Comment Pan-European aerospace megacorp Airbus has hinted that it may close down its A400M military airlifter project, despite the fact that the first aircraft has finally flown. The manufacturer cannot make a profit on the plane if it is delivered at the agreed price, and is trying to get concessions from the customer nations.
One of those customer nations is Britain, which was supposed to receive 25 planes for a planned price of £2.5bn, with delivery meant to begin some years ago. In the event, political wrangling and then colossal engineering blunders at Airbus and its subcontractors have pushed the probable UK delivery date to the middle of this decade.
This is a serious enough problem for Britain's armed forces, which have always suffered from a lack of airlift and are now hotly engaged in landlocked, remote, hostile Afghanistan. Despite the recent purchase of a small fleet of C-17 heavy airlifters from America, and the upgrading of many RAF C-130 Hercules shorthaul transports, the "air bridge" from Blighty to our forces in Helmand is very creaky indeed; and there are rumblings of crisis ahead on the in-theatre routes from base to base.
But the A400M is not just delayed - it's also overbudget. Under the deal between Airbus and the various European governments who have ordered planes, the prices are supposed to be fixed and indeed Airbus is liable for massive penalties resulting from the delays. But Airbus will lose a lot of money on the deal as it stands, and the firm claims to be thinking seriously of simply axing the project altogether.
"The aircraft can't be built under the current conditions," Airbus chief Thomas Enders told German mag Der Spiegel this week. "It is better to put an end to the horror than have horror without end."
Germany is thought to be the customer government playing the hardest ball in negotiations with Airbus thus far. France has stated that the customers should simply bite the pillow set out for them and pay more for their planes.
As a practical reality, it would be excellent news for Blighty if the A400M folded. Even at the contract price, it is shockingly poor value. Britain is buying heavy C-17s at the moment for £200m including support - it is normal to spend twice or three times purchase price on support through an aircraft's life - indicating a purchase price equivalent to £70m at most, compared to £100m for an A400M. But a C-17, despite being cheaper, is much bigger and carries twice or more what an A400M can.
And anyway the £100m pricetag is out of the window. If the UK stays with A400M there is no prospect of any more money being found by a cash-strapped Treasury, so the number of aircraft will have to fall; to 15 or fewer, according to some reports. Thus the real cost per plane would be £170m - more than twice what a vastly bigger and better C-17 costs.
Of course, vast C-17s aren't suitable for every task. In general, they're best employed on air bridge work - as between the UK and the Kandahar air hub in southern Afghanistan - and then stuff and people move about, say from Kandahar to Blighty's Camp Bastion - in smaller haulers. At the moment the shorthaul work is done by the RAF's fleet of C-130 Hercules. Perhaps the A400Ms could be useful here?