Fresh doubts over A400M as Europe tightens its belt

 - July 18, 2010, 11:51 AM
The A400M is in a three-way squeeze to join the UK’s airlift fleet.

Talks to amend the Airbus A400M development and production contract will drag on into the autumn as the moratorium on funding imposed by the European partner nations continues. The troubled military airlifter is making its UK debut here at the Farnborough show against a backdrop of renewed speculation that the UK commitment to purchase could yet fall victim to the UK Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), which is part of the new British government’s determination to drive down public spending by an average of 25 percent.

“It’s a battle…not an easy negotiation…[the nations] aren’t keen to fund it,” EADS chief executive officer Louis Gallois admitted last Saturday in response to a question from AIN. But the outline agreement to rescue the program that was signed last March is still valid, he added. The German defense minister last week confirmed that his country was negotiating to reduce its order of A400Ms by seven, to 51, but according to Gallois, “None of the nations wants out of the project.”

However, a senior Royal Air Force (RAF) commander who is closely involved with the SDSR told AIN last week that the service “ultimately planned to operate only two types of airlifter in the future.” By so doing, the service would reap substantial savings in training and support costs, he added. This mirrors the evolving policy with respect to the RAF’s fast jets and helicopters, with only two types in each category to be retained. The RAF currently operates 25 Lockheed Martin C-130Js delivered since 1998 and six C-17s delivered since 2001, with a seventh C-17 on order. The UK ordered 25 A400Ms to replace the remaining 15 RAF 1960s-vintage C-130Ks.

Indicators at this point are that the most likely outcome of the SDSR will be an order for 22 A400Ms and an early retirement of the C-130J fleet. But like other UK government departments, last Friday the Ministry of Defence delivered to the Treasury multiple options for spending cuts. It is quite possible that one of these options is to cancel the A400M purchase and buy a few more C-17s instead.

“The RAF always wanted a mixed fleet of C-130Js and C-17s. It never wanted the A400M,” said one former RAF officer with intimate experience of previous negotiations. Boeing has been saying recently that two C-17s offer the same capability as four A400Ms, and has already provided a price to the MoD for an eighth C-17.

ADS, the UK aerospace, defence and security trade association, last Friday issued a strong plea for the A400M order to be retained. “A narrow, short-term saving in the defense budget would cost the country countless times more in lost business across both civil and military aerospace,” it said. The wings for the A400M are built by Airbus at Filton. They are made almost entirely from carbon fiber reinforced plastic–a first for Airbus (and for any military airlifter). ADS is worried that this work could be re-allocated to France, Germany or Spain, if the UK pulls out of the A400M. “The A400M project provides the ‘bridge’ between work on the current generation of civil aircraft and the next,” the ADS statement continued.

In preparation for its debut, chief test pilot Ed Strongman took the controls of the second A400M as it flew over Farnborough last Friday to validate its flying display. It then landed at its potential future UK home, RAF Brize Norton, for a few hours before repositioning to RAF Fairford to make its UK debut at last weekend’s Royal International Air Tattoo. It will fly here daily until Thursday, when it will return to Seville.

Nine days ago, three A400Ms were in the air at the same time, including the first flight of the third aircraft–MSN3–from Seville. On that day, the combined test fleet passed the milestone of 100 test flights and 400 flight hours. MSN3 is the third of an eventual five aircraft that will conduct the 3,700-hour flight-test program leading to first delivery. It is the first aircraft to carry a medium flight-test instrumentation load, rather than the heavy fit of the first two, and will be dedicated primarily to auto-flight development, aircraft systems development and route-proving.