To date, to partially satisfy its strategic air transport needs, the Ministry of the Armed Forces has used either the SALIS contract [Solution intérimaire pour le transport aérien stratégique]awarded by NATO to the private Ukrainian company Antonov Logistics Salis, or via a so-called “purchase order” procedure.
But in one case as in the other, the French forces chartered An-124-100 oversized transport planes, capable of carrying a load of 120 tons, or even, and subject to availability, AN- type aircraft. 22, AN-225 and IL-76 [de conception russe, ndlr].
In 2017, the former deputy François Cornut-Gentille had submitted a report in which he was concerned about this French dependence on Ukrainian capacities [voire russes] in this domain. “The Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are followers of the Coué method here: the armies are satisfied with the good routing of freight and the diplomats with the solidity of the Franco-German couple within NATO! Everyone pretends not to see that, in fact, it is the Russians and the Ukrainians who have control over the projection of our forces in external theaters, ”he denounced.
Since then, the European project SATOC [Strategic Air Transport for Outsized Cargo] was put on track as part of the Permanent Structured Cooperation [CSP/PESCO], with the participation of France, Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Slovenia. Only, it should not materialize by 2026…
Obviously, the current context, marked by the war in Ukraine, changes the situation. Thus, for example, Antonov Logistics Salis would only have three AN-124s available… And the only copy of the AN-225 was destroyed during the assault by Russian forces against Hostomel airport. And there is no longer any question of requesting Il-76s.
Hence the Airbus proposal based on its A300-600ST “Beluga” oversized transport aircraft, mainly used since the 1990s to transport large parts from one industrial site to another.
For this, Airbus Defense & Space has developed, on its own funds and in a year and a half, a loading system “to lift non-standard military cargo” in the hold of an A300-600ST. And this was demonstrated as a Bundeswehr CH-53 heavy-lift helicopter was loaded aboard a Beluga ST on September 21 in Manching [Allemagne]. The operation lasted an hour.
“The demand for oversized transport capacity is on the rise. This capability is rare, and in light of current geopolitical developments, many customers are looking for new, fast and efficient solutions. This is exactly what we offer with our fleet of Beluga STs”, explained Michael Schoellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defense and Space.
“Our teams worked on a fast, efficient and autonomous handling solution to load heavy military cargo onto the aircraft. Speed, agility and autonomy are crucial elements for our customers when it comes to such operations,” he added.
For the moment, only the Bundeswehr has expressed its interest in this solution. According to Airbus, it must also certify it in the coming weeks.
Twin-engine, 56.15 meters long with a wingspan of 44.84 meters and a height of 17.24 meters, the Beluga ST can travel more than 4,600 km with a load of 20 tonnes and 2,780 km with 40 tons in its hold. Its maximum load is 47 tons. For its own needs, Airbus is in the process of replacing it with the A330-743L “Beluga XL” with larger dimensions and the capacity to transport 53 tonnes over a distance of 4,000 km.
Photo: Airbus Defense & Space