Airbus A340-300: A feasible option as a low-cost strategic transport aircraft for the SAAF?

The South African Air Force (SAAF) has a long proud history dating back to its establishment on 1 February 1920, and it has always enjoyed the title of being considered the most advanced Air Force in sub-Sahara Africa. During 2005, the SAAF became one of the launch customers of the Airbus A400M tactical/strategic airlifter when it ordered eight aircraft with an option to purchase an additional eight. However, due to unforeseen program delays and drastic changes in ZAR/EUR foreign exchange rates, the cost of eventual procurement of the Airbus A400M became too expensive for the SAAF, and the orders were consequently cancelled. These orders originally intended replacing the ageing Lockheed C-130BZ aircraft in service. Another factor which contributed to the cancellation of the A400M purchase was the additional costs of replacing the existing airborne cargo and paratrooper delivery systems which were not suitable for use with the Airbus A400M platform. There were no alternative replacement options due to government-imposed cuts on defence spending resulting in the SAAF having to contract expensive strategic airlift services from private service providers operating costly IL-76 aircraft. On 30 September 2020, the retiring Chief of the South African Air Force (SAAF), Lt Genl Fabian Zimpande Msimang, had written within his farewell speech notes confirmation that the SAAF had signed off on the purchase of three (3) retired South African Airways (SAA) Airbus A340 aircraft. This confirmation was never verbalised during his speech, but only written within his notes. A few days after this event these reports were denied by both the business rescue practitioners of SAA, and the SANDF.

So, let’s for a moment entertain this idea and consider the feasibility of inducting retired SAA Airbus A340’s into the SAAF transport fleet. Now, for many this idea might seem a bit far-fetched, but in reality this concept is actually feasible and the SANDF should consider this option, especially in the absence of any better alternatives while having to balance a severely strained budget with increasing operational requirements spanning across continental Africa in support of the AU and UN. However, what we need to realise is that such a purchase would not be to replace any part of the existing military transport fleet, especially not the ageing C-130BZ fleet of tactical airlifters. The idea would be to enable a multi-role strategic transportation capability within secure airspace to secure locations close to operational areas from where the tactical airlifters would take over in-theatre airlifting operations over shorter ranges (resulting in reduced costs), following a 'hub-and-spoke' supply network. Looking at the available A340 fleet on offer by SAA, five (5) aircraft are A340-300 models and four (4) aircraft are A340-600 models. Most suitable for SAAF requirements would be the A340-300 aircraft, more specifically MSN 643, 646, and 651. The A340-300 was the most popular of all A340 models with 218 delivered globally (vs only 97 x A340-600). These aircraft are still in excellent condition having been maintained and operated by professional domestic based maintenance crews during it's lifetime, and they are available with sufficient spare parts and trained crews already in country (the majority of pilots being ex-SAAF as added bonus). So, all ‘ideal tactical/strategic military airlifter’ technical requirement arguments set aside, we also need to understand why the SAAF would want to procure these aircraft. The missions that these aircraft would most probably fulfil are:

  1. Strategic transport (Troop deployments, Supply missions, Antarctic support missions);

  2. In-flight Refuelling;

  3. AEW / ELINT / SIGINT / EW / Airborne C&C;

  4. Long-range Maritime Patrol / Search & Rescue (Southern Ocean reaching Marion Island/Antarctica);

  5. Humanitarian Support Missions; and

  6. VIP Transport.

Basically, the purpose of the A340’s would be to replace the capabilities lost when the SAAF Boeing 707’s were retired from service nearly two decades ago (although the performance of the Airbus A340 is by far superior compared to that of the Boeing 707). Present and future reality has also shown us that the probability of the SAAF procuring ‘ideal’ strategic airlifters of military specification comparative to the Airbus A400M / Boeing C17 (discontinued), is extremely unlikely (and nearly impossible from a budget perspective), why this option is actually the only feasible option available to the SAAF to regain some lost capabilities within the medium term compared to limited-to-none (within class) capabilities at present. Also, the SAAF would not be the first air force looking at the A340 within the military role. The Armée de l'Air was the first military operator of the A340-200 in 2006 (ex-Austrian Airlines aircraft), currently used as strategic transport (troop deployments and supply missions), and VIP Transport. The Royal Air Force (RAF) utilises the twin engine Airbus A330, a platform based on the A340 airframe design, but with greater limitations in terms of conversion for dedicated freight operations due to different landing gear design.

Looking at technical feasibility, the Airbus A340 is presently the most suitable civilian aircraft for replacing ageing Boeing 747 Cargo variants from both a CPFH and cargo load/capacity perspective. The majority of US military and NATO cargo operations in and out of Afghanistan (NATO ISAF), were performed by converted Boeing 747 Freighters, and not Lockheed C-5 Galaxy / Boeing C-17 Globemaster as would be expected due to cost factors. The A340 is also by far much more economical and cheaper to operate than the costly Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft contracted for flying SANDF foreign supply missions. Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic the majority of airlines faced bankruptcy if they failed to adapt to changing operational requirements. One of these requirements was the drastic increase in demand for air freight, and the only immediate solution was to remove all the seats from passenger aircraft and temporarily convert them to fly cargo in the main decks and lower holds. The A340’s served this purpose extremely well, especially considering that the A340 was in part designed with a strengthened main deck for this repurposing later during its lifetime (based on lessons learnt from Boeing, looking at how all Boeing 747’s were repurposed through minor conversion to freighters upon reaching the end of economical passenger operations). So, looking at the Airbus A340-300 as a strategic transporter we need to look at the current certified A340 LCF (Low-Cost Freighter) program to appreciate the freighter capabilities of this aircraft. Under this program, the passenger-to-freighter conversion consists of the following:

  1. Supernumerary Area/Intercom/Emergency Equipment/ Lavatory/Galley (aft of the flight deck);

  2. Cargo loading system;

  3. Forward Cargo Door CLS modification;

  4. Installation of a Forward Lift (to lift cargo pallets from lower hold to main deck, easing ground handling operations in terms of aircraft loading);

  5. Installation of an Aft Lift (same as forward lift);

  6. Aft Cargo Door CLS modification;

  7. MD Lights;

  8. Systems: ECS/Smoke Detection/Water & Waste/Drain/Oxygen/Fire Extinguisher System;

  9. Interior Configuration: MD Class ‘E’/Doors Deactivation/Window Plugs Optional;

  10. 9G Barrier/Smoke Barrier/Access Door;

  11. Removal of unnecessary pax operations items (where required). 'Deep Stripping' of structures, systems and materials are not required in the NGF configuration, and aircraft can very quickly be converted to fulfil various other missions utilising modular special missions equipment.

The proposed 6 weeks conversion costs similar to a large cabin re-configuration at around USD 6-8 mil, which is only a small fraction compared to the initial capitalisation of purchasing a new aircraft. Add these costs to a low acquisition cost of a relatively modern and low-hours passenger aircraft deemed unsuitable for cost-effective low-volume passenger operations selling at around USD 8-15 mil each at the time of writing this article, and we have an aircraft that can solve many SAAF problems with very low acquisition costs. Since the majority A340 fleets worldwide were retired prematurely as a direct result of the global pandemic, an abundant supply of spares will remain available for at least the next 20 years, and as a result of the global passenger-to-freighter conversion trend steadily increasing the A340 will still enjoy a competitive global technical support footprint for many years.

Looking at performance (T/O at sea level), the A340-300 LCF offers a 65 tonnes gross payload (including Tare) with a 5,400 nm range. In other words, the main deck of the standard A340-300 provides for 44 tonnes load capability without floor strengthening, and 41,4 tonnes existing load capability in the lower hold. However, OEM compartment specifications limits the total aircraft to 65 tonnes, which nullifies the requirement for any costly main deck strengthening modifications. In addition to these performance figures, this conversion requires no external special loading equipment (something of relative importance looking at palletised freight handling into lesser equipped airfields), and it also does not require the installation of a main deck freight door for cargo not exceeding the 1.63 m height limit of the lower fuselage cargo doors. For larger cargo requirements, a ‘Plug Safe’ Main Deck Cargo Door can be installed offering optimised dimensions (2.5m H x 3.5m W) to save on MDCD structure weight, reduced maintenance and improved safety. The A340 also does not require a redesigned nose gear as relevant to A330 freighter conversions. Basically, this modification allows for the transporting of around 52 tonnes cargo which meets SAAF requirements (considering current Il-76 palletised loads flown in support of current foreign missions limited to a maximum 40 tonnes, and maximum 19 tonnes for the C-130BZ with reduced range).

In terms of redundancy the A340 was designed for extended operations over water, hence the four engines design, which also improves hot-and-high performance compared to twins. The A340 is also equipped with a centreline landing gear which reduces stress under heavy loads to the under-wing mounted main landing gear being a common concern relating to the conversion of other passenger airliners to freighters. What we do need to take into consideration is that if the SAAF decides to pursue the A340 acquisition that the purpose of such an acquisition would not be to replace any existing requirements for mil-spec strategic/tactical airlifters within the A400M / C130-J class, but rather to supplement current capabilities and to regain past retired specialised capabilities. Looking back at the special missions modifications made to the retired Boeing 707 fleet, the SAAF has many options to employ modular systems required for special missions use in support of IFR, ELINT, SAR and Maritime Patrol, Airborne C&C, etc.

Conclusion: The application of civilian airliners within the military role is not always considered ideal, but considering current circumstances vs immediate SAAF requirements in light of extremely limited budget now and in future, the SAA Airbus A340-300 option offers great potential to drastically improve mission capabilities while at the same time reducing high operating costs in support of foreign missions as a result of high costs of contracting service providers with long lists of limitations. The NATO ISAF / USFOR-A mission in Afghanistan highlighted the feasibility and great value that converted civilian airliners (such as the B747 freighter variants) added to keeping strategic airlift costs down to the minimum, compared to the costs of operation (CPFH) of milspec strategic airlifters. However, looking at the application of a converted civilian airliner for military transport use, the Airbus A340-300 would be the most suitable choice by far compared to any other aircraft in current airline service.


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