Germany is pushing ahead with its plans to buy six Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules aircraft, including three KC-130J tankers, as part of plans to establish a shared unit with France. The move could greatly expand the capabilities of the air forces in both countries, and make it less expensive for both parties to do so, but could cause problems for separate efforts to grow their respective Airbus A400M Atlas airlifter fleets.
On May 4, 2018, the U.S. Military’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the U.S. State Department had approved the sale of three C-130J-30 and three KC-130J aircraft to Germany, along with spare parts, training assistance, technical support, and other ancillary equipment. The entire purchase had a total estimated value of $1.4 billion. The purchase plan has been in the works since at least 2016 and the German government hopes to reach initial operational capability with the type in 2021.
The German Air Force, or Luftwaffe, expects to reach full operational capability in 2024, helped along by the deployment of the aircraft to Évreux-Fauville Air Base in France’s Normandy region. There Germany’s aircraft will join the French Air Force’s two C-130J-30s and two KC-130s to form a shared squadron. France received its new Hercules in January 2018, though it already operated more than 10 older C-130H models.
“The first aircraft, even if it carries French insignia, is the starting shot,” Germany’s Lieutenant General Erhard Bühler, who is in charge of the planning team for Franco-German squadron at the German Ministry of Defense, said in January 2018. “Only together can we accomplish the coming tasks of Europe. France and Germany, shoulder to shoulder, that is our future."
Ostensibly the new four-engine aircraft will be an interim substitute for the aging twin-engine Transall C-160 airlifters as it leaves French and German service. The product of a joint development between France and Germany, those aircraft first entered service in 1967 and are rapidly becoming unsustainable. Both countries have long planned on the Airbus A400M replacing those aircraft for good, effectively on a one-for-one basis.
In the meantime, the stretched fuselage C-130J-30s will be able to carry significantly more cargo and payloads that are physically larger. The Hercules will have better range and be more efficient to operate, as well.
For France especially, the KC-130s will give its Air Force the ability to refuel its own EC-725 Caracal combat search and rescue helicopters, also known as the H225M, without having to request support from other allies. The country’s existing KC-135FR aerial refueling tankers cannot fly slow enough to refuel the choppers and its A400Ms and C-160s both lack an aerial refueling capability at present.
This could also give Germany the option of procuring helicopters with mid-air refueling capability in the future, which could be a particularly important consideration as it looks to buy a replacement for its CH-53G heavy lift types. Sikorsky’s new CH-53K King Stallion has an in-flight refueling probe as a standard option. The KC-130Js would also be able to refuel French and German fast jet combat aircraft if necessary, which could make them even more versatile for both countries.
Both the C-130J-30s and KC-130s will be able to use many of the same types of runways that the C-160s can operate from now, including short, unimproved strips in remote areas. This will make the various Hercules a good option for supporting either country’s special operations forces or personnel engaged in peacekeeping, humanitarian, or similar small military interventions into areas with limited established infrastructure. France and Germany are both already heavily engaged in North and West Africa supporting United Nations and European Union-backed missions and rely heavily on the C-160 for operations in those areas.
In addition, the arrangement will allow both countries to share the burden of operating and maintaining the shared fleet of C-130Js. In March 2017, France and Germany agreed to both contribute more than $130 million to pay for expanded infrastructure and training facilities to support the squadron at Évreux-Fauville Air Base. Sharing a common logistics pipeline for identical aircraft will also help keep costs down.
This is just one of a number of military cooperation deals France and Germany are pursuing at present, including work on a new fifth-generation fighter aircraft and companion stealthy unmanned air combat vehicles. Burden sharing is an important component of all of these agreements.
Driven in no small part by Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and hostile attitude toward the NATO alliance, both countries are looking to increase defense spending and expand and modernize their military forces. At the same time, they’re both coming to terms with decades of shrinking military budgets since the end of the Cold War that wreaked havoc on readiness in general. These issues have had far more of an impact on the German armed forces than their French counterparts, however.
For more than a year now, Germany has suffered one defense scandal after another, including having its entire submarine fleet out of action, refusing to take delivery of its newest frigates, and abysmal availability rates across the Luftwaffe’s
various aircraft fleets. Earlier in May 2018, Der Spiegel magazine reported that less than a dozen of the German Air Force’s Eurofighter Typhoons had functioning Defensive Aids Sub Systems (DASS), which could leave them effectively unable to fly combat missions. This equipment includes the aircraft’s entire electronic support measures and electronic countermeasures suite, as well as missile warning receivers and chaff and flare dispensers.
Der Spiegel said that shortages of air-to-air missiles and maintenance backlogs made the issue worse. Germany’s swing-wing Tornado jets, the Luftwaffe’s other primary combat aircraft, have similarly suffered decreasing availability in recent years, an issue we at The War Zone have touched on
multiple times in the past.
The shared C-130J squadron could definitely be a win-win for both countries. France would be able to share the burden of rapidly expanding this category of airlift and aerial refueling support, while Germany would be able to spread around at least some of the costs of the Luftwaffe’s desperately needed modernization efforts.
But while the concept makes a lot of sense, it could also spell trouble for the A400M programs in both countries. Though the C-130Js are primarily intended to take over for the Transalls, they also fill an important niche that the larger Airbus airlifters can’t perform, even if they were meeting their cost estimates and delivery schedules.
France’s relatively fast acquisition of its Hercules – a little over two years between getting U.S. approval and receiving the aircraft – was spurred on in part by continuing delays with the A400Ms, as well as the determination that the C-130Js were better suited to operations in countries such as Mali and Niger. Germany has reportedly come to many of the same conclusions.
In a vacuum, it's true that both types of aircraft could be complementary. For France’s distributed operations in North and West Africa especially, and similar activities elsewhere in the future, an A400M could bring larger amounts of cargo into established regional airports, where C-130Js would then move it onward to smaller forward operating locations. The A400Ms are significantly larger aircraft that can carry much more cargo, which would reduce the number of sorties necessary to at least move the necessary equipment, personnel, and other supplies into a theater initially.
The issue, of course, is that France and Germany have yet to be able to make good use of their A400Ms due to a number of delays and technical issues. In March 2018, Reuters reported that Germany, which has to date purchased the largest number of the Airbus transports – 53 in total – had identified significant risks with the aircraft.
“It is not clear whether, when and how many mature deployable A400M will be available with the contractually required suite of tactical capabilities,” according to a confidential German military report that Reuters obtained. “There are significant risks associated with the availability of the required tactical capabilities at the time of the retirement of the C-160. A capability gap cannot be excluded after 2021.”
A year earlier, the German military announced that it would continue to operate 13 of the 17 aircraft it already had, despite earlier attempts to sell, lease, or operate them together with other countries to try and save money on the underperforming aircraft. It had found no parties interested in taking the aircraft in part or in full.
As of December 2017, Germany’s share of the multi-national A400M program was the largest at more than $10 billion. France is the second largest participant, expecting to take delivery of a total of 50 aircraft in total.
In February 2018, Airbus met with the stakeholders from all of the participating nations in London to try and negotiate a cap for fines over delays and deficiencies with the aircraft, citing fears that the project might cease to be fiscally viable if it could not come to an agreement. The parties agreed to rebaseline the program, resetting the delivery schedule and requirements, which will only further delay full delivery of the aircraft with full mission capabilities.
Though officials in both countries say they remain committed to the Airbus aircraft in the long-term, the C-130Js will offer a critical capability in the near term. If the Hercules have to take on additional missions due to continued schedule slips with the A400Ms, and perform successfully in those roles, it might prompt serious questions about whether it makes sense to buy more of them instead of the larger airlifters.
Germany has already made it clear it has no particular attachment to the initial run of A400Ms it has now. The C-130J may be less capable overall, but it’s also a type that's in steady production and in very active service
around the world with the U.S. military and other military forces.
It’s not hard to see Germany or France deciding it makes sense to significantly trim their total orders of Atlases. With both countries underwriting much of the program and Airbus struggling to find new customers for the type, it’s not clear how a shrinking investment from Berlin or Paris could impact the program as a whole, especially given the latest negotiations in London.
What does seem clearer is that the French and German Air Forces will be flying C-130Js together in the next few years, significantly improving both services capabilities and doing so in a cost-effective manner. It remains to be seen whether, if the project becomes a success and model for future cooperation, whether the two countries will reassess their broader requirements for airlifters in general.
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