Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/11/a400m_flies/

RAF's new military airlifter finally lumbers into the air

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

By Lewis Page

Posted in Government, 11th December 2009 14:35 GMT

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.

And then things started to go wrong unexpectedly ...

And in fact the building didn't go to plan. After the politicians had finished messing up the project, the European aerospace business had a go. Massive blunders were made during development, and today's first flight is four years behind schedule - suggesting that in fact it could be 2015 before the UK gets planes into service.

Delays of this sort mean increased costs, so the £100m pricetag goes out of the window along with the delivery date. So badly have the A400M's international builders violated their contract, and so clearly is this their fault, that the UK actually had the option during this past year to walk away from it.

But this would probably mean job losses here in Blighty, where the A400M's wings and certain other bits are to be made. Never mind that British troops in combat right now are hamstrung by our lack of airlift*, and that the plant in America which makes C-17s is extremely keen to supply more planes at rock-bottom prices in short order - it is short of business, the US forces' buy having been completed.

Never mind that, as is usual in these cases, we could almost certainly give every sacked British worker a six- or even seven-figure payoff, buy better planes for our overstretched forces, get them sooner and still save money for our overstretched Treasury.

In case you're wondering, the A400M will not free us from dependence on America either - it is chockful of US stuff which will require US support.

We have decided to stay with the A400M anyway, a fact which almost beggars belief. Negotiations with continental mammoth European Aeronautics Defence and Space (EADS) are underway at the moment regarding the size of the pillow the British taxpayer will be compelled to bite - or more accurately, as the original deal was already an incredibly bad one, how much bigger the pillow is to get.

Reports on today's long-delayed initial outing tell us that the test aircraft has a unique feature - it has been rigged with explosives capable of blasting an escape route open for the crew in the event of disaster. This would of course wreck the plane, but the test pilot - a former RAF Hercules driver, as it happens - and his colleagues would be in the clear.

British taxpayers and those who support our fighting troops might justifiably wish that something similar had been used to get the RAF out of the A400M programme as a whole. ®

* Often missing large chunks of their hard-earned home leaves waiting for delayed or cancelled planes; and often reliant on American planes for critical life-saving assistance.