There are as yet unknown tribes in the deepest recesses of the Amazon basin who have heard that the A400 has taken its first flight today. The mainstream media, web channels and blogosphere have exploded with news of the maiden flight in Seville this afternoon, callsign Grizzly 1.
MSN001 completed a longer than expected flight and Airbus reported all system performed as expected. Analysis of test data will be carried out before the net series of flights. Other aircraft will join the test programme over the next months and years as the aircraft strives for service. The first deliveries will be to France and these first aircraft may not be capable of the full spectrum of flight operations.
This is good news and the scale of the achievement should not be underestimated but amidst the sunshine of the first flight in Seville dark clouds stubbornly refuse to disperse.
Whilst the flight was in progress various defence ministers and officials from EADS and Airbus Military were trying, yet again, to thrash out a deal that tries to balance the competing requirements of a fixed price contract against the reality of cost and time over runs.
The original €20 billion development costs are certain to be significantly more and EADS and Airbus have indicated that at the original fixed prices the programme would not be possible to compete. France and Spain have indicated they are willing to look at pricing and specification issues but Germany and the UK seem to be sticking to their guns, a fixed price contract is a fixed price contract. If it is cancelled, EADS could face penalty charges of nearly €6 billion, crippling. Given that the whole programme is so riven with politics and competing industrial concerns it is unlikely that it will be cancelled and some form of compromise on numbers, support, payment profile or future options is the most likely outcome.
The most likely cost increase seems to be in the order of 25%.
In a parallel exercise in wishful thinking Sean O’Keefe, the EADS North America Chief Executive, outlined a number of factors that he believes will send the USAF to his doors with a purchase order for the A400. I actually agree with the analysis of need, the A400 (assuming it continues) would make sense as a replacement for their C130 fleet as the US Army has the same crushing reality check regarding vehicle size and weight as the European nations have. With the continuing turmoil over the USAF tanker programme and the natural resistance to a non homegrown aircraft fleet, common sense won’t come into it, politics will intervene, as usual.
The decision to proceed or not is a real tough one, readers of this blog will know we think the specification and capability that the A400 will deliver are vital to the maintenance of an effective, modern and versatile logistics fleet alongside the C17 and A330. As much as the C130 has and continues to give sterling service it is reaching the end of its useful life, like the Land Rover or Bedford.
As useful as we think it will be the decision has to come down to cost, especially given the likely MoD budget cuts in the next few years and the £6 billion black hole reported today.