British Transport Aircraft Procurement “Disaster”

It no longer makes sense for Britain to buy the Airbus A400M instead of its competitors.

I would like to hear anybody else in your Lordships’ committee talk to me about the “limited success” of the A400M. It is a disaster. […] The A400M is a complete, absolute wanking disaster and we should be ashamed of ourselves. I have never seen such a waste of public funds in the defense field since I have been involved in it these past forty years.

This was the description of the Airbus A400M given by John Gilbert, the former minister for defense procurement, last week in the House of Lords. Is this a fair assessment of the transport aircraft for the needs of the Royal Air Force?

The origins of the aircraft can be traced to a collaborative replacement project for the aging Transall C-160 and the Lockheed C-130 in 1982. As one would expect from such an arrangement involving a group of European nations, all that was achieved over a period of seven years was much political wrangling and many alterations to the design requirement that led to little to no real progress, culminating in Lockheed withdrawing to pursue the Super Hercules as an alternative. Ten years later, when the C-130J was entering service, the engine for the A400M had yet to be decided.

The United Kingdom issued an original requirement for 45 A400Ms anticipating an in service date of around 2005 at a unit price of $80 million and with a thirty year life cycle cost of $200 million, at the time thought to be the lowest and a major selling point of the aircraft when compared to its rivals.

By contrast, the unit price of a C-130J was $67 million while life cycle costs were around $213 million. Both aircraft came in at the same price of $280 million and the A400M seemingly looks a better deal as it can carry a greater load a longer distance.

The delays of the A400M have seen cancelations and reduced orders across the board which in turn have pushed costs up.

Italy canceled its order for sixteen aircraft in 2001. Then Italian defense minister Antonio Martino told the Italian TV Network RAI, “This aircraft will not be of use to military aviation” and opted to purchase 22 C-130J and twelve C-27J.

Soon after, Portugal withdrew from the program and in 2008, Canada opted to take a C-17/C-130J combination over the A400M. South Africa also pulled its order of eight aircraft in 2009 due to continued delays.

At a crisis meeting early in 2010, the entire program looked like it might collapse owing to further technical issues. Airbus required €3.5 billion from the recession gripped European governments. Britain again cut its order, two 22 planes, in return for not having to stump up any more cash, this despite a Commons Defense Committee session on Strategic Lift in 2007 which revealed that General Andrew Figgures, technical director at the Defense Procurement Agency, was not satisfied that 25 aircraft would be enough and the committee recommending that the Ministry of Defense “consider acquiring additional A400M aircraft to ensure that the pool of 25 available aircraft is maintained.”

The cut to 22 aircraft also increased the unit price to £141 million according to the National Audit Office Major Projects Report from 2011, though this only covers the main production contract cost.

As 2005 arrived, the Royal Air Force found its tactical airlift capabilities stretched. Years of hard work in Afghanistan and Iraq had taken their toll on the most heavily worked Hercules fleet in the world. The A400M, however, had seen its in service date slip to 2011, the air force order cut from 45 to 25 and tens of millions of pounds spent extending the lives of the C-130Ks then in service.

Additionally, the C-130Js have been almost run in to the ground since entering service and as a result have seen their service lives reduced by the additional strain placed upon them by continued operations in hostile environments, a factor compounded by the absence of A400M.

Why then is the ministry persevering with such a farcical procurement? The A400M does have several benefits when compared to both the C-130J and the Boeing C-17. Compared to the venerable Hercules, its payload is much higher. It was originally designed to carry a load nearly double that of the C-130J but it has since been reduced to a 50 percent higher payload. It can carry the same load as either variant of the C-130J 1,500 miles further as well as faster.

Yet the Hercules has its advantages over the A400M. The smaller size of the aircraft makes it less of a target and in turn a more favorable aircraft for the special forces community. The Hercules can land on a smaller airstrip and its engines and tires are less susceptible to foreign object damage than the bigger A400M.

The Hercules is also in service with dozens of countries, making operational support far easier to come by in more far flung regions of the world. The A400M, by contrast, being ordered by only a handful of nations won’t have this luxury. The unit price of the A400M also makes attrition replacement higher.

Comparing the A400M to the C-17 is a bit more difficult. The two aircraft perform vastly different roles, the C-17 being capable of carrying almost twice the load of the A400M but not able to put down on austere airstrips quite as short as the A400M. It can also fly faster and further than its European counterpart as might be expected in a jet aircraft.

The A400M will undoubtedly be a capable aircraft once it eventually enters service but nothing is known of its true operating costs.

To begin with, its engines are unique to the airframe and have already encountered many teething problems, compared to the engines of both the C-17 and C-130 which have an established support and user base. It will require the training of flight and ground crews and add another aircraft to a fleet that already operates on a near shoestring.

With the cons far outweighing the pros, what is the rationale for going ahead with the A400M instead of purchasing additional C-17s or C-130Js? Does the ministry fear that withdrawal might see Britain excluded from future collaborative projects? Doubtful. Is it a bad thing not to participate in extortionate European vanity projects? Might it see British industry suffer? Equally doubtful though perhaps the eight hundred jobs the program is expected to create a deemed worth the costs.

It appears that the best outcome for the Royal Air Force would be to cancel its order so what credible argument for the A400M is there? The current combination of aircraft has served the air force well over the last decade. It’s doubtful that had A400M entered service on schedule, it would have brought any additional capability.

Instead of waiting for 2015 to pass by and run the risk of the A400M being further delayed, it would make more sense to order additional C-130Js and C-17s now and have them in service.

However, with Treasury officials chairing defense committees, defense requirements seem to have taken a backseat to the need to cut back regardless of the implications on the servicemen and -women who have to make do and keep their heads down lest the swinging axe fall on them.