A New Approach to Airlift and Tanking


06/01/2011: The Shifting Strategic Environment: A New Approach to Airlift and Tanking

The United States has inherited and chosen to pursue the specialized aircraft route to airlift and tanking; Airbus Military has chosen a multi-mission path to providing for airlift and tanking capabilities for its customers. When the DOD chose the Boeing tanker built on a 40 year old airframe and an aircraft too small to do anything other than tanking, the DOD chose against the global trend.  That trend is for multi-mission aircraft able to operate on more than a single specialty. The difference in perspective was on display in the briefing by Antonio Rodríguez Barberán, Senior Vice President Commercial, at the Airbus Military Trade event in mid-May 2011.

At the heart of Barberán ‘s argument was that there was fundamental shift under way from the Cold War use of lift and tanking focused upon pure play military missions to a 21st century approach to global multi-mission taskings.  Global security – air, ground and maritime – required the availability of lift and tanking assets to be deployable for global and regional operations.The presentation focused on increased demand due to the need to deal with natural disasters, oil spills and pollution control, controlling illegal immigration, global peacekeeping or stability operations, counter-piracy and maritime security missions.  All of these missions together are broadening and changing the demand set facing the lift and tanking market.

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Photo Credit: Airbus Military

The demand is going up, but the budgets are flat or decreasing. “We need to think of solutions that are reliable, that are modern, but more efficient, and specifically very easy to maintain.  We cannot any more think of the top, top, top, of this sophistication and having a system that it is flying fantastically at home, but when you are deploying the system 6,000 kilometers away from home, it is unflyable.  We need to really work on improving systems and on easy-to-maintain systems.”Maintainability is a key consideration of the new products. “We are concentrating mainly on systems, reliable and easy to maintain when deployed outside the range of our customers territory”.

And this perspective also shaped an understanding of how to assess cost comparisons of the operations of aircraft. Barberán recognized that the point of cost is really delivered capability or service, not the IOC of a single airframe.  In the United States, the current debate is gripped by a distinct inability to grasp this point.  And this is particularly ironic given that the US DOD OPERATES with a fleet perspective, but does not buy that way.

Barberán argued that the true life cycle cost comparison is rooted in fleet productivity and associated costs of alternative aircraft fleets in operation.  So 10 A400Ms can do the job of 22 C-130Js or 12 C130Js plus 2 C-17s.  And the equivalence is measured in tones delivered times distance flown times availability rates. And the equivalent of 10 A400Ms operating is equivalent to 22 C130Js, which would cost 60% more, or 12 C130Js plus 2 C-17s, which would cost 25% more.