A400M: Europe’s Interoperability Poster Child?

A Heavily Critiqued European Program Leads the Way for Allied Interoperability and Crisis Response Capability

By Major

By Maj



, US


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2015-2019)

 January 2017
Warfare Domains: Air Operations


Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) has quickly surfaced on the lists of many Nations and multilateral organisations as a major defence capability area needing attention. In 2011, the European Defence Agency (EDA), under the authority of the council of the European Union (EU), identified AAR and Air Transport (AT) in its initial list of the top eleven such areas. Capable of conducting tanker, receiver, and transport operations, the A400M Atlas is expected to be a significant capability gain for mobility fleets in Europe and the Alliance. A400Ms will replace aging mobility aircraft such as the C-160 and C-130H. Over the next four years, the number of A400Ms in Europe is projected to increase ten times with the total hovering between 150 and 200 aircraft.1

Despite its promise, Airbus’ A400M aircraft program is rarely mentioned as a beacon of success. With planes taking longer than anticipated to roll off the production line and seemingly endless arguments between purchasing nations and the manufacturer about technical and tactical requirements, it is more likely people see the A400M as a poster child for what not to do in defence contracting. Those familiar with US military contract woes might consider the A400M the F-35 of Europe. But the programmes created to address the A400M’s specific challenges might be exactly the tonic that cures Europe’s long-ailing defence procurement woes in general. Various working groups and project teams have evolved from the development of the A400M to allow users to share concerns and solve problems specific to this and other aircraft while also drawing on current operations to address larger scale issues of interoperable capability and bi-lateral clearances. As other aircraft types age out and new aircraft programmes mature, these efforts can be duplicated to ensure a smooth roll out of new technology and seamless integration into the existing fleets.

European Solutions by European Agencies

Unfortunately, transitioning to an entirely new aircraft involves not only the procurement of assets, but everything else that comes with a new aircraft. Development of new ground and air crew training, upgrades to airfields and C2 systems, and new bi-lateral interoperability agreements between nations all carry significant price tags in money and man hours. Multiple organizations have been created by Allied and other multinational agencies to make this process more efficient and effective.

A400M Operational User Group (OUG) – Created by the European Air Group (EAG) and quickly transferred to the European Air Transport Command (EATC) in 2011, the A400M OUG hosts a forum for sharing of best practices, training, and even assets between nations using the A400M to include Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In recent meetings, the OUG participating Nations and organizations shared information on programmes like night vision goggle training, aerial delivery methodology, and aircraft procurement timelines. The OUG now seeks to share technical data and testing outcomes, which should be carried into the AAR clearance process.2

Project Team AAR (PT AAR) – EDA Member States identified so many AAR initiatives and programmes that in 2012, they organized the PT AAR to focus the efforts. According to the PT AAR Chairman, Lt Col Laurent Donnet (BEL AF), the PT’s focus areas (known as pillars) reflect requirements of EDA member states and have shifted over the years to maintain relevancy. It now consists of four main pillars and nine sub-pillars covering subjects from the tactical level (training and exercises) to the strategic (KC-46 and KC-767 bi-lateral clearances) and political level (procurement of A400M AAR kit and A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT)).

Global AAR Strategy (GAS) Team – This team of four individuals from the JAPCC, EDA and NATO HQ-International Staff-Defence Investment, began working closely in early 2015 as both a think tank and an executing agency. The team meets three to four times a year to identify shortfalls, share programmes of work, set goals, and combine projects and calendars. At each meeting, a target theme for the year based on current deficiencies is set. The team operates via letters of agreement between the agencies and meetings are kept informal to encourage information sharing and collaboration, which has proved immensely successful.

A common critique of NATO and EU programmes is that duplication of effort runs rampant. But in the areas of AAR and AT, entities are trading in duplication of effort for multiplication of effect. Working groups and teams are cutting unnecessary programs, combining ones already in work and focusing on the success of the Alliance and coalitions rather than the breast-beating of one’s own agency. The NATO AAR and Air Transport (AT) Working Groups now host their fall meetings in the same week and city and aim to do so in future with EDA’s PT AAR meeting. This seemingly small initiative keeps delegate travel costs down, creates the maximum sharing opportunities, and shows the interdependency of several agencies in addressing NATO and EU budget and capability shortfalls.

Tangible Lessons – Caveats and Clearances

As nations continue to work out the issues with the A400M, the groups above drew on recent operations to ensure the aircraft would meet the current national, Allied and coalition needs.

During the 2011 NATO-led Operation Unified Protector (OUP) over Libya, the need for a multi-use aircraft like the A400M equipped with tanker kits was more than clear. But having a tanker is not the same as being able to use a tanker. Among the nearly fifty different receiver configurations at OUP, fewer than 15 were without caveats like the inability to refuel at night, or with certain equipment, or not being allowed to refuel with particular nations. In all, the OUP AAR planners managed tanking and receiving assets available against a list of 240 caveats making it somewhat of a miracle a single drop of fuel was transferred.3

During the seven-month campaign over Libya, AAR accounted for roughly a quarter of the almost 26,000 sorties flown. However, despite being a NATO-led operation, European assets only flew about 1,200 of the nearly 6,000 AAR sorties. A 2015 EDA Fact Sheet4 states that AAR in the Alliance is currently ‘characterized by an important shortfall’ and goes on to criticise a heavy European reliance on the United States for AAR capabilities saying, ‘80 per cent of sorties over Libya were flown by US assets’. Perhaps this ratio was to be expected given that European nations collectively own 56 tanker aircraft while the USA’s tanker fleet consists of over 400 aircraft. But after OUP, NATO set a goal that in future operations no single Nation should provide more than 50 per cent of one capability.

With this in mind, EDA recognised too few A400Ms had been outfitted with kits to really increase European tanking capability. In January 2016, it was still believed that AAR kits had been purchased for only 18 per cent of A400Ms on order. As such, the PT AAR set this as a priority, with one of its pillars focusing on procuring more kits or exploring possibility of a sharing program where nations could use kits from a future European stockpile. In addition to procurement this also means an increase in the bi-lateral clearances necessary to use those assets.

Towards better AAR Capability – JAPCC-led Clearance Training

The work of all of these groups will be for nought if NATO cannot address clearance issues for the A400M and all other AAR assets. With that end in mind, the GAS team wrote a thought piece entitled ‘A Tanker is not a Tanker Without A Clearance’.5 This paper provides insight in the complex clearance process as well as background on the AAR gaps in Europe and NATO, probable future issues if AAR gaps are not filled, and recommendations for closing the gaps. A draft of the paper began circling among the AAR community in February 2016. In April 2016, it was first delivered to military and industry leaders at the Air Refuelling Systems Advisory Group (ARSAG) Conference and to military and political leaders at the NATO WARSAW Summit in July 2016.

As a result of these discussions, the GAS team has continued to advocate from the tactical to political level about a necessity for more clearances. It is currently supporting a JAPCC-led NATO/EU AAR Clearances Request/Approval Training and Table Top Exercise (TTTEx) which will be held 24-25 January 2017 at the EATC Headquarters in Eindhoven, NLD. Both days will welcome test centre, airworthiness, planning and executing personnel as well as national representatives who have any role in the clearance request/approval process. This TTTEx is open to any nation with receiver or tanker aircraft and the agenda is included below:

Day 1. The first day attendees will learn what is involved in a clearance, why they are necessary and receive an overview of documents they should be using to initiate, grant, and verify a clearance. Publications to be covered include NATO clearance request standardization documents, National declarations, the JAPCC-maintained clearance and compatibility matrix, the ARSAG-initiated standardized test plan and the EDA-initiated Military Airworthiness Certification Criteria (MACC) matrix. The test plan would shorten delivery time and decrease costs of clearances by giving Nations a basic off-the-shelf test plan when creating their own. The MACC would further decrease time and cost by cataloguing tests completed in Europe which nations could choose to accept in lieu of performing their own expensive and redundant testing. It would mean nations could share output without sharing the closely-held, expensive, technical data they review when they conduct clearance testing. Sharing of such data is actually one of the most problematic issues, as experienced in the A400M OUG as well as the EDA PT AAR, where some nations are hesitant to support, or stop supporting altogether, data sharing concepts under development. Day 1 showcases the diversity of organizations contributing tangible products and cross-talk which are already contributing to an increase in AAR clearances.

Day 2. The second day of the training will first lead attendees through a notional pairing from request to execution of AAR. After this is complete, participants will engage in a table top exercise where they will simulate readying for an operation that will use a tanker and receiver from different nations. Attendees will need to use the knowledge gained on Day 1 about NATO AAR regulations, the proposed test plan, and MACC and national documents to attempt to coordinate the clearances required to refuel these notional aircraft.

A JAPCC-led, GAS Team-supported, Clearances Seminar conducted during the 2016 ARSAG conference presented different ideas from the USA, AUS and EDA on how to increase the number of clearances. Every seat in the room was filled, and organisers are hoping for the same high interest in the Clearances Request/Approval Training and Table Top Exercise.


AAR is a critical component of future NATO and coalition operations. While opinions vary on the A400M as a solution, the process of introducing the aircraft to the European fleets has yielded many lessons. From the tactical to the political level, several organisations are simultaneously working to get A400M online and lay groundwork for future aircraft turnovers. They have learned from operations where NATO and EU deficiencies affected the fight, and incorporated those into the development and roll out of the A400M. They have also used the introduction of the aircraft as a way to address larger issues such as clearances. As other tanker aircraft are aging out and AAR demand is increasing, an interconnected web of organizations committed to more open forms of sharing is working to increase AAR capability in coalition operations while decreasing duplication of effort. As global fleets introduce new aircraft and technology upgrades, hopefully the diversity of organizations addressing these issues continues to cross-talk and the myriad of lessons identified continues to become lessons applied.

EATC Report not publicly accessible, procured through the NATO AAR Working Group for use in this essay, Oct. 2015.
The AAR bi-lateral clearance process requires Nations to review five pillars before granting a clearance for assets from two nations to conduct AAR. They pillars are: Operational Compatibility, Technical Compatibility, Legal/Fiscal Agreements, Minimum Crew Training, and Minimum Maintenance. Naturally, this review can become very costly to nations, especially if they are less familiar with the clearance process.
Data collected via OUP planning personnel and personnel from NATO’s Deployable Air Command and Control Centre (DACCC).
https://www.eda.europa.eu/docs/default-source/eda-factsheets/2015-01-26-factsheet_aar_high collected 1 Jan 2016.
Turnbull, D., Donnet, L., Rutz, P., Thomas, V. (2016). A Tanker Without a Clearance is Not a Tanker: Food for Thought Paper on AAR Bi-Lateral Clearance Procurement. Not yet available for dissemination.


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Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2015-2019)

Major Victoria (Tori) Thomas (USA AF) is an Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) and Air Transport (AT) Subject Matter Expert (SME) assigned to NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Centre in Kalkar, Germany. Drawing from experience gained during three operational assignments and six combat deployments in USAF C-130H and C-17A aircraft, she is committed to collaboration that identifies and addresses mobility shortfalls while decreasing multiplication of effort. Major Thomas is a co-chair of NATO’s Air Refuelling Working Group, a member the Global Air-to-Air Refuelling Strategy (GAS) Team and an instructor at NATO’s Specialized Heavy Air Refuelling Course (SHARC). She has also contributed to Air Transport studies, initiatives and training courses. Major Thomas earned her B.A. in Political Science from Seattle University and her M.A. in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University.

Information provided is current as of January 2017

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