Virtual plane has real benefits

Next week at the Paris airshow Airbus will launch an offensive to persuade seven European governments to pick the A400M for their next generation of military transport planes. Amid the flying displays of an airshow, this may seem a daunting task. All of the Airbus rivals – the C-130J Hercules, Boeing’s C-17 and the Antonov […]

Next week at the Paris airshow Airbus will launch an offensive to persuade seven European governments to pick the A400M for their next generation of military transport planes.

Amid the flying displays of an airshow, this may seem a daunting task. All of the Airbus rivals – the C-130J Hercules, Boeing’s C-17 and the Antonov An-70, can be bought straight off the shelf. The A400M, however, exists only as an enormous Cadds 5 model. The plane will cost $6bn to develop, which Airbus hopes the seven governments – the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Italy, and Turkey – will provide.

Airbus will press home the military, industrial and political case which it believes gives the A400M – formerly the Future Large Aircraft – a decisive advantage over its rivals.

Militarily, Airbus says the A400M has been designed around the seven nations’ agreed requirements and is the only solution that meets them all. Airbus claims advantages over all rivals. The C-130J is too small, dates back to the 1950s, and has inferior performance to earlier versions. The C-17, says Airbus, `offers capabilities Europe doesn’t need at a price it can’t afford’. The A400M has better soft ground capability: the C-17 could use few airfields in Kosovo, Macedonia or Albania, for example.

The Antonov, favoured by Germany, needs a five-man crew and would depend on 500 suppliers, all in the former Soviet Union, for spares.

Industrially, the A400M project would sustain 10,000 UK aerospace jobs. The overall programme could be worth more than $30bn with $5bn coming to the UK.

Politically, the programme meets the Strategic Defence Review’s call for affordable European solutions and smart procurement. It also offers Europe a chance to match the US aerospace giants.

Airbus management would control development costs. It has created a subsidiary, Airbus Military, in which Italy’s Alenia, Belgium’s Flabel and Turkey’s TAI join the four civil Airbus partners. With sufficient firm orders it would be developed in a single phase, like a civil airliner. Airbus plans a January 2000 launch with an in-service date in 2006.

If all 288 aircraft the Government says it wants are ordered, each A400M would cost $80m, compared with, Airbus estimates, $200m for the C-17 and $50m for the C-130J. Its lifecycle cost over 30 years would only be marginally higher than the C-130J and a third of the C-17.

On this basis the partners hope they can persuade the governments to fund development. `The most cost-effective way of borrowing the money would be for the governments to supply funding against guarantees and milestones from industry,’ says Iain Gray, British Aerospace Airbus future programmes director.