A long-delayed European program to build a new military transport
aircraft could begin moving forward as early as mid-2001. No contracts
have been signed by any European governments yet, but the aircraft
makers already are seeking U.S. participation in the project.
The Airbus Military Company, in Cedex, France, plans to build a
strategic military cargo plane, which would be larger than a C-130
Hercules, but smaller than a C-17 Globemaster. So far, eight European
nations have made informal commitments to buy 225 airplanes, called
the A400M. Program officials, meanwhile, are working to secure U.S.
participation in the A400M program, said Jose Morales, vice president
of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space (EADS) Company’s
Military Transport Division, in Chantilly, Va. This division of
the EADS industrial conglomerate formerly was the Spanish aerospace
giant CASA. EADS would assemble the airplanes in Seville, Spain.
“We are talking to the U.S. Air Force about getting a U.S.
partner for the A400M program,” Morales told National Defense.
The talks, he stressed, are “very preliminary. ... We are
going to push for the U.S. Air Force to get onboard the program.”
The company also is “open to partnerships” with U.S.
industry, Morales said.
The conceptual aircraft known today as the A400M has been in the
works for about 15 years. At various times, it was called “Future
International Military Aircraft” or “Future Military
Airlifter.” Today, it is being touted as a “European
solution to European needs.” Essentially, goes the Airbus
argument, the A400M would fulfill airlift demands by countries that
currently fly the C-130 and want a slightly larger plane, but nothing
as big as a C-17.
Airbus said the A400M will be capable of carrying payloads of up
to 65,000 pounds. The C-130J, which is the newest version of the
Hercules, has a payload capacity of 41,790 pounds. The C-17 carries
The “rationale” for this aircraft, said Morales, is
that “it offers twice the capacity of the C-130 [older models]
and the price is not double. We see the A400 as a good complement
to the C-17.”
EADS hopes that the U.S. Air Force will become interested in the
program. “We have been providing information to the Air Force,”
said Morales, “but have not received any response, thus far.
We are working to establish a dialogue.”
Even though the final assembly of the A400 will be performed at
EADS’ Seville facility, each European nation customer will
manufacture subassemblies in their own countries, based on the share
of their buy, he said.
Last July, the defense ministers of the eight “launch customers”
of the A400M made a verbal commitment to the program. Belgium would
buy seven aircraft, France, 50; Germany, 73; Italy, 16; Luxembourg,
1; Spain, 27; Turkey, 26 and the United Kingdom, 25.
“Currently, we are in contract negotiations with the eight
partners, which should be completed during the first half of 2001,”
said Alisdar Reynolds, spokesman for the Airbus Military Company,
in Toulouse, France.
Airbus estimated that there is a market for about 400 transport
planes throughout Europe.
All eight buyer nations agreed on common specifications for the
aircraft, Reynolds said in an interview. There are exceptions, however,
for some “minimum amount of customer-furnished equipment,”
such as customized life rafts that certain nations want installed
in the aircraft.
Current European transports mostly are older C-130s and C-160s,
except for the United Kingdom, which purchased 25 C-130Js and is
leasing four C-17s. If the A400M program gets under way as planned,
it would provide thousands of jobs for Europe’s aerospace
“With the A400M, we will not have to re-invent cooperation,”
said François Roudier, director of communication for the
French aerospace firm Messier-Dowty. “We have the experience
of many joint programs,” he said. He characterized the A400M
program as having a “low technological risk.”
In general, said Roudier, “the European aerospace equipment
industry has always benefited from joint European programs.”
Reynolds explained that the A400M will be designed to fill a capability
gap that cannot be satisfied by current transport aircraft. “The
A400 was conceived strictly as a military transport,” he said.
There have been “some talks” about a civilian cargo
freighter, but “no discussions about a commercial derivative”
have taken place officially.
A U.S. industry lobbyist, speaking on condition that he not be
quoted by name, questioned Airbus’ strategy of courting U.S.
military buyers. “I don’t know why the Air Force would
be interested in the A400M, unless they thought it could help drive
down the price of the C-130J,” he said. “Adding a new
aircraft to the fleet would compound their logistics problems.”
The A400M is expected to be sold for about $80 million apiece.
The C-130J’s going rate today is between $50 million and $60
The C-130J was developed as a commercial venture, so prices are
set differently for each customer, said Peter Simmons, spokesman
for Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems, in Marietta, Ga. The company
builds the C-130J. “There is no set price for the C-130J,
because they are sold commercially, and every customer gets prices
quoted based on the version of the aircraft and the add-ons,”
He refuted the argument made by Airbus that the A400 has twice
the capacity of the Hercules. “The numbers they give [are
not accurate], we don’t know what they are talking about,”
said Simmons. “The A400 was designed as a strategic airlifter,
not tactical. It has higher payload, longer range and requires more
sophisticated runways. You can’t do the C-130 mission with
There is some overlap, he explained, “between the lower end
of the A400 mission and the top end of the C-130J mission.”
The $80 million price quoted by Airbus seems unrealistic, Simmons
said. “Knowing the kinds of technologies that go into that
kind of airlifter, we will be interested to see them reach that
In Europe, he said, 80 percent of the airlift missions require
less cargo capacity than what the C-130 offers, “so why do
they need such a large aircraft?”
Lockheed officials, he said, currently are “in detailed discussions”
with several European countries that have not signed up with the
A400 program and operate older C-130s.
A recent market study by Forecast International, in Newtown, Conn.,
predicted sales and production of military transport aircraft will
grow through this decade. Air forces worldwide, said the study,
are expected to take delivery of 879 new transports worth nearly
$44 billion during the 2000-2009 time-frame.
The Boeing Company, maker of the C-17, and Lockheed Martin continue
to dominate the market, said Forecast International. The European
consortium that pledged to buy the A400M, the study said, will have
its “commitment tested when it comes time to actually fund
Forecast International believes the jury is still out on this one
and has not forecast a launch date for the A400M, instead anticipating
the selection of the C-130J for most of the planned A400M requirement.
A modest C-17 purchase by the Europeans is also possible, the company
James I. Baginski, a retired U.S. Air Force major general who was
responsible for airlift operations, said it would be misguided to
discount the A400M as a viable competitor in the future. “It
will be five to six years before you see the first airplane,”
The British government’s financial commitment to U.S. cargo
aircraft, however, could be a problem for the Airbus program, Baginski
said in an interview. “The British also are looking at a private
financing initiative,” he said. That would mean having a company
build or buy the airplanes, and the U.K. government would lease
them. That would be similar to the U.S. government’s arrangement
with civilian freight firms. “They [the British] don’t
want to put up their defense dollars. They want a private concern,
such as FedEx, to give them a long-term lease and pay them by the
hour they use the airplane.” It would be the contractor’s
responsibility to maintain the airplanes and the air crews.
American military aircraft companies would be unlikely to welcome
such arrangement, Baginski noted. “They don’t want to
make the investment. ... American companies are looking for return
on investment. They don’t want to make the capital outlay.”
The A400M, Baginski said, eventually could compete with the C-17,
“depending on what price it comes out at. They are talking
in the $80 million to $90 million range. You could buy two of those
for what a C-17 costs.”