Airbus To Design Large Military Cargo Aircraft?

By Spyros Georgilidakis | May 25, 2024

Airbus could launch a project to design and produce a new, large cargo aircraft, to provide Europe with a strategic airlift capability.

At the moment, Airbus produces two cargo aircraft designs for military use. The biggest one is the A400M Atlas, a four-engine turboprop a bit larger than a C-130 Hercules. It entered service in 2013, with over 120 already built.

Airbus To Design Large Military Cargo Aircraft?
The A400M Atlas. Photo: Daniel Eledut

The European manufacturer’s smallest cargo aircraft is the C295, which entered service in 2001. It is the evolution of the even older and somewhat smaller CN-235, which dates back to the 1980s.

Despite some development and production issues, the two Airbus cargo aircraft have made respectable sales – even if the larger A400M hasn’t attracted as many C-130 users as Airbus would have liked.

A Portuguese C295. Photo: Adrian Pingstone

A Niche Market

However, neither aircraft is big enough for the strategic airlift capability that behemoths like the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy or the Antonov An-124 can provide. The An-124s, in particular, have proved their worth in special roles.

European governments have relied on such aircraft on several occasions. The Antonovs have also had regular users in the United States, where Boeing and General Electric have used them to transport the 777X’s GE9X engines.

Airbus To Design Large Military Cargo Aircraft?
An Antonov Airlines An-124. Photo: Md Shaifuzzaman Ayon, CC BY-SA 4.0

Obviously, the world’s Antonov An-124 fleet isn’t getting any younger. And while Ukraine’s Antonov Airlines still offers services with the type to European governments or commercial customers, the ongoing war has reduced the number of available jets.

For these reasons, the European Commission is funding a research study, for the European System for Outsized Cargo Airlift (ESOCA), led by Airbus. The project includes other European aerospace companies, like ITP Aero, Leonardo Aircraft, and Safran Aircraft Engines.

Airbus To Design Large Military Cargo Aircraft?
Photo: Lincoln Holley

Next Airbus Cargo Project: Necessary But Costly

In addition to their military missions, there is demand for such aircraft to fulfill commercial roles. But they are “niche” products in this role. Commercial sales alone couldn’t make such aircraft economically viable. Even with military sales from 5 major customers, Airbus is unlikely to break even on the A400M cargo aircraft project.

However, other developments in the cargo market could influence the decision-making processes for Airbus and the European Commission. With the end of production of the 747-8F, another avenue for outsize cargo transportation is slowly closing.

The last-ever Boeing 747-8. Photo: Paul Weatherman via Atlas Air

These jets, plus the even bigger (in gross weight) An-124s still have some years left in them. But eventually, a newer strategic airlift option will become necessary. The same is true on the west side of the Atlantic. Many of the USAF’s C-5 Galaxy aircraft are older than the Antonov An-125s flying today.

Some companies are already trying to launch projects of specialized cargo aircraft for specific types of outsize cargo. But for a broader range of strategic airlift roles, involving companies like Airbus, Boeing, or Lockheed, could become necessary, to create the next huge cargo design.

The WindRunner. Image: Radia

So far, funding for Europe’s research project is low. The relevant fund has provided a total of $1.08 billion. But the Airbus cargo aircraft project is just one of 54 research and development projects that share this money. For reference, the A400M is estimated to have cost Airbus over $30 billion to develop and produce, including over $10 billion in cost overruns.


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