THE troubled European Airbus A400M military transport aircraft programme has hit more turbulence with a report that France, one of the main pillars of the programme, has approached the US regarding the cost and availability of Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transports. France has 50 A400Ms on order, second only to Germany's 60, and well ahead of third-placed Spain's 27.
France stresses it remains committed to the A400M programme - the country's defence procurement agency DGA told respected British aerospace weekly Flight International that "the French defence ministry is determined to find a good solution to continue the A400M programme", and the C-17 enquiry is believed to concern only three aircraft. But it could result in France reducing its order for A400Ms.
In the middle of last month, DGA director-general Laurent Collet-Billon warned that his agency could, as it is contractually entitled to do, refuse to accept A400Ms delivered after the currently agreed final date. He said that it "was one of the alternatives which we have to examine. We have not yet finished examining the capability gap and that could lead to a reduction in the target" of 50 aircraft.
In a statement recently released to Flight, the DGA points out that there "is an operational gap for military transport and the French defence ministry is looking forward and studying all the transitional solutions. The C-17 is one of them, but there are several other options and nothing is decided at the moment." Nevertheless, its is reported that the French have written to the US Air Force about the possible acquisition of the C-17. It is not known if the French are thinking of buying the aircraft or leasing them as an interim solution.
There can be little doubt that these reports will be causing further concern in South Africa, a risk-sharing partner in the A400M programme, with eight of the aircraft on order for the South African Air Force (SAAF).
At the recent airpower demonstration in Limpopo province, SAAF Chief Lt-Gen Carlo Gagiano said that the air force was seriously considering alternative aircraft to the A400M, including Russian and Ukrainian aircraft and Brazil's C-390 project. "While the A400M is the most ideal replacement for the [SAAF's existing main transport aircraft, the] C-130, we do not wanty to be scrambling around to find a replacement if the project is permanently cancelled."
South African defence ministry spokesperson Simphiwe Dlamini added that the delays in the A400M programme were causing frustrations and problems for South Africa and were being watched by the government. "We are hoping that this will be resolved soon, one way or the other."
Meanwhile, giant European aerospace and defence group EADS has given the assurance that it remains fully committed to the construction of the Airbus A400M military transport aircraft. Airbus is a subsidiary of EADS.
However, EADS has also reasserted its view that the 2003 contract for the A400M "does not provide the necessary conditions for the successful development of the programme, firstly because of an unrealistic timetable, and secondly because the commercial nature of the contract dos not fit the reality of a military programme containing high technological risks". The group is urging the A400M partner nations to use a three month moratorium proposed by European defence procurement agency OCCAR to get the programme back on course under conditions acceptable to all involved.
In addition to France, Germany, South Africa and Spain, the A400M is also on order from Belgium, Britain, Luxembourg, Malaysia, and Turkey. The Boeing C-17 is already in operational service and has been so far been bought by the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. There is growing speculation that Britain will cut, even cancel, its order for 25 A400Ms and buy more C-17s and/or Lockheed Martin C-130Js instead. The A400M is meant to achieve a maximum payload of 37 t, while the C-17's figure is just over 76,6 t (the C-130J has a maximum payload of almost 21,8 t).