Will the world buy the new A400M military plane?

Dave Harvey has a look at the new A400M military plane

Europe's new military transport plane will be seen in British skies for the first time this weekend when it flies in to this year's Royal International Air Tattoo, at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire.

It is years late and billions of euros over budget, and now the British Government is again reviewing whether it can afford to buy it.

Airbus makes the wings at its Filton base near Bristol, employing more than 800 people. Landing gear comes from Messier-Dowty, whose Gloucester factory keeps nearly 1,000 aerospace engineers in work.

But beyond the jobs, this is a prestige project; American transport planes, used to carry soldiers and military equipment and supplies, have ruled the skies since the war, and now Europe is taking them on.

So, will the A400M sell?

"In the first Gulf War it would have been extremely useful, and certainly today in Afghanistan it would help our soldiers enormously," says Peter Scoffham from Airbus.

The vice president of marketing for Airbus Military spent 36 years in the RAF where he flew the Vulcan and took hostile fire over Iraq in a Hercules.

He says his mission is to sell the A400M, or "Grizzly", as its British test pilot has nicknamed it.

Global interest

The plane is already battle-scarred.

It is three years late and at least 5bn euros over budget - or more than double that according to some calculations.

A400M in a hanger The A400M is three years late and is over budget

The RAF were promised delivery last year, but will now have to wait until 2012.

But Mr Scoffham did not fly out of a firefight in the desert by worrying what is behind him. He looks ahead, relentlessly.

"The nations are coming to us, I'm pleased to say," he says, "because they recognise that this plane fills a capability gap which they desperately need."

Some 36 nations have approached him, he claims, from Latin America to South East Asia. In the Gulf, he says, the market is especially keen.

"The Middle Eastern states want to play their part on the world stage especially in humanitarian disaster relief, which was brought into such sharp focus by the earthquakes in Pakistan.

"And this aircraft can bring heavy rescue equipment directly where it is needed, landing on rough runways. No other aircraft can do that."

Uncertain host?

The sales patter is impressive.

More than 100 casualties can be evacuated, with medics. The Grizzly can fly a 27-tonne armoured troop carrier 2,500 nautical miles, and land on the sand.

Fold down the blades, and you can tuck a Chinook helicopter in its hold.

For £100m, you would expect nothing less.

But the deals that deliver sales for Airbus, and keep thousands of planemakers in work across the West Country and beyond, may not hang merely on air show sales talk.

"A lot will depend on Liam Fox," said Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley, associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute, the definitive think tank on defence.

She has been following this programme since it was born.

"If the defence review reduces the UK's order, or pulls out altogether, then foreign sales will be much much harder. Why would you buy a plane when one of the host countries is unsure?"

Better rivals?

Although the UK committed to 22 of the new aircraft, Defence Secretary Liam Fox is now examining the £2.5bn order afresh.

Peter Scoffham from Airbus

Start Quote

You can buy all the Hercs and C17s you like, but they can't do the job. The Hercules can't lift enough weight, the C17 can't land in the rough.”

End Quote Peter Scoffham Airbus

Mrs Ashbourne-Walmsley worries that the A400M has few friends in the corridors of power.

"The Hercules has been in the air for 50 years, it has supporters across Whitehall. This plane is new, and no one is batting for it."

Certainly, the Grizzly has its critics.

Put most simply, you could buy two Hercules C130J planes for the £100m price tag of an A400M. Spend another £50m, and the mighty Boeing C17 Globemaster can fly twice the load twice as far, roughly put.

Versatile plane

The RAF currently has 22 Hercules in its fleet, and six Globemasters. It is a tried and tested formula, which air forces round the world copy.

So why change it?

Peter Scoffham is ready, armour plated smile in place.

"You can buy all the Hercs and C17s you like, but they can't do the job," he says.

"The Hercules can't lift enough weight, the C17 can't land in the rough."

As they watch the Grizzly at the air shows, Mr Scoffham's military clients will then be told about Afghanistan.

"Roadside bombs are a bigger and bigger threat. We're responding by adding more armour to our troop carriers and Land Rovers. But this makes them heavier.

"A typical Armoured Personnel Carrier now weighs in at 25 tonnes - a Hercules just can't lift it."

The statistics bear him out. A Hercules can lift 19 tonnes, the Grizzly 37; Hercules can fly 1,600 nautical miles, a Grizzly with the same weight could go 3,450.

And while Boeing's C17 can fly further and lift more, its jet engines need a full modern runway to take off and land; Grizzly can land on rough desert strips.

In the skies over Fairford and Farnborough, the A400M will doubtless impress.

But the real battle lies in the corridors of power at Whitehall, and in cold financial calculations.

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