Airbus could begin competing head-to-head with the Boeing 737 in the large commercial derivatives market, offering the A320neo for roles such as armed maritime patrol and airborne early warning.
The company announced at the Singapore Air Show on Feb. 7 that the A320neo(new engine option) is being considered for the global military aircraft market as much larger alternative to a C295 special mission derivative.
The company hopes to leverage its A330multi-mission tanker experience to deliver customized military versions of the A320neo, the company’s massively popular single-aisle airliner. The A320neo is powered by highly efficient engines, either the Pratt & Whitney PW1127G-JM or CFM InternationalLEAP-1A26.
Fernando Alonso, the head of Military Aircraft at Airbus Defence and Space, says no new products have been launched, but Airbus is in serious discussions with potential customers about the possibility of taking A320neos off the line and converting them for unique missions. These could include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, survivable VIP transport or others.
Alonso notes that the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) has won every major competition outside the U.S. against Boeing’s 767-based KC-46A Pegasus, but the A330 is far too large for most other niche military roles.
“We are starting to investigate the possibility of opening a new line of products based on the A320neo military derivative,” Alonso says. “The A320 is a smaller platform than the A330, and with the neo engines it is an extremely efficient platform. It's well known, robust and proven in service.”
“We have not launched anything, but we are seriously talking about it with potential customers to see what kind of versions they would need for maritime patrol, ISR, VIP transport, and what self-defense systems they need.”
He says the A320s would come off the production line in Toulouse, France, and would then move to a conversion center to undergo modification. The company would adapt some of the special mission kits developed for the C295 turboprop for the larger A320.
In addition to cargo transport, the Airbus C295 can be outfitted for armed airborne ground surveillance, maritime patrol/anti-surface warfare, signals intelligence, airborne early warning, and air-to-air refueling. But the C295 is often overlooked by first-tier armed forces wanting to field highly capable weapons.
Despite a successful run with the A330 MRTT, Airbus’ backlog for military derivatives pales in comparison to Boeing’s. The company will deliver just six A330 MRTT in 2018, whereas Boeing has guaranteed orders for at least 12 KC-46s per year from the U.S. Air Force, and potentially as many as 15 if Congress approves additional funding.
And with strong backing from the U.S. Navy, the Boeing P-8A is dominating the global market for armed maritime patrol aircraft to replace the popular Lockheed P-3 Orion. Boeing has captured firm orders from Australia, India, Norway, and UK, and could soon book Saudi Arabia. The U.S. Navy is also expected to expand its planned fleet of P-8s from the 98 on contract to between 111-117.
Boeing is bullish about the P-8’s prospects for capturing more orders, and the company says it will keep building legacy 737NGs for as long as there are willing military and commercial customers. Without a launch customer, Boeing doesn’t seem ready or willing to offer military versions of the 737 MAX just yet.
Alonso denied being late to market with the A320neo military derivative but does acknowledge Boeing’s firm grasp of the market. New Zealand has been planning to buy the P-8A, but those plans are now in flux since the change of government there and Airbus could be back in the picture offering an A320neo alternative.
“We’re not restricting ourselves to this part of the world [Asia-Pacific],” he says. “There’s also a strong interest in Europe from France, Germany, and others. We’ve also been talking with Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines about the C295.”
Airbus has a backlog for 7,000 commercial aircraft, but the company says military customers won’t have to go to the back of the queue. Instead, those aircraft will be pulled off the line as needed.