Fact file: Airbus Military A400M medium transport


The Airbus Military A400M is a pan-European four-engine turboprop military transport aircraft designed to replace or supplement aircraft used in the tactical airlifter role. South Africa ordered eight of the aircraft for €837 million (then about R9.6 billion, although a South African Air Force press insisted it was R7,438,200,001.88) in December 2004.

Delays in the programme and cost overruns that became known during the 2009 recession caused government to cancel its order in November 2009 to popular acclaim. The cost claims, on which Cabinet may have made its decision has proven exaggerated: now sacked Armscor CE claimed the cost had escalated from R17 billion to R47 billion, but this was repudiated by defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu as well as Airbus. Reuters in January 2010 reported the cost of the €20 billion programme had escalated to €31 billion, with Airbus and its parent EADS to absorb about half the €11 billion cost-overrun.

SAAF chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano in the same month confirmed the service still has a need for an airlifter with a cargo bay larger in width and height than the Lockheed Martin C130 Hercules. Among Western aircraft only the A400M and the Boeing C17 Globemaster III fit that bill. Gagiano however ruled out the later on grounds of cost and size.

Contrary to popular belief, fostered somewhat by government and the SAAF, the A400M was not a replacement for the 47-year-old Lockheed Martin C130BZ Hercules aircraft operated by 28 Squadron. It was meant to replace expensive Ilyushin Il-76 “Candid” charter flights as well as the Boeing 707 airborne refuellers/electronic warfare aircraft, the last of which retired in July 2007. This had been operated by 60 Squadron, to whom the A400M had been assigned. This was confirmed by a senior air force officer defenceWeb’s maritime conference in October 2009. The officer noted at 13 new Maritime Patrol/Security Aircraft to be acquired under Project Saucepan for delivery around 2016 – funds permitting – would replace the C130BZ as well as the older Douglas C47TP Dakota and the Casa C212 Aviocar and C235 aircraft currently in service with the SAAF’s transport squadrons.


Airbus Military A400M


Medium strategic/tactical transport and aerial refueller.

Country of origin:

Pan-European. SA joined project as a workshare partner on April 28, 2005.

First flight:

Was scheduled for January 2008, delayed; took place December 11, 2009.

Prototype rolled out June 26, 2008 at Seville, Spain.

Delivered to the SAAF:

Was scheduled for November 2010 with deliveries to be completed by 2014. Delay of three years sited in 2008. The Armee de l’Air, the French Air Force, the lead customer, now expects its first A400M in “late 2012”.

Associated project name(s):



Eight ordered, six on option.


€837 million (R9.6 billion in April 2005, R7,438,200,001.881 according to a SAAF press release. €1.5 billion (R16.8 billion) according to Bloomberg in a November 2009 report2.


Pilot, co-pilot & loadmaster.

Major dimensions & weights

  • Wingspan:

  • Length:

  • Height:

  • Wing area:

  • Basic empty weight:

  • Max take-off weight:

  • Max landing weight:

  • Max internal fuel:

  • Max external fuel:

  • Refuelling capacity:

  • Cargo hold length:

  • Cargo hold width:

  • Cargo hold height:

  • Cargo hold volume:

  • Max cargo weight:

  • Cargo capacity:

  • Passengers:

  • 42.4m.

  • 42.2m.

  • 13.5m to tail.

  • 70mt.

  • 130mt.

  • Two wing mounted drogues, suitable for helicopters and fast jets.

  • 23.2m.

  • 4m.

  • 3.85m.

  • 356m3.

  • 37mt.

  • Nine 88x108inch pallets and 54 troops, two Ratel ICV, one mobile crane or Rooikat armoured car, one dump truck & excavator, one semi-articulated truck with 20ft container, two Agusta A109, or one Oryx (rotor head removed).

  • 116 paratroops with full equipment, 66 stretchers with 25 medics.


  • Take-off to clear 15m:

  • Landing from 15m:

  • Rate of climb:

  • Service ceiling:

  • Max cruise altitude:

  • Max operating speed:

  • Max cruise speed:

  • Max range at cruise speed:

  • Stall speed:

  • G-loads:

  • Wing loading:

  • Thrust:

  • Bypass ratio:

  • Thrust/weight ratio:

  • 1371m (4500ft).

  • 658m (2250ft).

  • 12 192m (40,000ft).

  • 11,278m

  • 780km/h.

  • 4170km with 30mt payload, 6110km with 20mt.

  • .

Engine Specifications

  • Make:

  • Model:

  • Type:

  • Number:

  • Compression ratio:

  • Engine diameter:

  • Engine length:

  • Dry weight:

  • Power turbine rotor speed:

  • Shaft horsepower:

  • Propeller:

  • EuroProp International (a Rolls Royce, Snecma Moteurs,

  • MTU Aero Engines and Industria de Tubopropulsores joint venture).

  • TP400-D6.

  • Turboprop.

  • 4.

  • 10 000.

  • Ratier Figeac FH386 with eight composite blades.

Hard points:

One under each outer wing for a Cobham 908E refueling drogue pod.



Other attachments:



Previously known as the Future Large Aircraft, the A400M Loadmaster 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 now “late 2012” to the French Air Force, the lead customer. A joint report by the French Senate’s finance and foreign affairs panels in February 2009 noted “late 2013” was more likely.


Airbus argues that modern air forces have insufficient airlift capability – a fact most readily admit – and that they are often forced to supplement the shortfall through the ad hoc lease of commercial outsize freighters – often at a premium and often from dodgy operators flying machines of indeterminable flightworthiness. Alternatively, they are overly dependent on the US Air Force.

The aircraft was designed, Airbus literature say, to meet the “harmonised requirements of the armed forces of Europe as specified in the ESR”. The literature also notes the procurement of military equipment can “often be an overly cumbersome and bureaucratic process, which can itself contribute to programme risk, delay and cost.”

As a result, Airbus Military is using a methodology borrowed from its commercial sister to keep the project within specification and cost. They have not been entirely successful… Advanced technology, for example “is only being used where its use can clearly demonstrate added value. For this reason fly-by-wire technology is included. Turboprop propulsion was selected as this is known to be 20% cheaper to operate than the equivalent turbofan”. Airbus further argues that development cycles in civil aviation is shorter and occur more often than in military programmes. “A civil-based programme is therefore more likely to represent the current state-of-the-art”: or so it seemed in 2006.


But the theory has not matched practice. Reuters reported in January 2010 that Airbus has admitted making some mistakes and carried out a reorganisation of its military transport activities, but blames a good deal of the problems on political interference in industrial decisions. These include the choice of a European engine designed from scratch purely in order to boost jobs.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers audit report commissioned by purchasing nations, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, blamed part of the problems on poor management techniques and said there was “no mechanism to understand how far advanced the programme is”.The report added the project’s costs had been permanently and significantly underestimated.

Other PwC-listed failings included inconsistent records and a sometimes-inability to provide original documents. Some of those provided appeared to be drawn up “only for the auditors”.

The report’s main finding of an €11 billion euro cost gap, including €5.2 billion euros in disputed production costs, first emerged in December 2009. The project’s stated cost up to that time had been €20 billion.

The French Senate’s report took note of Airbus’ main explanation for the delay – namely a governmental veto Airbus’ choice of a Pratt & Whitney Canada engine and the development of an European equivalent to preserve jobs. This went seriously awry when engine subcontractor Hispano Suiza omitted to create an audit software audit trail for the fully automated digital engine control (FADEC) software. AS a consequence the European Air Safety Authority declined to certify the software. The software had to be re-written from scratch.

The Senate report listed problems with other systems, which it called “at least as serious” as the engine flaws described by Airbus. It cited the plane’s Flight Management System – the brains of the aircraft supplied by French defence electronics group Thales – and a GPS positioning system supplied by Safran unit Sagem. Both will have to be simplified, it said.

Two further aids, including one ordered by Germany allowing the aircraft to hug terrain at low altitude, have been abandoned for now, it said. They would have been made by EADS itself.

A400M v C17 v C130

Explaining the choice of size, Airbus explains the A400M “has been sized to have the best balance of cargo load weight and volume. This enables the aircraft to achieve an average per sortie payload of around 70% of total aircraft payload.

Only the A400M matches its maximum payload, and therefore aircraft weight, to the required ‘outsize’ volume of today’s modern loads. This is important as an aircraft’s weight largely determines its acquisition and lifetime maintenance costs.” Size-wise the aircraft fills a niche between the Boeing C17 Globemaster III and the Lockheed Martin C130 Hercules, arguably offering C130-type economy with a C17-type load capability.

As a strategic/tactical airlifter, design considerations for the former includes long range, a high cruise speed and a large cargo hold with a high maximum payload. As a tactical transport, it has good short- and soft-field and low speed performance as well as autonomous ground operation.

Airbus believes the aircraft is appropriate for South Africa as the “existing transport fleet of the SAAF does not respond to future airlift requirements”. They add that the present fleet has an inadequate range and payload capability, that cargo hold cross sections are too small for modern loads and that the fleet is unable to perform tactical and strategic missions (Airbus emphasis). They emphasise that the A400M’s large load and volume capability means fewer sorties, its long range fewer stops, its high cruise speed fewer hours, its short & austere airfield capability a greater choice of airheads, its low-level tactical flight enhanced survivability and its autonomous ground operations self reliance.

A400M as catalyst for the SA aviation industry

There is a school of thought that the South African government was more interested in the advantages associated with being risk-sharing partner in the programme than in the aircraft themselves.

Then-transport minister Jeff Radebe and public enterprises minister Alec Erwin spoke glowingly of the project’s prospects at the September 2004 edition of the Africa Aerospace & Defence exhibition, announcing the Cabinet decision’s to purchase eight with an option of six more. Absent at the announcement was then-defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota. Air Force officials, at the announcement, in a marquee tent next to the runway at Air Force Base Waterkloof, were as surprised as journalists at the development.

The order was duly signed in December 2004 and the workshare agreement – by Lekota – in April the next year. Denel Saab Aerostructures (DSA) and Aerosud duly became risk-sharing partners in the programme while Armscor, Saab SA and Omnipless were appointed contractors.

Ex-DSA CE Lana Kinley in October 2009 told defenceWeb her company expected to realise revenue of R13 billion from the programme over 15 years. Denel group CE Talib Sadik earlier that year said the group’s workshare amounted to €137 million (now about R19 billion). Aerosud MD Paul Potgieter said his company’s share was “in the same order of magnitude.” But other reports put the Aerosud workshare at R1.5 a much-lesser billion.

The US news service, Bloomberg, quoted French newspaper Le Tribune as valuing the SA workshare at a much smaller €400 million (R4.4 billion), while in May 2007, Engineering News reported that “Airbus Military has calculated that the A400M programme will add R859-million to South Africa’s gross domestic product each year for the next 15 years3 or €750-million over 20 years.

Kinley said DSA spent some R400 million in a facility upgrade to prepare for the production of its workshare. The National Treasury in October 2009 announced that it would make R192 million available to DSA year to help pay for this tooling.

DSA is exclusively responsible for the production of so-called top shells for the centre fuselage section of the A400M, which it had also designed and developed. Engineering News’ Keith Campbell has picturesquely called these as being equivalent to roof panels. DSA says this is one of the largest composite-metallic hybrid structures on the aircraft. “This part’s main function is to provide aerodynamic efficiency over the wind box, as well as protecting critical aircraft systems.”

The company is contracted to produce two top shells for each aircraft – one in front and one behind the wing box that joins the wing to the fuselage.

In addition, it is making very large wing-to-fuselage fairings, manufactured mainly from composite materials but including aluminium parts. The Engineering News notes each fairing is 15m long, 7m wide, and nearly 3m high. “Due to the sheer size of the wing-to-fuselage fairing, most of the equipment we have bought is larger than that of most of our competitors,” said Kinley in comments sent to defenceWeb.

The Department of Public Enterprises in October 2009 said the A400M contract was awarded to DSA as part of a business exchange plan, set up with Airbus when the SA government signed “a deal to purchase the military aircraft as part of the South African Air Force’s renewal programme”. The department in a joint statement with the DSA noted the design of the A400M structure “has raised South Africa’s engineering skill base.” They added the “DSA has also developed a composite facility to global standards – with world class accreditation which will allow South Africa to position itself in advanced manufacturing and in obtaining further contracts in the aerostructures industry.”

Dr Ian Phillips, the late Special Advisor to then-Minister of Transport Jeff Radebe in a 2004 press statement noted that this was the fulcrum of SA’s participation in the programme. Phillips then a Denel board member avered that the government, through the Departments of Trade and Industry (DTI), Public Enterprises and Defence, had been since “at least 2000” developing a strategy for the long-term development of South Africa’s high technology aerospace sector.

In addition to the wing-to-fuselage fairings and top shelves, DSA is also contributing the ribs and spars for the tail fin as well as centre wing box structural components. The delays in the A400M programme has cost DSA dearly. DSA posted a loss of R452.6 million for the year to March, largely because of delays in the A400M programme; and in December 2009 announced the possible retrenchment of about 120 staff.

Following the November 5 decision to cancel the purchase, Kinley and Sadik were adamant this would not immediately affect the company. “The impact of the … cancellation … will have little impact in the immediate future on DSA as the aircraft is still in development phase.,” Kinley told defenceWeb. “DSA is the design authority for two parts – the Wing-to-Fuselage Fairing and the Top Shells – and both have reached a mature stage of development. If Airbus cancelled this contract, the cost of redesign, production readiness and certification for an alternate supplier would be significant,” she said. But in February 2010 Sadik admitted to Parliament that Airbus would be within its rights to cancel DSA’s workshare. There was at the time no indication it would do so, however.

Aerosud has to date (February 2010) not commented on the impact of the decision on its workshare that includes manufacturing nose fuselage linings, cargo hold and cockpit linings as well as the cockpit rigid bulkhead, the wing tips, and the nose fuselage galleys. “The wing tips are quite important because they will contain elements of the aircraft’s defence aids subsystem,” Campbell wrote in 2007.

Heitman said in November he doubted that EADS or Airbus Military would pull any work from Aerosud, “which is a long-standing supplier to Airbus”. He said they “would not want to spoil a perfectly good relationship, and it would make no sense at all to do so. I also doubt that EADS/Airbus Military would pull the design work from DSA at this point in the project,” he said. That would only serve to incur further delay, cost and risk, which would make no sense in a project that is already over-budget and over-schedule.”

Heitman said, however, he would not be surprised “if they declined to place further planned A400M work (or even other work, if any) with Denel or pulled the bulk of the A400M manufacturing work, redistributing it among the other project partner nations. “Here it is important to remember that there is not a similar relationship to that with Aerosud; that Denel is a government entity (Saab only has 20%) and it is the government that pulled out of its half of the overall deal; and that some of the work packages allocated to South Africa were actually taken away from other development partners at the time. Those partners will want that work back.”

In addition to DSA and Aerosud, Armscor providing engineering services to the project, Omnipless, part of the Chelton group, in Cape Town, is providing satellite communications antennas and Saab SA is providing health and usage management systems (lifetime monitoring systems) for the aircraft.

What next?

The cancellation of the SA A400M order on November 5, 2009 followed a review of the programme by five ministries – Defence and Military Veterans, Finance, Public Enterprises, Science and Technology and Trade and Industry.

“Cabinet decided to terminate the contract to purchase eight A400 Airbus strategic lift aircraft. … The termination of the contract is due to extensive cost escalation and the supplier’s failure to deliver the aircraft within the stipulated timeframes. Armscor will be instructed to terminate the programme as soon as possible,” Cabinet said in a statement.

“The cost escalation would have placed an unaffordable burden on the taxpayer at a time when the national fiscus is under pressure due to the economic downturn. An amount of R2.9 billion will be refunded to National Treasury as per the contract provisions. Cabinet believes that the interests of the South African taxpayer will be best served by not proceeding with the contract.”

At a media briefing afterwards defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu said “the supplier was in serious breach of contract and we need the money desperately for other things within defence.”

At a separate briefing Cabinet spokesman Themba Maseko said the next step would be or the SAAF to do an assessment of its future transport aircraft requirement. “Clearly one of the reasons why the decision was taken to acquire this aircraft was to strengthen South Africa’s airlift capability and especially our peacekeeping missions in the continent. So the air force will have to do an assessment and if it does require more aircraft a proposal would have to be tabled before Cabinet for a decision to be taken,” he said.

Sisulu said that the SAAF had to no “go back to the drawing board to redefine its airlift needs”. In late January 2010 SAAF chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano in the same month confirmed the service still has a need for an airlifter with a cargo bay larger in width and height than the Lockheed Martin C130 Hercules. Among Western aircraft only the A400M and the Boeing C17 Globemaster III fit that bill. Gagiano however ruled out the later on grounds of cost and size.

The C17 is said to be enormously expensive, each costing the USAF US202.3 million (in constant 1998 dollars)4. The wikipedia avers that in July 2006 the Royal Australian Air Force ordered four for US$780 million. Australia also signed a US$80.7 milllion contract to join the global ‘virtual fleet’ C-17 sustainment programme.

SA defence writer and author in correspondence in November 2009 put the price Australia paid at US$1.5 billion (“R11.1 billion today”) for four, and added the USAF unit fly-away (but including some spares and training) cost was US$331 million (R2.449 billion).The US Business Week publication last week gave the cost of the C17 as US$250 million (R1.850 billion) in November 2009, showing how difficult it is to pin down prices when all the variables are not known.

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 C-130J, by the way has 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.

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”, Heitman says.

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, 2009, to mark ten years of SA involvement in peacekeeping, and now we whip the airlift carpet out from under that statement,” Heitman said.

“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. “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.”

South Africa may yet find the only replacement for the A400M is the A400M. The cost escalation from €20 billion to €31 billion implies a cost increase of some 50%, with Airbus and its parent EADS to absorb about half. As a rule-of-thumb this would have increased the SA cost 25% from €837 million to some €1.046 billion. In February 2009 that was just over R11 billion, quite lose to the R9.6 billion originally budgeted. As it stands the SAAF now have to soldier on without an aerial refueller and long-range transport while DSA faces a crisis and its staff retrenchment. It is the worst of all worlds. In retrospect Cabinet may well be been as pennywise and pound foolish, substituting sound strategy for fleeting popularity.

As of February 2010 184 A400Ms remained on order:

  • 60 for Germany

  • 50 for France

  • 27 for Spain

  • 25 for the UK

  • 10 for Turkey

  • 7 for Belgium

  • 4 for Malaysia, and

  • 1 for Luxembourg.

1 SAAF press release, reported on www.saairforce.co.za on June 30, 2005.

2 Bloomberg, EADS May Pull South Africa Work After A400M Snub, Tribune Says, November 26,2009, http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aeJIZHi4LJF4 accessed February 7, 2010.


3Keith Campbell, SA companies said to be on track with multinational aircraft project, Engineering News, http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/sa-companies-said-to-be-on-track-with-multinational-aircraft-project-2007-05-18, accessed February 7,2010.

4 US Air Force Fact Sheet, C17 Globemaster III, http://www.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?fsID=86, accessed October 23, 2008.