With the An-225 Mriya destroyed and the global Antonov freighter fleet not readily available, Airbus presented an alternative for the transportation of outsized military cargo. 

For the past year and a half, Airbus Defense & Space has developed a self-funded cargo loading system and jig to “load heavy military cargo” into the Airbus Beluga A300-600ST aircraft 

“The demand for outsized air cargo capability is on the rise. Capacity is scarce and, in light of current geopolitical developments, many customers are looking for new, fast and efficient solutions. This is exactly what we offer with our BelugaST fleet,” said Michael Schoellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space. 

In collaboration with the Bundeswehr [the German armed forces - ed. note], the European manufacturer demonstrated the ability to load a Sikorsky CH-53 military heavy transport helicopter “in a reduced state of dismantling” into the BelugaST within less than an hour and a half.  

The five BelugaST of Airbus Transport International were initially used to transport parts of the manufacturer’s airliners between production sites. They are being progressively replaced by six new-generation BelugaXL aircraft, which provide an upgrade in both cargo volume and mass. 

A fitting substitute? 

Until now, part of the strategic airlift for NATO and European Union member states was provided by Antonov Logistics SALIS, a German-based subsidiary of Antonov Company that kept two An-124-100s on standby at Leipzig-Halle Airport (LEJ) and several more Antonov freighters available on request. 

However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine greatly disrupted that capacity. Several aircraft were either destroyed or damaged during the battle of Hostomel Airport (GML), where Antonov Company was based. The Russian attack led to the destruction of the unique Antonov An-225 Mriya. 

Though impressive in size with its distinctive whale-like silhouette, the BelugaST, and even its upgraded successor, can hardly compete with the performance of the Antonov An-124-100 Ruslan, let alone the late An-225 Mriya. 

The system’s total lifting capacity, which requires no crane for its use, reaches 35 tons, according to the manufacturer. As a matter of comparison, the Ruslan can transport up to 150 tons, and the Mriya could airlift an outstanding 250 tons. 

However, the BelugaST could very well be a stopgap solution before a better replacement is found. The Bundeswehr is to certify the solution in the coming weeks. France, whose military deployments heavily relied on the Antonov fleet, could be another potential customer. 

As early as November 2021, the European Defence Agency identified a “critical shortfall for strategic transport for outsized and heavy cargo, a crucial enabler for military missions and operations.”  

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The European Commission has launched a call for tenders to study the possible development of a new medium tactical cargo aircraft.
 

Consequently, the Strategic Air Transport for Outsized Cargo (SATOC) project was launched, under which Germany (as project coordinator), France, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia will be “harmonizing requirements and [...] identifying and agreeing on a common European solution for the transport of outsized cargo.” 

The initial study will run until 2023, with the potential solutions (which may include the development of a new aircraft) to be worked out by 2026.