Had South Africa remained a risk-sharing partner in the A400M project the SA Air Force (SAAF) could conceivably by now have had at least some of the new generation airlifters in service along with five other air forces.
While 28 Squadron labours on with its more than 50-year-old C-130BZs, a visit to Cape Town in February by one of 15 A400Ms already in service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) served as a poignant reminder of just what former Defence Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s decision to exit the project in 2009 meant for local airpower.
While the SAAF is stuck for the foreseeable future with its ageing Lockheed Martin products, there is a positive for South Africa’s aerospace industry in the continuing manufacture of A400M components.
Denel Aerostructures (DAe), Aerosud and Cape Town-based Cobham South Africa manufacture A400M components including fuselage top shells, the wing-fuselage fairings, various linings, the cockpit rigid bulkhead, wingtips, tail-fin skeleton and satellite communications equipment.
South Africa, via the then Minister of Defence (Mosiuoa Lekota) and his trade and industry Cabinet colleague, Alec Erwin, signed the country up as a risk-taking partner in the A400M programme back in 2005. The agreement was that South Africa would acquire eight of the new generation airlifters, scheduled for delivery between 2010 and 2014. Production problems pushing out delivery dates and increasing costs saw Lekota’s successor, Lindiwe Sisulu, decide the A400M was not worth the wait or the money it would cost. This decision saw close on two years of negotiation between what is today Airbus Defence and Space and Armscor start and end with South Africa being repaid its R3.5 billion deposit for the airlifter.
According to Airbus Defence and Space there are now 42 A400Ms in service and the Madrid-headquartered company currently has orders for 174 of the aircraft.
The two largest operators currently are the RAF, with 15 out of an ordered 22, and France, flying 11 out of 50 ordered.
The German Luftwaffe has eight A400Ms currently in service and has ordered 53 of the aircraft in total. Spain has taken delivery of one of an ordered 27, Turkey three of an ordered 10 and Malaysia has received the four it ordered. Belgium (seven) and Luxembourg (one) have yet to receive ordered A400Ms.
Asked what the future holds for the A400M, an Airbus Defence and Space spokesman said the aircraft was being “energetically marketed worldwide, notably in co-operation with the recent tour of an RAF aircraft to New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia”.
“We are pleased to see a growing understanding of the aircraft’s capabilities and how it can transform current air mobility fleets. We are confident these efforts will, in due course, translate into firm orders.
“The aircraft now being delivered to customers are in a tactical configuration and as they show their capabilities in service we believe this will increase confidence in potential buyers.”
Airbus Defence and Space is also in discussions with OCCAR (Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation) on the future delivery schedule of the aircraft which has become known as the Atlas.