A400 seems to be moving through its test and development programme with little fuss.
Recent developments include high crosswind take off and landings, water ingestion testing and flight operations at low level.
As might be expected, these tests and those before it have thrown up the need for some modifications including engine and structural modifications but these should be expected in any development programme, especially one that is developing an engine and airframe in parallel. Airbus Military seem to be confident that the programme will be complete by the end of 2012 and ready for first deliveries as soon as production aircraft can be made available to the launch customer.
Previous to these recent tests icing issues demanded a lengthy modification programme which although now seemingly resolved cost 6 weeks on the schedule.
An interim step towards the end of the development effort is civil certification which was originally scheduled for the end of 2011. Commenting on achieving this, Head of Flight Operations (Fernando Alonso) said
We are advancing very quickly towards the end of certification testing, I cannot say if we will finish on 10 December or 10 January. We will finish as soon as we can
No doubt more hiccups are ahead but I think it would be reasonable to have some degree of optimism that more or less, A400 will be in service in a timely manner, whatever the previous delays.
So as the aircraft moves towards production a couple of questions come to mind.
The first is how the launch partner nations can ratchet down support costs because there is no doubt they are all paying more, especially if Germany continues with its shenanigans. France is playing hardball with Airbus. Laurent Collet-Billon, the director of the French DGA procurement agency, in a question from the National Assembly, stated;
We still don’t have a satisfactory proposal from Airbus, notably for the engine. I have let the industrialists know that, without a support contract, I will not accept the aircraft and I will not pay for them
Strictly posturing though because everyone knows that ultimately a pan European support deal will have to be struck that despite differing national specifications and in service timescales will harmonise all support arrangements including training and depth maintenance. It seems entirely equitable that the share of this support contract will be in proportion to the number of airframes delivered.
If costs can be genuinely reduced without impacting operational availability then this is arguably a compromise worth taking.
The second question is actually linked to the first, development costs (therefore programme costs) can be recovered by export sales.
The launch nations would have to negotiate with Airbus but it is a reasonable assumption that export prices would not necessarily have to recover all development costs and therefore unit costs to export customers would be less. It would equally not be an unreasonable position for them to ensure that export costs are as low as possible in order to drive sales; being ‘cheap’ or value for money is a basic sales strategy, going for volume instead of high profits.
The A400 is no doubt an in betweener, it does not carry as much or as far as the C17 but can go places the C17 can’t (especially in a repeatable manner) and will have a much lower operating cost (the C17 is very expensive to run).
It is larger and more expensive than the C130 but with the undeniable growth in weight and volume of common military equipment over the last few decades, the C130 is looking increasingly inadequate for many requirements which in turn is pushing more onto C17′s with the attendant cost.
The A400 also has some very nice to have features built in like airborne refuelling.
Despite the obvious political and industrial challenges that would face a US buy of the A400 is it as much as a pipe dream as one might think?
For the USMC it would provide an almost tailor made partner for the V22 and CH53K, extending operational range for a number of conventional and special operations force packages. If the USMC wants to extend its reach then a multi -purpose A400 might not be an altogether mad idea. It is the range of the A400 and its ability to fly tactical flight profiles that would make a lot of difference, an A400 might for example, provide both airborne refuelling for a V22 package and an airdrop facility for a couple of vehicles or stores on the same mission. It is also worth noting that the initial production run will have 10 spares, a result of changing initial order quantities.
For the USAF it represents an even more interesting opportunity. They have clearly recognised the need for a C130 successor but the alphabet soup of programmes have all failed to deliver a coherant set of requirements. Even for the USAF, funding is going to be very tight in the next decade or so with all monies going on F35, AAR, ISTAR, UCAV and the next generation bomber. One has to wonder if there is a cost justification for a C130 Plus or a C17 Lite when that will already exist in the A400, available off the production line.
Also, if the ambition is for something better than the A400 either in terms of performance or ability to operate in vertical mode, will the cash be there to meet the aspirations?
The big issues of course are timing, cash and politics.
As the production run finishes for the A400 any post Afghanistan and budget cut force configurations should be known and well into implementation but it just may be that these produce a lift requirement that can be met by existing aircraft that will likely be available in larger numbers than needed.
Cash is the next big hurdle, as ever. The key point is does the improvement over the C130 and reduction in operating costs over the C17 justify the cost differential, whatever that might be, critical is the export price point and cost of any localisation or local production.
The final major hurdle is politics, never to be underestimated; in a recovering economy would even local production be sellable at election time?
So although a US purchase of the A400 might seem logical on some levels it remains a tough sell, any takers?
Or, are there any other nations that might be in the market?