Seeing progress in its Airbus A400Ms' capabilities and practically on-time deliveries, the French Air Force has adopted a supportive stance on the program.

“We have a positive perception of how the program has evolved,” Chief of Staff Andre Lanata says. He is happy with the six aircraft available, out of 11 total. The other five are undergoing routine maintenance or retrofits that will bring them to the tactical initial operational capability (IOC) standard from a purely logistic role. Airbus had committed to delivering six tactical A400Ms to France by the end of 2016 and kept its promise, according to French Air Force officials. In fact, they consider early 2017 deliveries still on time. “We were expecting the delay to be worse,” says a spokesperson.

With the retrofitted aircraft, nine tactical A400Ms will be available by the end of this year. Lanata is confident further deliveries will be on schedule and the French Air Force will have a total 15 A400Ms by the end of 2018. The fleet is planned to be 50-strong eventually.

The tone of French Air Force officials is much more supportive than that of their German counterparts. Germany complains about its A400Ms' lack of availability and tactical capabilities. As a matter of fact, power gearbox (PGB) problems held up deliveries and affected flight operations of the A400M last year. Lanata deems the interim solution workable, but a permanent one is expected to be found and implemented later this year. The PGB issue helped compound a torrid 2016 for the program, with delays in developing the aircraft’s tactical capabilities. “This is behind us,” says Lanata.

The French Air Force is now using the full potential of its Airbus airlifters. “The A400M is a game changer,” a spokesperson says. It can deliver a NH90 multirole helicopter to Gao, Mali, and fly back to its base in France on the same day, thus illustrating its strategic capability. Recently, an A400M flew along the Patrouille de France aerobatics team during its U.S. tour. It was carrying 50 passengers and 25 tons of freight. Using smaller, slower C-160 Transalls, the same mission would have required four aircraft, the spokesperson estimates. “We land in Iraq—if we did not trust the aircraft, we would not land there,” he adds.

It is also, at last, considered as a tactical aircraft—it can use unpaved runways, drop freight and paratroops from its rear ramp and counter electronic jamming.

It is still short of the required full operational capability (FOC), however, which should include better electronic countermeasures. The current standard is deemed below specification and too weak to beat Russian-built ground-to-air missiles.

Also missing is in-flight helicopter refueling. Should Airbus fail to deliver this ability, “We would buy more C-130Js,” the spokesperson says. France is scheduled to receive the four Lockheed Martin C-130Js it has ordered with rotorcraft in-flight refueling capability in 2017-19.

The third and final aspect that still does not meet FOC specifications is about airdrop. Paratroops cannot be dropped from both lateral doors at the same time, which would be useful for a massive assault. Turbulence has thus far been deemed too dangerous, as it would cause paratroops to collide with one another.

Independently from IOC and FOC, the French Air Force is striving to keep consistent engine control standards. Software keeps evolving, Lanata says, and he does not want a crew to fly on two different standards when they move from an aircraft to another. “This would be very disturbing for them,” he explains. He is therefore endeavoring to have a consistent engine control standard across the fleet. If this is not possible, a crew used to the most advanced software would be prohibited from flying an earlier-standard aircraft.

Airbus Helicopters CEO Guillaume Faury, a French citizen, has been named Airbus Group's point of contact with the French government, replacing Marwan Lahoud, who has left the company.