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RAF's new military airlifter finally lumbers into the air

Crap, many years late - but at least it's expensive

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Comment Another doleful milestone for British taxpayers and servicemen today, as the A400M military transport plane takes to the air for its first test flight. The A400M - a decade late and massively overbudget - continues to drain the UK's defence coffers though better alternatives are readily available: meanwhile our fighting troops overseas desperately need more airlift.

The saga of the A400M is a long and sorry one. For Britain, the story begins in the late cold war, when planners began to consider a "Future Large Aircraft" to replace the Hercules C-130 lifters which Britain has operated since the 1960s. By 1993 the scenario had changed (the '91 Gulf War having "revealed" that wars would probably not be fought in Europe any more) and the Air Staff Requirement which led to the UK order for A400Ms appeared. Back then it was expected that the promised new plane would arrive "in the new decade".

Unfortunately the FLA was to be a pan-European collaboration, and political horse-trading and negotiations over work share, numbers etc wiped out the rest of the 1990s. By the time any firm plans could be assembled, the earliest date at which the UK could expect any aircraft had slipped right out of the original target decade to 2011.

Meanwhile, as British troops and their supplies continued to fly in and out of wars and troublespots all over the world - Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Afghanistan again - the ageing Hercules fleet had to be partly replaced and supplemented by a small number of proper C-17 heavy lifters from America, not to mention extensive use of chartered Russian Antonovs.

The C-17s in particular exposed the A400M as bad value for money: they have cost the UK around £200m each inclusive of support and can carry 80 tons over 2,500 miles. On the original projections an A400M was expected to cost £100m to acquire (eg at least as much as a C-17 once support costs are included) - but it can haul only 30 tons to 2,500 miles. Even had the A400M programme gone to plan, it would have represented roughly triple price for a given amount of lift.

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