Europe's A400M Military Transport Plane Makes Maiden Flight
12:40 PM, Dec 11, 2009 • By ULF GARTZKE
The new Airbus A400M--Europe's ambitious response to the rapidly-increasing demand for strategic airlift capabilities in support of military crisis-management operations around the world--received a major boost this morning when the four-engined turboprop aircraft made its first flight from an airfield in Seville, Spain. In principle, the A400M is designed to be the world's most versatile airlifter: It can be used to transport troops and heavy cargo (including armored vehicles) up to a total weight of about 37 tons, to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield, and to provide aerial refueling for all types of military aircraft, ranging from jets to helicopters. For European nations lacking sufficient strategic airlift capabilities and eager to replace their outdated fleets of C160 Transalls and C-130J Hercules transporters, the A400M's maiden flight is certainly welcome news. Pentagon procurement officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, too, should be thrilled about the entry of a new competitor in the market for strategic airlifters. As can be seen in the realm of commercial aviation and with regard to the Pentagon's KC-X tanker replacement program, the stiff competition between Airbus and Boeing has kept the two aerospace giants on the edge, driving up technological innovations while keeping prices down.For EADS, the parent of A400M manufacturer Airbus, today's maiden flight marked a major breakthrough following a string of technical difficulties related to the aircraft's propulsion system that caused a three-year delay and major cost overruns in the EUR20 billion procurement program supported by key European powers such as the UK, Germany, and France.
While the first batch of A400M is now scheduled to be delivered to the French air force in 2013, Airbus CEO Tom Enders has already made it clear that the fixed-price program is not viable without additional financial backing from its seven partner nations (most likely in the $5 billion range). The A400M partner nations, which had initially committed to acquire a total of 180 planes, are currently in the midst of renegotiating these procurement contracts to hammer out a new cost-sharing agreement with Airbus.