Air Transportation: AirBus Needs An Exorcist

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November 30, 2019: Germany continues to have problems with its A400M four-engine turboprop military transports. Recently the German Air Force refused to accept the latest two A400Ms delivered. This time the problem has to do with loose dowel bolts for the propellers, engine mounts, as well as issues with engine combustion chambers, flaps and cracks in other areas. None of these were yet a safety problem but the maintainers had to perform more frequent inspections and that was more work for the maintainers and fewer aircraft available for service. None of these problems will become life-threatening as long as the additional inspections are conducted. The aircraft warranties did not cover this sort of thing because the manufacturer had not detected the problem and fixed it before making deliveries. This issue was not unique but the A400M had more problems than expected and performed less well than promised. Added to the many problems already caused because adding new (often essential) features increased costs and delays, customers are losing patience. This has already caused many customers to reduce their orders and turn to other suppliers.

The unforeseen problems and fewer orders produced huge cost overruns. Already that has forced the multi-nation (Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey) consortium backing A400M project to come up with an additional $3.9 billion to keep the program going after it was threatened with cancellation in 2010. So far 84 A400Ms have been delivered, including the two Germany refused until specific quality control problems were taken care of. Airbus has sold 174 so far and the first were delivered in 2013.

Germany had already accepted and put into service 31 of the 53 A400Ms ordered. The Germans found that when the aircraft worked it got the job done and that the German Air Force had already used the A400M on 1,700 missions and that it was now their primary heavy military transport.

It is not all bad news. The A400M has made steady progress implementing the many features it was advertised as capable of. For example, in late 2018 the transport successfully demonstrated that it could be used for aerial refueling. During the September tests, an A400M successfully refueled an H160 helicopter in flight. This event was doubly important because the H160 is another new Airbus product and Airbus wants H160 to enter service quickly and without all the problems the A400M has undergone.

Until the latest problems with the German aircraft, development and deliveries were going smoothly. That in itself was unusual because as recently as 2017 Germany complained out that at the end of 2016 only one of its seven A400Ms was available for service. One was stranded in Lithuania because of oil leaks in the engines. Two others were undergoing scheduled inspections and one was undergoing scheduled upgrades. Another was undergoing acceptance tests and only one was available for use.

Germany already demanded $42 million in fines (as per the contract) for late delivery of the first five aircraft. Germany is a major investor in the A400M program and the largest customer. But it has seen its share of the costs rise nearly 20 percent even while deliveries were delayed and more problems kept showing up. The Germans were so angry that they cut their order and sought to sell the last 13 A400Ms they had received. The A400M reputation was so bad that Germany could find no buyers, even at a deeply discounted price. As an alternative disposal method, the Germans contributed those 13 aircraft to the multinational air transport unit being formed by NATO countries. That way future problems with these A400Ms would be shared by all NATO members.

After Germany, France is the next largest customer and the French took the lead in going after AirBus to get the aircraft operational and capable of doing what customers needed done. In 2016 this pressure resulted in AirBus agreeing to rapidly implement changes to produce a “tactical” A400M that is capable of dropping paratroopers, defending itself against heat-seeking missiles, has some lightweight armor for the cockpit and the capability to land on short airstrips. This came after France complained that the first A400Ms it received lacked all these features and that without these capabilities the A400M wasn’t very useful. Airbus assured France that it would receive six of these “tactical” A400Ms by the end of 2016. Three would be new aircraft and three would be upgraded A400Ms that France had already received. Airbus was only able to deliver three of the updated A400Ms by the end of 2016. The others did not arrive until 2017. In light of the problems, Germany and France are supporting the other A400M customers who also demand that Airbus do more to deliver what they promised and do it on time.

Germany has cut its order from 60 to 53. France has 15 out of 50 on order. Spain has received four but has delayed deliveries of the other 23. Britain has received 20 but reduced its order from 25 to 22. Malaysia, the one and so far only non-NATO export customer has received all four it ordered.

At this point, not a lot of potential export customers are inclined to buy the A400M. The American C-17 and C-130J picked up most of the lost or canceled A400M orders. The C-130J was a success even without the A400M-based orders and now has a lot more credibility among potential A400M customers. The C-17 was to have ended production by now but the assembly line was kept open with orders from frustrated A400M customers.

In mid-2016 AirBus managers were forced to go public with the reasons for the shrinking demand for its A400M. Airbus executives admitted that they screwed up and explained that the main problems were with the engines it selected for the A400M. The engines came from an inexperienced supplier and AirBus was late in realizing how bad the problems were. At the time Airbus said there were many lesser problems, mainly with not adding features users needed if A400Ms were to replace existing C-130s and similar transports. It turned out that a lot of these minor problems were not so easy to fix and getting it done took a lot longer.

Meanwhile, France was forced to improvise to get the tactical transport capabilities it needed. In early 2016 France ordered American “Harvest Hawk” kits that can quickly turn American made C-130 transports into gunships. This came after France ordered four C-130J transports in late 2015, mainly because of delays and inadequacies of the A400Ms on order. France already operated 14 of the older C-130H aircraft and was not expected to order the latest J model because France was a major backer, and customer, for the A400M. But the A400M was delayed repeatedly and France only began receiving it in 2013. Then it turned out that the A400M could not yet handle aerial refueling of helicopters or paratroopers jumping from the side doors. To deal with that two of the new French C-130Js are transports and two are tankers. France needs the 70 ton C-130Js to support its special forces and other overseas intervention forces. That is also the reason for a gunship conversion kit as these gunships are particularly useful for special operations troops.

France received two A400Ms in 2013 and four in 2014. After that deliveries were more frequent. It took ten years of development to get the A400M into production, which was about four more years later than originally predicted. The first flight took place in 2011, and the production of prototypes began in 2007. Each A400M was to sell for about $180 million.

The 141 ton A400M has a cruising speed of 780 kilometers per hour, a range of 6,400 kilometers (with a 20 ton load), and normally carries about 30 tons (or 116 paratroopers or slightly more regular passengers). The nearest competitor is the American C-130 and the most common version in service is the C-130H. It has a range of 8,368 kilometers, a top speed of 601 kilometers per hour, and can carry up to 18 tons of cargo, 92 troops, or 64 paratroopers. The latest version, the C-130J, has a top speed of 644 kilometers, 40 percent more range than the C130H, and can carry 20 tons of cargo. The many versions of the C-130 are used by more than 50 countries over the last half-century.

The A400M had an opportunity to give the C-130 a lot of competition, but this opportunity was squandered with the delivery problems. Still, the C-130 does now have the most formidable competitor it has ever faced.

During the Cold War air transports were a very low priority in Europe because, if there was a war, the mighty Red Army of the Soviet Union was going to deliver it and was right next door in East Germany ready to do so. But now all the action is far away, and the military needs air freight for emergencies and other peacekeeping or counter-terrorism missions. The American C-17 can carry up to 84 tons over a longer distance but the advantage of the smaller C-130 and A400M is the ability to operate from shorter unpaved runways, which makes them less dependent on existing infrastructure. This is useful for disaster relief and peacekeeping as well. But first, the A400M has to match the C-130's features for these missions.

 


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