the MEST (Multinational Entry into Service Team), based in Orleans, France. As of september 2013, the british participation in MEST numbered four personnel (one engineer, one logistics specialist and two technicians) with two more (a pilot and a loadmaster) expected to join the team soon afterwards. Cooperation between France and UK has also seen the second in command of MEST benefiting from time on a RAF C-130J where he was able to gain firsthand experience of Glass Cockpit technology ahead of the passage on the new aircraft. French personnel will also have access to the british cargo bay simulator for loading tests and for training its personnel in operating procedures. 

Graphic showing the Cargo Bay simulator
The two countries are discussing long-term cooperation on in-service support, ranging from common pooling of spare parts to the performance of maintenance inspections.


The Voyager tanker fleet has seen the delivery of nine aircraft (8 tankers and one civilian-register transport), completing the RAF's Core fleet. In reality, the core fleet still isn't complete as one of the nine aircraft is not in the UK, but is held back in Seville as a test platform used to clear UK receivers for refuelling. It will be used to clear A400M for refuelling from the MRTT centerline drogue, and will eventually join the operational fleet in Brize Norton later this year, if there are no delays. 

The aircraft delivered so far are:

01 ZZ330 KC2 (2-point tanker) 
02 G-VYGG (civil register; it used as permanent MOD-owned transport asset for the movement of personnel to, Falklands, Cyprus and other locations. The same aircraft can however be fitted with the pods under the wings and serve as a KC2 tanker. For tanker service, it is reserved as ZZ336 on the military register)
03 ZZ331 KC2 
04 ZZ332 KC3 (three point tanker)
05 ZZ333 KC3 
06 ZZ334 KC3 (currently serving as test platform to clear UK receivers) 
07 ZZ335 KC3 
08 ZZ337 KC3
09 ZZ338 KC3

The deliveries will continue with the last 5 aircraft (to be all delivered by 2016) which will constitute the "surge" fleet. 
The total of 14 aircraft is made up by 7 2-point tankers (KC2) and 7 3-point (KC3). Only five of the 7 KC3 are actually equipped with the centerline drogue, with the other two fitted for but not with, according to NAO reports.

Voyager is working hard: according to Airbus, the RAF fleet accounts for 12.300 flying hours on a global total of 20.000+ hours for all A330 MRTT in the world. Aircraft availability is excellent, with Voyager demonstrating a 99% Mission success rate in air transport role and a 90% success rate in AAR. 

A Voyager KC3 showing its three drogues. The central one is needed to refuel large receivers such as Sentry, C-130 and A400

The Voyagers are assigned to the squadrons 10 and 101. The RAF has a total of 30 cockpit crews (including full-time reserve RAuxAF), each made up by 3 men. 
The Air Tanker consortium provides a further 7 sponsored reserve crews. 

For military air transport role, the Voyager has a cabin crew of 8 personnel. 14 such crews are provided by RAF manpower, and a further 6 are sponsored reserve crews. 

The Voyager fleet has been successfully equiped with a DAS countermeasures fit, as well as a ballistic protection outfit for operations in Afghanistan. 


  1. Gaby,

    A fascinating post.

    You have listed the schedule for the introduction of the A400M into British service. Do you know how this will affect the timetable for the withdrawal of the C-130Js from service? You have mentioned three Hercules squadrons which are likely to convert but I thought there was a fourth, namely 47 Squadron.

    Has there been any indication so far (no matter how slight) of whether a few of the remaining C130Js will be kept, e.g. for Special Services’ use? The Atlas is an awfully big aircraft to be used in such a role. A mixed transport would be far more flexible.

    1. No, there is no real indication of the C-130J staying. In the current budget and manpower situation, if the A400M fleet is delivered earlier than planned, the C-130J most likely will just bow out earlier.
      And yes. 47 Squadron uses the Hercules, and is currently the Special Forces support squadron. If nothing else emerges in the future, we have to assume the squadron will disband and the SF support role will fall on one of the A400 squadrons. As for the A400 being big... yes, it is. Then again, it kind of isn't. One of the most interesting things about the A400 is that its wingspan (a crucial dimensional factor impacting the choice of landing strips) is just 2 meters greater than that of the C-130J.

      It would be nice, though, certainly, to have a smaller "tactical" aircraft as well, but that has a noticeable logistic and budgetary cost

    2. On the subject of C-130J retirement schedule, four short ones (C5) are planned to be withdrawn in 2016, starting the drawdown of the Hercules fleet.

  2. Gaby

    Thanks very much for the reply. I certainly take your points about the size of the A400 and the budgetary cost of keeping a smaller tactical aircraft.

  3. good info as always

  4. Could you do an article on current / future ISTAR / MPA / ELINT / AWACS....etc. ie "spy in the sky stuff". it would be interesting to have explained what does what (or doesn't) and what options we have going forward (especially with 2115 review coming up. Thanks

    1. It could be a good idea for a future article. I'll see what can be done when i have some time.

  5. Daniele MandelliJune 16, 2014 at 5:03 PM

    I would be amazed if DSF does not get some dedicated aircraft such as retained C130J.

    With just 22 A400 there are not enough and 47 Squadron is busy enough as it is supporting training and ops never mind long haul transport.

    I'm confident 47 is not listed as a Atlas squadron for a good reason...

  6. Just playing devils advocate but could the KC.2 aircraft be fitted for IFR booms should thinking change in the future?

    and it's nice to think that the UK will retain a token number of Hercules for special purpose use but the reality is that the airframes are shagged (something largely indicative of the lack of transport aircraft) and as much as I'd love for the UK to operate 4-5 MC-130Js, a pair of KC-130Js (based at RAF Mt. Pleasant, freeing up a dedicated tanker aircraft) and 3 AC-130Js the chances of the RAF retaining or purchasing replacement Hercules is non-existent, should funds become available then the most likely and sensible course of action would be buying some of those German Atlas aircraft they're trying to shift.


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