Since my head is almost universally stuck firmly between my buttcrack, I tend not to notice important things like Barack Obama pledging to pull troops out of Afghanistan by 2014. I also tend to ignore the far reaching effects that such a withdrawal is going to have, or indeed, lack thereof. But there’s one thing that does strike a note with me, and that’s the development of the A400M, Airbus military’s much vaunted long range combat capable airlifter.

When I say vaunted, I generally imply by Airbus themselves and very few others, since, in case you haven’t been paying attention, the project is massively overdue, overcost and generally a giant sticking sore on Airbus’ record. The aircraft ran almost immediately into problems, mostly due to the decision to make it a collaborative project between several countries. The overly heavy impetus on having a a combined European effort with very little input from outside sources, a glaring example being the refusal to use American made Pratt and Whitney engines, very quickly turned into a quagmire of inter-state bungles where each nation’s piece of the A400M puzzle simply wouldn’t fit any of the others.

The A400M, now being referred to as the Atlas, is currently three years and counting behind schedule and is need of constant bailouts from it’s major investors in order to keep the project running. The plane is built and almost complete in terms of flight-testing and meeting all it’s safety standards, but that still leaves till at least the end of 2012 before the first orders start being met.

The irony for the Atlas is that it was saved rather than crippled by the European economic crisis, since the vast amounts of money that had been injected into the project compelled European leaders to actively improve their cooperation to the point that the project was put back on track, of course, that still required a massive cash influx as well as putting the project back by three years so they could iron out it’s respective kinks.

The real test for Airbus will now be delivering the aircraft in time to make a meaningful input into what has, for Germany, been a logistically testing time. Germany had initially made the number of orders it did in order to support it’s deployment to Afghanistan. While the Bundeswehr has been waiting for it’s new aircraft to arrive, it has been reliant on three air platforms for all of it’s air transport.

The only asset belonging directly to the Bundeswehr and therefore flyable by pilots trained and more importantly, contractually able to fly for anything close to combat conditions is their aging fleet of c-160 Transaals, if you’re not familiar with the transaal, prepare to be underwhelmed, it’s a two engine tactical airlifter in the strictest sense, with limited range and even more limited lift capability, these aircraft are relegated to the “battle-taxi” roles that require fixed wing aircraft, important jobs, not least of which is casualty evacuation. Saying that Germany “relies” on these aircraft is risky to say the least, as they are decades old, in need of constant maintainance and worse yet, spare parts are becoming increasingly hard to come by.

The other asset is chartered aircraft, which are essentially a “delivery only” service, used to bring heavy equipment too sensitive to be delivered overland or needed for a more immediate project. The draught horse for this kind of work is the likes of  the Anatov 124, which is used by just about every armed force in the world, including both Ireland and America, for heavy strategic lift. The aircraft remains strongly in the hands of chartered lift companies and is therefore unavailable for combat operations and regardless of which, the Anatov is not fully pressurised. While providing for a very major need by many armies, it could never be called upon for frontline support.

Finally, filling in a tiny gap within air lift requirements is the leased squadron of C-17’s available to Europe. What these really serve to do is provide a glimpse of what a country like Germany could do if it had access to a medium range strategic lifter like the new Atlas aircraft.

To really understand the role that the new Atlas aircraft could serve for the Bundeswehr, we should probably look at the work of the C-150 Hercules, currently being used by the Royal Air Force in it’s own combat support operations. Why? Because it’s playing a much more active role than the Transaals ever could. The Transaal is relegated to second line combat duty. The British planes are employed in a variety of much more frontline work, essentially giving the British army the ability to support it’s troops in the frontline from the air if needs be. This at the least allows them the ability to take at least a slightly greater risk in terms of deployment and operations, which they need to do, faced as they are with more aggressive Taliban units coming over the Pakistani border.

So what will the A400M do if it reaches the scene on time? Probably save money for the German army by finally allowing them to scrap their aging fleet of Transaals and beyond that, not much. By the time the aircraft finally comes onto the scene in enough numbers, Germany will likely have shipped the last of their troops home. The entire debacle’s long reaching effects might also scare Germany off any further long range deployment for many years to come as well, especially given the negative press received due to perceived timidity on the part of the Bundeswehr. Could the new aircraft have corrected this problem? It could certainly have helped, giving German operations a decidedly more aggressive edge.

We now know that the A400M is quite an impressive aircraft and would be a capable successor for the likes of the C-150 Hercules, but that doesn’t mean it can simply step in and take that role. Airbus will dearly miss that opportunity to prove it’s new aircraft’s strengths.