French A-400M ‘Tests Mettle’ With Indian Navy As It Competes With US C-130J & Brazilian C-390 For IAF Deal

With the American C-130J and Brazilian C-390 Millennium putting more skin in winning the Indian Air Force (IAF) tender for medium transport aircraft, the Airbus A-400M belonging to the French Navy is in India for a naval exercise.

The two navies have been exercising with each other with increasing frequency. The Indian Navy’s long-range maritime patrol aircraft P-8I conducted a joint exercise over the Bay of Bengal with its French counterpart. The exercises aimed to “enhance synergy and interoperability” also saw the presence of French transport aircraft A-400M.

The naval exercise comes close to the two countries agreeing to “intensify cooperation in the Southwest Indian Ocean,” building on the joint surveillance missions carried out from the French island territory of La Reunion in 2020 and 2022. The decision was taken during the last-minute visit of French President Emmanuel Macron as the chief guest of India’s Republic Day celebrations after US President Joe Biden canceled his trip.

These interactions may contribute positively to the securitization of strategic sea lanes of communication in the region. Both countries have a shared interest in maintaining freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific.

India occupies a central position in the Indo-Pacific, given its coastline of 7,500 km, more than 1380 islands, and two million sq. km of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It plays a pivotal role in the peace, security, and prosperity of the region.

France, a state of the Indian Ocean rim, is an important player in this region. This is borne out by its overseas territories, where 1.6 million of its citizens reside, and its EEZ, spanning 9.1 million sq. km in the Indo-Pacific.

The Indian Ocean Region is growing in importance not only for the QUAD countries but also for France. And its military assets have been joining the Indian armed forces in military exercises aimed at increasing synergy. Earlier, French Frigate FNS Lorraine came for a port call on the islands in July 2023.

France and QUAD countries have been working with India to develop Andamans and Nicobar to address China’s increasing footprint in the surrounding waters.

The A-400M’s visit to India has come close to the heels of Brazilian firm Embraer Defense & Security entering a partnership with Indian company Mahindra to manufacture the C-390 Millennium multi-mission aircraft in India. This is for its bid to supply Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) to the IAF to replace the fleet of aging Russian Antonov An-32s.

The other companies in the fray are the US aerospace firm Lockheed Martin with its C-130 J Super Hercules and European Airbus Defense and Space with its A-400 M aircraft. Lockheed Martin also has the advantage as the C-130J is already in the IAF’s fleet. The IAF operates 12 Super Hercules for tactical airlifting.

Embraer has so far supplied eight jets to India for VVIP travel and use as airborne early warning and control aircraft.

This gives Embraer and Lockheed an advantage over Airbus in the deal, which is expected to be huge as the IAF is looking to induct 40-80 aircraft in line with the Indian government’s Make in India initiative.

A-400 M Flight

The A-400M faced challenges during its development, including delays and cost overruns. However, customer nations continued their support for the project. In March 2013, the A400M received certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The first A-400M was delivered to the French Air Force in August 2013.

The A400M has been utilized by the French and Turkish Air Forces in Afghanistan. It played a crucial role in supporting air operations over Iraq and Syria in the Middle East. The A400M has been involved in operations in the Central African Republic and the broader African Sahel region. Its capabilities have been essential for transporting troops, equipment, and humanitarian aid.

The A-400M is sized between the Lockheed C-130 Hercules and the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. It can carry heavier loads than the C-130 and use rough landing strips. Apart from transport, the A-400M can perform aerial refueling and medical evacuation when equipped with the appropriate gear, a role performed by the Russian Ilyushin Il-78 in the IAF.

A-400 Aircraft – Via: Airbus

The Airbus A400M Atlas is a European four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed by Airbus Military (now Airbus Defence and Space). However, its size is beyond the upper limit of the cargo-carrying capacity of the transport aircraft that the IAF is looking for.

The IAF wants a transport aircraft in the 18-30 tonne category. The C-390 can carry a payload of 26 tonnes compared to the C-130J’s 20 tonnes and A-400 M’s 37 tonnes.

The IAF is also weighing in on the transfer of technology that the original equipment manufacturer is ready to provide. In the request for information for the MTA, the IAF has asked the foreign vendors to provide a general estimate of the cost of aircraft and associated equipment for a batch of 40, 60, and 80 aircraft.

The IAF has asked OEMs to furnish information about the scope of technology transfer; methods to enhance indigenization and to set up a dedicated manufacturing line, including design, integration, and manufacturing processes in India; capability to undertake indigenous manufacture of systems, subsystems, components, and spares; and making India a regional or global hub for manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) of the equipment.

The procurement is expected to involve technology transfer and setting up a manufacturing line in the country for high-level indigenization. Hence, the collaboration between Embraer and Mahindra.

The A400M in 2022 demonstrated its ability to serve as an airborne launcher for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). During a recent test, an A400M deployed a drone from its opened rear cargo ramp door while airborne, validating its capability to air-launch drones.

These unmanned aircraft, known as Remote Carriers, can act as force multipliers for various missions while keeping pilots out of harm’s way. The A400M’s large cargo bay can potentially hold 40 or more Remote Carriers, bringing them closer to the fight and enabling multiple mission scenarios.

The A400M’s connectivity with drones allows for manned-unmanned teaming.

But, to win the IAF’s multi-billion tender, Airbus will have to up its game. The IAF is looking to replace the upgraded An-32, which is about 100 in number. These transport aircraft will complete 44 years of service in 2031-32 when their phasing out is planned.

The IAF had initially planned to procure MTA under a joint developmental project with Russia. The two countries had inked a pact for the co-development of the aircraft in 2012.

India would have bought 45 aircraft, and Russia would have purchased around 100. The deal, however, fell through in 2016 after the two countries failed to reach an agreement about the engine and design of the aircraft.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at)
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