Bjoern Seibert argues that the United Kingdom should end its involvement in the A400M military transport programme. Operational needs, budgetary shortfalls and existing concerns over the programme means that the UK should opt for alternative viable off-the shelf-solutions.
Next week, defence ministers from the seven A400M partner nations will head for Spain to discuss the future of the controversial programme with the EADS/Airbus leadership. Days before the meeting, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and French President, Nicolas Sarkozy called for a six-month extension of the negotiations with EADS on the fate of the A400M. In so doing, both appear to signal their willingness to bail out the programme. Each country has distinct reasons for doing so; they do not apply to the United Kingdom.
The time has come for Her Majesty’s Government to end its participation in the controversial programme. The combination of operational needs, budgetary shortfalls and uncertainties over the A400M programme make this painful step necessary.
Growing Capability Gap
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have underscored the growing need for tactical and strategic airlift. As the UK seeks to maintain its expeditionary warfare posture, there is little reason to believe that tomorrow’s demands will differ from today’s. Projecting forces to distant theatres in a short period of time will remain vital. At the same time, the UK’s airlift capability is eroding.
The seventeen C-130Ks that the RAF currently operates will be withdrawn from service in 2012 – four years beyond their original out-of-service date. The remaining transport fleet of C-130Js and C-17s are seriously overstretched. Replacements are urgently needed to avoid a widening capability gap with an effect on operations.
Uncertainties of A400M programme
The intended replacement aircraft, the Airbus A400M, has been haunted by considerable problems and uncertainties, however. Of these, three stand out.
First, there is uncertainty as to when the A400M would be available. The first aircraft were contractually pledged for delivery to the French Air Force in 2009. This date has been subject to slippage however, and the A400M has not even undergone flight-testing yet. A recent study by the French Senate suggests delays of at least three to four years. For the UK, this would mean the first A400M would only enter into service by 2014/15 – several years after the retirement of the C-130Ks. Even these dates are not guaranteed. EADS has not confirmed when the aircraft would be available, and is requesting time until the end of this year to come up with a new estimate.
Second, schedule uncertainty is coupled with performance uncertainty. There is in fact no guarantee at this point that the A400M’s performance will be that contractually agreed upon. EADS has already announced that it cannot deliver some navigation and low-level flight capabilities. The aircraft is also considerably heavier than anticipated at this stage of development. According to the French Senate’s report, the aircraft weighs twelve tonnes more than projected. This could shorten range, reduce payload and lengthen take off. Thus, the actual performance of the A400M remains uncertain.
Third and finally, the price of the aircraft remains uncertain. The current unit price is estimated at EUR 145 million. But EADS wants to renegotiate this price to reflect much higher than anticipated development costs. Some estimates predict an increase of at least thirty per cent in unit price.
In sum, the fundamental variables of in-service dates, performance and price of the A400M remain shrouded in uncertainty.
The Alternative Solution and its Benefits
At the same time, an alternative solution is available. Rather than procuring the A400M, the United Kingdom can order additional C-130J and C-17 aircraft. This alternative has at least five advantages:
--First, in contrast to the uncertainty surrounding the A400M’s eventual performance, the C-130J and C-17 are combat tested aircraft. Both have performed extremely well in Iraq and Afghanistan.
-- Second, a smaller inventory of airlifters is preferable to a larger one. Each aircraft type requires a separate and costly support structure. The RAF currently operates C-130Js and C- 17s. Their logistical support chains already exist, and the RAF would not need to re-train crews to operate a new aircraft.
-- Third, the C-130J is in service with many air forces, and both C-130Js and C-17s are operated by the US Air Force. This could ease logistical support as the RAF could take advantage globally of the mutual service assistance between national air forces. This will not be the same with the A400M. Outside Europe, RAF operations will have to be supported from the main base.
-- Fourth, both aircraft could, if ordered now, enter into service prior to the potential in-service date of the A400M for the RAF.
-- Fifth and finally, acquiring additional C-130Js and C-17s instead of the A400M will likely be the less costly solution. The A400M will eventually be only slightly less expensive than the much larger C-17 and considerably more expensive than the C- 130J. The costs of expensive bridging solutions should also be factored into the overall cost of the A400M programme, in addition to the unit price.
Continuation for Fear of Repercussions?
Arguments by proponents of the A400M programme fall into two categories: those who fear political repercussions, and those who fear repercussions on the domestic defence and aerospace industry. While both are a concern, they do not justify the continuation of the programme.
The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the programme will affect and likely upset some European partners. It could complicate current negotiations with the aircraft maker. Alternative buyers may have to be found, or the unit price for the other partners could go up. However, according to the CEO of EADS, the UK’s exit from the A400M programme would not mean its end.
Nor is it likely to mean the UK’s exclusion from future European defence collaboration. The United Kingdom cannot be ignored as a customer, and its companies possess undeniable industrial know-how. Like its partners, the UK needs to carefully balance the costs and benefits of the programme. That such an analysis leads to different outcomes is not least due to the different industrial stakes and outlook in the project.
As for the industrial repercussions, the British aerospace and defence companies are strong and internationally competitive, successful both in the European and U.S. markets. The success of the domestic defence industry is not least highlighted by the UK’s position as one of the world’s largest arms exporters.
Having said that, it cannot be excluded that the UK’s withdrawal from the A400M programme could carry consequences for some companies. The effect on the overall defence industry, however, will not be significant; and the United Kingdom should not be held hostage by companies or special interest groups.
At next week’s meeting, Her Majesty’s Government will have a choice: spend six more months renegotiating fundamentals of the contract with EADS, or withdraw from the controversial programme. It should have the courage to do the latter.
Bjoern H. Seibert is an Associate Fellow at RUSI and Research Affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).