France set to receive first A400M no later than Q1 2013


France is set to receive its first of 50 Airbus Military A400M heavy transport aircraft in the first quarter of 2013. That’s the word from programme head Cedric Gautier. He was speaking at an Airbus Military trade media briefing (TMB) – attended by defenceWeb – in Sevilla, Spain, on Tuesday where the large airlifter is built.

But Airbus Military CE Domingo Ureña would like to see the French Air Force accept the aircraft this year. Addressing the TMB yesterday, he said the company was keen to deliver to the aircraft ahead of the new contracted schedule.

The final assembly of that aircraft is set to start in the last quarter of this year. By then all five test prototypes will be flying, type certification will have been received and customers would have signed off on the Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for the transporter. The aircraft, MSN7, will first fly in the third quarter of next year, Gautier told journalists from some 30 countries.

Gautier added that the fuselage join up has already been completed at the Airbus plant in Bremen, Germany, with system equipping now underway. That is also the case with the wing structure, built at Filton in the United Kingdom. Work on other structures, including the central wing box at Nantes, in France; the nose fuselage at St Nazaire, also in France, are “progressing as per plan”. Work on the wing of the second production aircraft has also started at Filton, Gautier noted in his presentation.

Some 174 aircraft remain on order with seven NATO nations and one export customer – Malaysia, which ordered four. Turkey, with 10 aircraft on order, will be the second user to receive an aircraft, delivery being expected in the second half of 2013 by when the aircraft should meet Standard Operational Capability 1 (SOC1) . A minimum of four aircraft are planned for delivery that year.

Britain and Germany will receive aircraft in 2014 (they have 22 and 53 A400M on order respectively), while Malaysia will receive its first heavy-lifter at the end of 2014 or in early 2015. That year-end is further the target date for SOC1.5. Spain’s first delivery of 27 aircraft bought falls over the year-end 2015/16, when SOC2 should be available, with SOC2.5 following in late 2017 and SOC3 at the end of 2018. This will also be when deliveries to Belgium and Luxembourg should start – the former has seven and the latter one aircraft on order.

SOC3 will include the software required to allow the A400M to conduct low level terrain avoidance flight, which is “a big requirement for this aircraft.”

The A400M programme last month emerged from a turbulent restructuring that saw the NATO partners give formal backing to a €3.5 billion euro (US$5 billion) rescue deal for the project. “Challenges are here to overcome and today we can say this challenge has been concluded,” Ureña said on April 7. The contract amendment to what was once a €20 billion project was signed in Sevilla by Patrick Bellouard, director of the European Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) and Ureña, in the presence of Spanish Minister of Defence Carme Chacón. National armament directors and other representatives from customer nations also attended the ceremony, Airbus Military and EADS said in a statement.

The contract amendment implemented changes that were agreed in principle by the buyer nations with EADS and Airbus Military in a frame agreement signed on March 5 last year, Reuters reported. “This is a major milestone, and EADS is particularly proud to have the support of all governments involved in this cooperation programme that represents a strategic capacity for Europe and its defence, and for the new generation of military transport worldwide. The A400M is a fantastic new aircraft already flying with outstanding and unrivalled capabilities”, said EADS CE Louis Gallois.

The A400M was designed to give Europe autonomy in military transport, which is dominated by the Lockheed Martin C130 Hercules turboprop and the Boeing C17Globemaster III jet transport, Reuters added. But technical problems and mismanagement kicked the project four years behind schedule and €7.6 billion over budget. For a while, the A400M crisis cast a shadow over the future of EADS as the cost of abandoning the project would have been staggering in penalties alone. More recently, EADS has been embarrassed by an improvement in its finances, which left it with a sharply higher cash surplus than it had when it approached buyer nations for help, Reuters said.

EADS has blamed A400M delays on development problems with the aircraft’s massive turboprop engines, the largest built in the West, and conflicting military requirements from the buyers. But it has also admitted mistakes in managing the project as its attention was diverted towards the delayed A380 jetliner and power struggles within its previous management.

Under the rescue plan, the seven key buyers agreed to a €2 billion increase in the total price of the transport planes. Part of this will be financed by taking fewer aircraft for the same price, reducing the total order to 170 from 180. Germany has cut its order by 7 planes to 53 and Britain will take 22 planes instead of the 25 initially ordered. A high-level political dispute over the terms of the bailout focussed on the remaining €1.5 billion, which would be a loan against repayments from future exports.

Britain was seen as most reluctant about this part of the plan, which involves nations advancing money to EADS, but also reluctant to divorce from Airbus, which makes wings in the UK. Sources said the two sides compromised on payment schedules. The delays and cost overruns that became known during the 2009 recession caused the South African government to cancel its order in November 2009 to popular acclaim.

Previously known as the Future Large Aircraft, the A400M has been long in the coming. A European Staff Requirement (ESR) was drawn up as long ago as 1993 but only signed in 2003. Production was scheduled to start in 2001 with deliveries starting in 2006, but this slipped to 2007, then 2009 and then “late 2012.” First flight had been scheduled for January 2008 but was delayed and took place on December 11, 2009.