Despite last week’s news that EADS was withdrawing their Airbus KC-30 aircraft from the US Air Force’s KCX future tanker competition, the company remains in a bullish mood regarding its military prospects in the United States. Domingo Urena, boss of Airbus Military which produces the company’s tankers, told the press on Monday 15th March that the firm could sell up to 500 Airbus A400M turboprop airlifters; 210 of which could be sold to US military customers.
Breathless optimism? Perhaps. The troubles of the A400M, which has now begun flight testing at Airbus’s manufacturing centre at Blagnac Airport in Toulouse, France, are well documented. Talk of customers beyond the airlifters’ partner nations (Germany, France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Belgium) may seem a tad premature, particularly given South Africa’s cancellation last year of the eight aircraft it had originally intended to buy.
That said, the A400M could fill a niche for countries wanting a large airlifter but lacking the circa US$200 million cash for a Boeing C-17 Globemaster freighter. While the A400M has a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of 141,000 kg (310,852 lb) compared to the 265,352 kg (585,001 lbs) MTOW of the C-17, the Airbus’s unit cost is predicted to be in the region of US$80 million. Although to paraphrase the financial world’s favourite disclaimer, ‘values can go up as well as down’.
Another factor may also play in Airbus’s favour. Boeing’s C-17 production line in Long Beach California is slated to close in around 2012, according to a February report in the Los Angeles Times; exactly the time when Airbus hopes to be looking towards full-scale production of the A400M. However, additional C-17 orders may extend the life of the plant, although by how much is unknown.
Should C-17 production end by 2014/15 at the latest, the A400M could become the only game in town as far as large airlifters are concerned. True, Russian and Ukrainian suppliers offer huge Antonov An-124 freighters, but these are a generation behind the A400M in terms of technological sophistication. Moreover, production of new An-124s is sporadic.
The demise of the C-17 could mean that the US Air Force has little choice but to look at the A400M as a candidate aircraft if, in the future, it finds a requirement for a larger airlifter than its existing Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules, to supplement its C-17 fleet. Mr. Urena’s comments show EADS’s self-imposed exile from the KCX competition may not preclude the firm from selling Airbus’s other military flagship product to the Pentagon in the future. We live in interesting times!
By Thomas Whithington