A400M and the Politics of Aircraft Design

Seemingly good aircraft can get scrapped for political reasons and replaced with cheap imitations.

The International Air Tattoo at Farnborough in Gloucestershire is one of the largest and prestigious events in the aerospace world. It gives pilots a chance to show their abilities in the skies to an appreciative audience, but its major purpose is as a show for various companies to drum up support and interest for their latest projects.

At the Waddington Airshow a few months ago I myself got to wander around the hangers in which the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) companies had set up and were giving away litriature and answering questions to journalists, members of the public and passing foreign dignitaries. GlobalHawk were even there who provide their GlobalHawk surveillance UAV to the Americans and the Germans. In the hanger, companies like BAE and Northrop Grumman present alongside smaller ones and even university departments whose young engineers were there showing their achievements in the field and no doubt looking for jobs.

These events are thus an important if not major process in securing contracts with the forces to which these companies provide. At Farnborough it is no different, but on a larger scale, with some of the most awaited projects making their debuts. This year it was the A400M which had the crowds craning their necks in anticipation. They’ve all seen F-16s and Super Hornets before, even the Harrier’s begining to lose its relative splendor.

Along with the F-35, it’s the Airbus A400M which is the new toy for this decade. Much like the jet fighter, this large transport aircraft has had a troubled development history. It is late and overpriced, perhaps as much as 200 percent according to some sources. Having supposed to have been delivered to the Royal Air Force last year, it now seems it will only make its first arrival on an RAF base at some point in 2012.

The aircraft is rather like the Hercules which it is designed to replace. Large, propeller driven and capable of landing on short, rough runways, the A400M is the natural successor to the fifty year-old Boeing veteran. The only trouble is, it’s a European project which could usually mean it would fall out the sky or be unsuitable for what it was designed. It does however tick some of the boxes; it’s late and overpriced. However, this one works, and it may even be the best at what it does, and no doubt at the moment of writing it has many options, but so did Concord.

Even the American military has been eying it up, but to gain such privilege it will have to compete with the Globemaster. The two do slightly different things however, the latter American juggernaut being a bog-standard super heavy lift craft, capable of extremely long flights and carrying huge loads, while the smaller A400M can only go half as far with half the lift.

Its major selling point, therefore, is its capability to land on any part of relatively flat earth, and with limited distance too. The Globemaster requires a long, developed runway instead, the kind only available at airports and air bases in civilized countries and not the backyard of nowhere which seems to be the favored arena of today’s conflicts.

Then, you may believe, the A400M will triumph despite its faults. That would perhaps be the case if there was enough money to go round but given the current economic fortunes of even the wealthiest of the world’s economies it may prove a rough landing for the deal. The Ministry of Defense, the British government department loosely responsible for procurement and defense, may even have to review its commitment to the project despite its pledge by the previous government.

Other countries too may soon find that there’s not enough cash in the coffers and the aging Hercules will get a decade older with Boeing offering some new update packages. It’s never too late to rule out such a possibility. Also we must factor that the American military has a proud history of buying American. This is usually because, well, joint European, British or other endeavors are either inferior or too late and too expensive. The lauded Harrier being the last possible successful export to the United States from this side of the Atlantic, and they loved it.

Another element to think about is politics. The project leader of the ill-fated British TSR2 jet fighter project in the 1960s said that “aircraft have four dimensions, wingspan, length, height and politics. TSR2 got the first three right.” And TSR2 was dropped in favor of the American F-111.

Likewise, decades later, the supersonic airliner Concord was brought down by politics. Despite having 82 options before her maiden flight, contractors soon backed off and all received mysteriously kind offers from Boeing and visits from American trade delegations and dinners with senators.

A400M may be another example of this and only break even or make a loss within European and British contracts when it is dependent on exports to the United States and others to make it a success. Aerospace is a dark and shadowy world where seemingly good aircraft can get scrapped for political reasons and replaced with cheap imitations. Where A400M sits on this scale of quality is yet to be seen. Globemaster is undoubtedly a superior system for long hauls of heavy cargo, but the place for A400M as the natural scion of Hercules is evident at the moment.

In future governments may not engage in Afghanistan-like counterinsurgencies, where the Airbus option would really shine, but it seems likely that they will continue to do so and the A400M would be a real asset. In the meantime, we can eat our icecream and watch the shiny F-16s.


  1. “the A400M is the natural successor to the fifty year old Boeing veteran”

    Exept for the fact that the C-130 Hercules being alluded to in the article is designed and manufactured by Lockheed Martin.

Comments are automatically closed after one year.