Established in 2010 in Eindhoven to fill the gap European countries had in strategic transportation, the European Air Transport Command (EATC) has become a staple in European air transport, air-to-air refuelling, and medical evacuation.
The idea of establishing a joint air transport command in Europe dates back to 1999, when France and Germany decided to jointly fill the capability gap in air transportation identified by the EU and NATO. The basic idea was to establish a multinational command structure with an operational and functional authority to optimise the scarce national resources in this domain thanks to pooling and sharing. Belgium and the Netherlands first, and Italy, Luxembourg and Spain subsequently, decided to join the Command, which was formally established in its current structure in 2010.
Thanks to EATC, a number of aerial assets from the seven member nations are operated under one command and according to a common standard of rules. Over time, the Command’s achievements exceeded the initial mission of providing enhanced air transport capabilities to its members, because EATC rapidly developed highly relevant capacities in the whole spectrum of air mobility operations. Thanks to pooling and sharing of aerial assets and integrating operational responsibilities, the Command pursues air-to-air refuelling (AAR), cargo and passengers transport, air and parachute dropping, and MEDEVAC missions. In addition to that, EATC works on harmonising processes and standardising procedures in order to ease interoperability among its members and to provide them with innovative solutions thanks to the application of best practice.
EATC’s Connections with EU Defence
EATC has no formal connections with EU defence policies and structures, as it is not part of PESCO nor of the CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy). However, its assets could contribute to the EU-led civil and military missions organised under article 42.3 of the European Union Treaty. According to this article, multinational forces that have been jointly established by member states could be made available for CSDP’s objectives.
All this considered, the idea of creating a European command dedicated to air transport missions was initially part of the European common defence architecture. The objective of “establishing a European air transport command to increase the number of readily deployable troops; and to enhance strategic sea lift capacity” was among the collective capability goals listed at the Helsinki European Council of December 1999, expected to pave the way for the implementation of a real European defence cooperation. The fulfilment of the so-called Headline Goal identified in the meeting conclusions and expected to be reached by 2003 should have allowed EU members to cover the Petersberg tasks, which defined the EU military role in crisis situations. Although these objectives are still far from being achieved, the fact that the establishment of a transport command was identified as a common need to satisfy at the European level reaffirms the ambition of EATC’s missions, and explains the importance of the Command’s cooperation with other EU entities. Indeed, EATC’s experience provides a great contribution to EU cooperative efforts in the defence domain thanks to the close collaboration with the European Defence Agency (EDA). For instance, part of EATC’s personnel supports the daily activities of the European Tactical Airlift Centre inaugurated in Zaragoza in 2017, which serves as headquarters for the European Air Transport Fleet training programme. Moreover, EATC and EDA collaborate with OCCAR on harmonising procedures and certifications, for instance within the Single European Sky programme, but also in relation to in-service support for the A400M fleet to be assigned to EATC’s command.
EATC: An Organisation Based on Three Pillars
In order to maximise the impact of integration on the efficiency and effectiveness of air transport missions organised by member states, EATC is organised around three divisions that constantly interact with one another: Operational, Functional, and Policy and Support divisions. This structure provides the functional and operational authority that the founding members wanted to give to the Command.
The two divisions, acting under the control of EATC’s chief of staff Brigadier General Andreas Schick, are in charge of harmonising the doctrines and procedures of EATC-led missions and liaising with external entities, respectively.
The Functional Division
The Functional Division enables the promotion of shared values and harmonised doctrines, procedures and regulations in relation to employment, training and logistics. Training and exercise are at the core of EATC’s activities, as they allow member nations to strengthen their cooperation and they maximise EATC’s positive impact on their air transport activities. Since 2013, the Command has also worked on drafting common operation manuals in order to reach the highest possible level of interoperability among its aerial assets. For instance, when EATC was established each of the seven members worked in its national language and used its own procedures for passenger and cargo handling. Thanks to the use of EATC’s Operational Manual (OM) and Ground Operation Manual (EGOM), which are periodically revised to remain compliant with the relevant operational environments, member countries have finally adopted English as the language used for their air transport-related activities, and have started working on the optimisation of their limited fleets of transport aircraft. The intensive training activities organised by EATC provide an important contribution to the maximisation of commonalities. The Command offers several professional training programmes in air refuelling (EART), disabled aircraft recovery (DART), and combined air terminal operations (CATO, CATT and ACATT). E-learning tools are also part of the training offer. The seven member nations also participate in broader European training activities, namely the European Tactical Airlift Programme (ETAP). ETAP, which is open to 11 European countries, consists of training activities concerning airlift (ETAP-T), crew members’ missions (ETAP-C) and instructor pilots’ tasks (ETAP-I). The organisation of a yearly symposium involving participants (ETAP-S) is also part of the framework. It allows discussion of existing procedures and lessons learned.
The Policy and Support Division
The Policy and Support Division provides broad-spectrum support to EATC’s activities, such as mission analysis and reporting, and contributes to the development of innovative strategies to be implemented by the members. The ATARES cashless exchange system for air transport services provides an interesting example of the activities this Division is committed to. This system, which is in use among 28 NATO and EU countries, consists of services’ exchanges calculated on the price of one C-130/C-160 flying hour. It allows users to optimise their aircraft load factor by reducing empty space and to make savings on outsourcing expenses, also providing additional training opportunities for crews. One of the strongest of ATARES’ features is the fact that exchanges go beyond bilateral reciprocity, being extended to all the states that have adopted the system.
The Operational Division
The EATC consists of a 200-people-strong multinational and integrated team of experts, working 24/7 and carrying out about 60 missions per day. The Operational Division, which acts under the control of EATC’s deputy commander Brigadier General Francesco Saverio Agresti, is in charge for running the five different phases of each mission cycle. On the behalf of member states, this division is responsible for planning, tasking, controlling, and intelligence gathering during peace and war times, as well as for mission management, which is pursued thanks to MEAT (Management of European Air Transport). This dedicated tool is in-house developed multi-user software that has about 2,800 users. It is periodically adjusted to better serve member states’ needs.
The Command’s fleet operates from 12 bases in addition to the Eindhoven headquarters: Melsbroek (Belgium); Hohn, Wunstorf and Köln-Wahn (Germany); Luxembourg; Pisa and Pratica di Mare (Italy); Zaragoza and Getafe (Spain); Orlèans, Evreux and Paris Charles de Gaulle (France).
EATC’s missions are carried out thanks to a 170-aircraft-strong fleet. The Command’s aerial assets include the following models:
- Airbus C-295, CN-235, A310 MRTT, A310, A321, A340, A400M
- Boeing KC-767A
- Leonardo Velivoli C-27J SPARTAN
- Lockheed-Martin C-130H HERCULES and C-130J SUPER HERCULES
- Transall C-160
- Embraer 135/145
- FALCON 900
- Gulfstream IV
- McDonald Douglas KDC-10
Airbus A400M: EATC’s Key Enabler
Since the beginning of the first deliveries in 2013, the Command has chosen the integration of A400M aircraft belonging to members as its lighthouse programme. In particular, the EATC is in charge of optimising the use and increasing the effectiveness of the Belgian, French, German, Luxembourg and Spanish A400M fleets, which are the result of one of the most important and ambitious European cooperative aerial programmes. To reach this objective, the Command has been working on defining concepts and manuals to maximise the impact that cooperation could have on the use of these aircraft in operational theatres. The A400M Atlas Common Concept (2013) and Doctrine (2016) are intended to guide users in pursuing cost savings thanks to a dedicated framework that includes procedures’ standardisation and harmonisation. In particular, the Doctrine sets interoperability in the domains of command and control, communication and information systems, operations, logistics and training. EATC has also set the basis for enhancing cooperation among the whole A400M Operational Users group, with a particular focus on standardising relevant documents, sharing databases and information, and harmonising mission preparation and planning, as well as engineering practices.
In order to stress the European dimension of the A400M programme, EATC has signed several cooperation agreements with relevant European stakeholders and partners. This includes the A400 Interoperability Framework signed with the UK and the A400M Vision Paper jointly signed with OCCAR in 2016, which lists and analyses the crisis scenarios that could involve common airlift capabilities. In 2018, EATC also signed a Letter of Intent with EDA and OCCAR aimed at using synergies to avoid duplications and maximise the efficiency of the A400M European fleet.
In the future, the Command is expected to increase its role in the ramp-up of the fleet. Today, EATC has operational control of the current 38-aircraft-strong fleet, being responsible for planning, tasking, controlling and reporting on missions on the behalf of users. In the future, the Command will work on pushing forward the whole fleet’s interoperability (138 aircraft) according to its mandate. In the meantime, EATC will try maximise interoperability and effectiveness in an attempt to fill the capability gap in the transportation sector and to reduce the negative impact that the delays in A400M deliveries had on users’ aerial capabilities.
Since its establishment, EATC’s daily activities have been fulfilled according to integration, innovation and effectiveness, the three core values the Command is based on. In the last ten years, EATC’s assets reached approximately 400,000 flying hours and completed more than 67,000 missions. These include more than 2,300 AAR missions, the transport of 2.5 million passengers and 150,000 tonnes of cargo, the evacuation of 9,000 patients, and the airdrop of 800,000 paratroopers. In accordance with the objectives given to the Command when it was founded, EATC’s activities provided a great contribution to the efficiency and effectiveness of member countries’ strategic transportation. During the 2011 NATO-led operation Unified Protector, the Command helped out in filling the capability gap that European countries had to face, as it allowed maximum use of EATC members’ scarce reliable aerial assets. Despite the Command’s efforts, however, this operation demonstrated to what extent European countries were dependent on US AAR capabilities, which remained an indispensable support for European contributing countries during the whole mission.
In 2012, lessons learned from that operation pushed European states to address their capabilities shortfalls in the AAR domain thanks to pooling and sharing and according to four pillars – short-term gap filling, optimisation of existing assets and organisations, A400M tanker kits and strategic tanker capabilities. As lead of the second pillar, the EATC is in charge for seeking innovative procedures to further enhance its members’ AAR capabilities, and more generally for the whole spectrum of air mobility tasks. EATC’s expertise and employment of best practice are used to make pooling and sharing increasingly effective, and to apply the Command’s know-how to the operational use of the newest assets joining the fleet. In the near future, EATC will have a central role in the establishment of binational and multinational fleets, namely the multinational A330 MRTT fleet based in Eindhoven and Köln-Wahn and involving the German, Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg and Norwegian assets; the Belgian-Luxembourg A400M fleet based in Melsbroek and the Franco-German C130J fleet in Evreux. To remain at the forefront of European AAR capabilities, the Command’s fleet is expected to triple in the coming years thanks to the deliveries of A400Ms and KC-130Js. To beef this up, EATC will become the major European force provider, and its large operational options will finally reinforce the operational capabilities of member countries, allowing them to increase their strategic independence in this domain.
Giulia Tilenni is an analyst for international affairs based in Paris, France.