The South African Air Force will shortly start considering alternatives to the Airbus A400M Loadmaster military air transport.
But Chief of the Air Force Lt Carlo Gagiano says there is not much out there to choose from.
"We are at a stage where we urgently need to consider [alternatives]," Gagiano told journalists on the sidelines of an air capability demonstration yesterday.
"I tell you why I say that. If A400 – remember if - if A400 does not continue what will happen is that all the countries now buying A400 will scramble for something else.
"You find aircraft such as the [Lockheed Martin] C130J that their order books – how many aircraft are ordered for the next few years – their order books are full up to 2011, 2012.
"We have to make a decision. The C130BZ`s are now 46 years old," Gagiano says.
He adds the Air Force has received some A400 alternative offers.
"There are offers… But the thing is the reason government opted for the A400 is the large hull. We want to be able to fit in an Oryx [medium helicopter] by just taking off the rotor… There is no other aircraft that can do it, except the American [Boeing] C17 which is far too expensive and then the East European Illyushins and the Antonov. Those are the only available options if you want to transport the likes of the Oryx," Gagiano explained.
Gagiano says he would still prefer to have the A400M and would "like to get them as soon as possible because I think the design of this aircraft has huge potential."
Department of Defence head of communication Simphiwe Dlamini added that Project Continent, the A400M acquisition, is not only a military acquisition.
"The DoD is just one of three departments involved in monitoring the situation. This is not only a SANDF [SA National Defence Force] project… there are various players within the SA government and there are ongoing discussions with us, the key players, in the usage of this resource.
"This delay is causing us problems .. but this is not a decision that can be taken by the SANDF or Air Force. It is a decision that must be taken by government as a whole whether we continue with this or not," Dlamini said.
SA has so far paid R3 billion to Airbus for eight of the aircraft. SA`s order, due for delivery from next year, is one of nine for 192 aircraft.
Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and Turkey ordered 180 planes in 2003 at a fixed price cost of €20 billion. SA then ordered eight for R7.4 billion and Malaysia four.
At the time – 2003 – the project was described "as Europe's most ambitious cross-border arms procurement" and as one of the most expensive.
Development is currently said to be running at least four years behind schedule. Reports have variously blamed hubris at Airbus and problems with weight as well as engine and cockpit software for the holdups.
A flying prototype was built and unveiled last year. But it is not clear when it will achieve first flight.
Dlamini says "the matter is receiving attention at a very high level of government."
Gagiano adds that he is somewhat reluctant to believe everything he reads on the A400M. He notes there is a fair amount of dis- and misinformation in the public domain.
SA will presume its continuance ‘till the CEO of Airbus Military announces formally and communicates with our government" its demise.
Airbus CEO Tom Enders this weekend repeated his view that "under the current conditions we cannot build the plane." He added it would be better to make a painful break than draw out the agony.