Reuters reports France may need to reduce its order for 50 A400M military transport planes from European aerospace group EADS because of development delays.
The A400M programme is running at least four years late, said Laurent Collet-Billon, recently appointed director general of French defence procurement and export agency DGA.
The DGA is looking at the possibility of leasing or buying alternative transport aircraft to meet the shortfall as it struggles to maintain a fleet of ageing transport aircraft in Afghanistan, he said.
“It is one of the alternatives which we have to examine. We have not yet finished examining the capacity gap and that could lead to a reduction in the target (of 50 aircraft),” he said.
He declined to comment on whether France would consider acquiring Boeing’s C17 strategic jet-powered airlifter but said he was looking at an aircraft in that category which he declined to identify.
He ruled out buying Lockheed Martin’s C130 Hercules, which is smaller than the A400M.
Like Britain, France was studying bringing forward deliveries of combined troop carrying and refuelling aircraft to help meet the gap left by the A400M.
The A400M is a military airlifter being built by EADS’s Airbus Military division on behalf of seven NATO nations who have together ordered 180 of the planes. South Africa and Malaysia have ordered a dozen more.
The manufacturer says it is running 3-4 years late amid a dispute with suppliers over engine problems and has asked for more time to finish the project as well as relief on billions of euros of potential delivery penalties.
“One shouldn’t get fixated by this delay,” French Defence Minister Herve Morin told Reuters on Tuesday. “What is certain is that we need this aircraft. We need to renew a part of our transport fleet that is very old.” Morin also said Britain’s transport fleet was ageing and needed overhauling.
The NATO countries that initially ordered the plane agreed last week in Prague to call for a three-month moratorium to prevent individual nations walking away from the project.
Speaking after talks between the seven countries that ordered the plane on the sidelines of an EU defence ministers’ meeting in Prague, France said they agreed a three-month moratorium to prevent automatic cancellation.
“This moratorium has been accepted by all countries,” Morin told Reuters at the time, adding it was agreed that “no state would take a decision without consulting the others.”
Spanish Defence Minister Carme Chacon, whose country is responsible for assembling the turboprop-driven heavy airlifter, told Reuters it was vital in order to boost European defence.
“Spain is confident this project will in fact go ahead,” she said.
Airbus parent EADS says the A400M project can be cancelled on 1 April 1 if the NATO nations buying the plane decided in unison to walk away.
Germany and Britain have expressed anger over the delivery of the plane, which could lead to billions of euros in penalties.
Airbus has said it would be crippled by the penalties just as it recovers from a crisis over delays to its A380 superjumbo, the world’s largest civil airliner. Blame for the delays has triggered a furious row with engine makers.
German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung told reporters earlier it was possible the project could be scrapped, but Germany wanted to see it go ahead.
“The company must fulfill all the conditions to guarantee the (project) in the manner that we want to and do this transparently so that we know what we have to expect,” he said.
Morin said the aim was to reach an agreement with EADS on the moratorium this month.
A source familiar with the talks told Reuters there was general support for keeping the project alive, but individual nations were expected to put maximum pressure on EADS.
A British parliamentary panel last month urged Britain to consider abandoning the project and weigh other options for supplying air transport to combat zones such as Afghanistan.