Beyond the A400M


No-one seems to have properly considered the consequences of last week’s decision to cancel the acquisition of eight Airbus Military A400M Loadmaster strategic transport aircraft, says Helmoed-Römer Heitman, dean of the SA military analysts’ corps.

South Africa announced its intent to participate in the A400M programme as a risk-sharing partner in 2004, just a year after seven European countries ordered 180 of the aircraft, ending a 20-year development process.

An order for eight, at a cost of €837 million (now R9.6 billion, then R6.5 billion) was placed in April 2005. Deliveries were scheduled for between next year and 2012.

The €20 billion programme has since then run into a raft of trouble. First flight of the aircraft, scheduled for a year ago – and contractually required by January 31 this year – is now expected by “year-end”.

Armscor CEO Sipho Thomo last month said this had escalated the cost of the SA acquisition – Project Continent – from R17 billion to R47 billion. Airbus Military flatly denied the figures, saying the €837 million price remained the only agreed amount between the parties.

The news caused a political and media firestorm that last Wednesday resulted in Cabinet cancelling the purchase.

Cabinet spokesman Themba Maseko and defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu last week said the SA Air Force would now re-evaluate its transport requirement and issue a new tender accordingly.

“We have as one of our priorities the acquisition of strategic military air transport capability,” Sisulu told the Joint Standing Committee on Defence last Thursday.

“We have terminated the contract with Airbus but we’ve not terminated our quest to ensure we have the necessary capabilities. That is very clear.”

A SA Army Mamba MRAP vehicle

Airbus and its parent EADS are still negotiating with the European buyers and Malaysia for a new purchase price and delivery schedule, meaning no new unit or package price for the A400M is publicly available. A source close to EADS has told defenceWeb the SA Department of Defence had budgeted R12 billion for the aircraft on the Strategic Capital Acquisition Master Plan (SCAMP). A second industrial source, not in the aviation industry but otherwise well-connected previously gave defenceWeb the same figure. As SCAMP is a classified document this could not be confirmed.

Heitman adds that the numbers confusion is doing no-one any good. “First Thomo says R 47 billion and cannot explain it; then the cabinet spokesman says R40 billion; then the official statement says R30 billion.

“I am still waiting for someone to explain how it got from the original €837 million to R17 billion (some of that is logistic support and some is currency fluctuation) and then to R30 billion.

“I do not believe that the A400M will be more expensive than the C-17. So eight should not cost more than double what Australia paid for its C-17s – i.e. R 24 billion.

“The cabinet spokesman says that we cannot afford to place this burden on the taxpayer in this financial crisis. But the money would have been expended over a period of several years, most of it long after this crisis is a bad but increasingly vague memory,” Heitman says.

Current capability

Inside a SAAF C130

It has been widely reported the aircraft would have replaced the Lockheed Martin C130BZ medium transport acquired from January 1963. Eight, upgraded by Marshall Aerospace of Cambridge in the UK and Denel Aviation between December 1996 and about March 2008 as part of Project Ebb, are currently flying with 28 Squadron from a re-opened AFB Waterkloof in Pretoria. They are due to retire in 2015.

The A400M aircraft were to have been assigned to 60 Squadron that operated the Boeing 707 in a strategic transport, aerial refuelling and electronic warfare role up to July 2007. The A400M would also have allowed the SAAF to reduce its reliance – had it chosen to do so – on charter aircraft and would have given it the ability to extract peacekeepers and equipment from conflict zones in short-order – if required. Charter flights are typically not available for “hot extraction” evacuation missions as these are considered highly dangerous.

A SAAF Oryx in UN colours. The manequin gives an idea of size. 

Even if they could stage from a friendly nearby state, the C130 is unsuited for the equipment evacuation role as the width and height of its cargo bay is too small for most SA armoured vehicles as well as the Denel M1 Oryx medium utility helicopter. Fitting the latter in the C130 requires the removal of the gearbox, which Heitman says “demands a second aircraft to transport the gantry.”

The removal of one Oryx thus requires two aircraft and several man-hours in which to do the work.

“Reassembly takes 24 hours instead of 4 hours. That gap of 20 hours will kill someone one day – not just the time, but the warning time,” Heitman says.

A Cessna C208, Casa C212 and Douglas C47TP in formation over Roodewal bombing range near Makhado, March 2008

The SAAF is currently mulling the acquisition of about 13 dual-role maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft with a transport capability under Project Saucepan to replace the Douglas C47TP Dakota serving with 35Squadron – and due to retire in 2016 – as well as the EADS Casa 212 and 235 serving with 41 Squadron. It has also been suggested they will replace the C130 – but that was before cancelling the A400M.

Regional responsibility

Heitman says SA now needs to “decide whether or not we accept our regional security responsibilities.

The Reva V, a modern MRAP vehicle built for combat in Iraq
“I believe it in our own self interest to do so: we need massive fixed capital investment to expand our economy to accommodate the unemployed. We are not going to attract that amount of investment if our neighborhood is unraveling,” he says.

Not everyone agrees with this. “Arms deal” gadfly and CCII CE Dr Richard Young questions the notion that SA has a regional responsibility, saying the SANDF’s mandate flows from the Constitution “and as far as I know the Constitution does not prescribe an obligation on the SANDF to perform regional peacekeeping.
“Every defence force and every country cut their coats according to their cloth. Also, peacekeeping, like charity, begin at home.”

Heitman continues that if SA is “to continue our engagement in Africa, we will need to expand it to a level that matches our economic position on the continent. That will demand adequate airlift, including the ability to:

  • a. Transport large and heavy MRAP (mine resistant, armour/ambush protected) type vehicles (roadside bombs and car bombs will spread beyond Somalia);

  • b. Transport an Oryx without having to take off the gearbox;

  • c. Transport bridging equipment and the like.

Heitman says there are only five aircraft available or becoming available that can do that:

  • a. The A400M, which we have just dumped.

  • b. The Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, which is more expensive and will not be able to fly into some smaller airfields.

  • c. The Russian Ilyushin Il-76 “Candid”, which went out of production in (I believe, 1997) and is only available in reconditioned form or as an aircraft assembled from parts manufactured in the 90s and stored under somewhat dubious conditions.

  • d. The Ukrainian Antonov An-70 which may never fly.

  • e. The Lockheed Martin C-5 Galaxy, which is too big and out of production.

The Boeing C17
“So effectively it is the A400M, the C-17 or give up the capability and beg Washington for airlift whenever we need it – the old charter Il-76s will not be around for ever.

“In fact some of those that we have been chartering have been grounded for airworthiness reasons,” Heitman says.

But the C17’s
cost. “Australia paid US$1.5 billion (R11.1 billion today) for four, and I have seen a recent USAF unit fly-away (but including some spares and training) cost of $ 331 million (R2.449 billion today).”

The US Business Week publication last week gave the cost of the C17 as US$250 million (R1.850 billion).

Heitman says four C-17s would give SA the same basic payload as eight A400M. “But a minimum viable fleet would probably be six for about R18 billion. Plus at least four or preferably six Lockheed Martin C-130Js, to fly into airfields that are too small for the C-17. Alternatively, four C-17s and 10 C-130Js.
“Right away we are at R23 billion or more. And the higher operating cost of the mixed fleet of 10, 12 or more aircraft will eat up the ‘savings’ made cancelling the A400M.”

The Lockheed Martin C130J
“The C-130J, by the way ha
s a unit fly-away cost of US$ 82-86 million (R606-R636 million), suggesting an overall acquisition cost of around US$160-170 million (R1.184-R1.258 billion).

“The $ 82 million is the Royal Canadian Air Force cost over 17 aircraft (US$ 1.4 billion [R8.436 billion] for the 17); their package cost is estimated at about $ 182 million (R1.346 billion) per aircraft (US$ 31 billion [R229.4 billion] total).

SA would have to buy 15 C130Js to obtain the same basic payload capacity as the A400M at a price tag of no less than R19 billion, depending on logistical and technical support.
The Airbus A330 MRTT

That would save money on the acquisition side but cost more on the operational side. In addition, the C130J has the same size cargo cabin as the C130BZ and cannot transport MRAP vehicles, helicopters or the “heavier equipment required for future missions”.

A further additional cost would be converting some of these aircraft to in-flight refuellers.

An alternative would be the Airbus Military A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft at roughly R2.4 billion each. In addition to carrying 111 metric tons of fuel, the tanker can also be used as a pure transport aircraft able to carry up to 380 passengers or a payload of up to 45mt about 4000 nautical miles (7400km).

Political and other boondoggles

Then there is the political cost, says Heitman. “We have just had the president re-commit us to peacekeeping and undertake to ensure that the Defence Force is properly equipped (his speech in Bloemfontein on October 16 to mark ten years of SA involvement in peacekeeping, and now we whip the airlift carpet out from under that statement,” Heitman said.

The Ilyushin 76 “Candid”
“That will not be well received in Africa or elsewhere. We will be seen as all talk and no walk. The Army is already worried about how this will affect the ability to deploy the contingency brigade (dropping a single Parachute Battalion Group (Para Bn Gp) requires 16 A400Ms or 24 C-130Js; dropping and air-landing a reinforced Para Bn Gp [i.e. with some Mamba MRAPs, etc.] somewhere south of the equator within 48 hours requires 24 C-130 equivalents).

“And finally the economic/industrial cost. Not just that Denel Saab Aerostructures may find itself on the skids and that others might be in trouble or at least have to lay off people,”Heitman insists.

The CASSPIR MRAP vehicle
“What we have done is demonstrate conclusively that we are not reliable business partners for a complex development. When the going gets tough, the South Africans get going – for the door. That does not bode well for future investment. We could and should have negotiated on the deal, not pulled out.”

University of KwaZulu-Natal professor Deane-Peter Baker adds that it is now “vital that the SANDF move forward as quickly as possible to identify and purchase a viable alternative. Strategic lift of the kind that was to be provided by the A400 is a critical need for the SANDF.”