Airbus: We'll cancel crap A400M unless we get more £££
OK, you do that. It's rubbish
Comment Pan-European aerospace megacorp Airbus has hinted that it may close down its A400M military airlifter project, despite the fact that the first aircraft has finally flown. The manufacturer cannot make a profit on the plane if it is delivered at the agreed price, and is trying to get concessions from the customer nations.
One of those customer nations is Britain, which was supposed to receive 25 planes for a planned price of £2.5bn, with delivery meant to begin some years ago. In the event, political wrangling and then colossal engineering blunders at Airbus and its subcontractors have pushed the probable UK delivery date to the middle of this decade.
This is a serious enough problem for Britain's armed forces, which have always suffered from a lack of airlift and are now hotly engaged in landlocked, remote, hostile Afghanistan. Despite the recent purchase of a small fleet of C-17 heavy airlifters from America, and the upgrading of many RAF C-130 Hercules shorthaul transports, the "air bridge" from Blighty to our forces in Helmand is very creaky indeed; and there are rumblings of crisis ahead on the in-theatre routes from base to base.
But the A400M is not just delayed - it's also overbudget. Under the deal between Airbus and the various European governments who have ordered planes, the prices are supposed to be fixed and indeed Airbus is liable for massive penalties resulting from the delays. But Airbus will lose a lot of money on the deal as it stands, and the firm claims to be thinking seriously of simply axing the project altogether.
"The aircraft can't be built under the current conditions," Airbus chief Thomas Enders told German mag Der Spiegel this week. "It is better to put an end to the horror than have horror without end."
Germany is thought to be the customer government playing the hardest ball in negotiations with Airbus thus far. France has stated that the customers should simply bite the pillow set out for them and pay more for their planes.
As a practical reality, it would be excellent news for Blighty if the A400M folded. Even at the contract price, it is shockingly poor value. Britain is buying heavy C-17s at the moment for £200m including support - it is normal to spend twice or three times purchase price on support through an aircraft's life - indicating a purchase price equivalent to £70m at most, compared to £100m for an A400M. But a C-17, despite being cheaper, is much bigger and carries twice or more what an A400M can.
And anyway the £100m pricetag is out of the window. If the UK stays with A400M there is no prospect of any more money being found by a cash-strapped Treasury, so the number of aircraft will have to fall; to 15 or fewer, according to some reports. Thus the real cost per plane would be £170m - more than twice what a vastly bigger and better C-17 costs.
Of course, vast C-17s aren't suitable for every task. In general, they're best employed on air bridge work - as between the UK and the Kandahar air hub in southern Afghanistan - and then stuff and people move about, say from Kandahar to Blighty's Camp Bastion - in smaller haulers. At the moment the shorthaul work is done by the RAF's fleet of C-130 Hercules. Perhaps the A400Ms could be useful here?
A400M's main advantage is it carries 50% more than a Hercules - sadly it costs three times as much
Maybe - but they'd be a very expensive way of setting about the job. A new, upgraded Hercules C-130J costs $75m these days, according to those who should know: say £50m tops, at current rates. You could get at least three of them for the price of one A400M.
According to RAF Wing Commander Roger Green, an expert in these matters, "[the A400M]'s main advantage is the ability to carry 50% more payload by weight, with a much larger and less restrictive cargo hold for lower density freight, than the C–130."
But three new C-130s still carry twice what an A400M can, for the same price or less. And the A400M's large cargo hold, according to Green, is primarily an advantage for longhaul airbridge work carrying less dense items like vehicles (as opposed to ammo, say). But the medium-sized Euro lifter still isn't really much good for longhaul work, he suggests (pdf).
[The A400M]'s operations will be bound by many of the same restrictions that affect C–130 in the strategic [air bridge] role. In particular, its useful range is limited to sub-strategic sector lengths that will require a greater number of aircrews and support facilities ... the aircrew ratio will need to take full account of the strategic role and the increased likelihood of carrying payloads that will require staging and, hence, additional slip crews compared to the C–17 with its longer range.
In other words, we'd be better off with C-130Js in theatre and C-17s on longhaul - and in both cases we'd get a lot more payload for the same money than using A400Ms. And it gets worse. Wing Commander Green again:
There is a problematic situation regarding the A400M should it go unserviceable whilst away from a main or RAF support staging base. Because the C–130 is in service with many air forces, and both the C–130 and the C–17 are operated by the USAF, the RAF has been able to take advantage of the mutual assistance that exists between national air forces on a global basis. That is not going to be the case with the A400M and it is likely that outside Europe, RAF A400M operations will have to be supported from its main base with the concomitant operational penalties.
Then, in case anyone wants to trot out the old "but we don't want to be dependent on America" line, one should note that the A400M is stuffed with American kit. One doesn't avoid Washington's influence by buying it; one simply adds to the list of foreign governments we depend on.
So there can't really be any doubt that it would be splendid news for our fighting forces if Mr Enders decides to cut his losses on A400M. The RAF would then be able to move to a proper, balanced, much more powerful fleet of C-17s and C-130Js, rather than a feeble and troublesome triplefold solution including a small number of ridiculously expensive A400Ms not very good for any job. Our government should join the Germans in calling Enders' bluff.
Bizarrely, it isn't doing so - instead, and this seems to be coming from the political level rather than the MoD itself - it is aligned with France against Germany, determined to roll over for Airbus no matter what this means to our people at war overseas.
Perhaps it's be-nice-to-the-French week (again); more likely the fact that the A400M's wings are supposed to be made in Blighty has influenced ministers' thinking (small numbers of arms workers' jobs always seem to count more than servicemen's lives and battles lost). Perhaps some of both.
In the end it doesn't matter. The A400M is bad news and we'd be well out of it. We'd save so much money buying Hercules and C-17s instead we could pay off any sacked workers here lavishly and still come out ahead.
Come on politicians - are you listening? ®