Fox and The Grizzly: Will the UK pull out of A400M?
You know a planemaker is serious when they open the factory. When the company wants us kept out, there are all kinds of reasons journalists can't visit aircraft factories. Safety, security, logistics, industrial espionage, air-conditioning, you name it.
And if the customers are six European air forces, then forget it.
So when Airbus invited me to look round their Final Assembly Line in Seville, where the mighty A400M is put together, I pricked up my ears.
I've reported its woes before. The endless delays. The five billion euro overspend. The joys of pan European co-operation. We thought all that was signed and sealed in February when the governments finally agreed a funding formula to bridge the gap and get building.
Yes, the UK Defence Review theoretically includes the £2.5bn order for Europe's new military transport aircraft, but I'd been told not to worry. A400M was safe.
Then I heard that inside the Seville factory, I could interview Peter Scoffham, Vice President of Airbus Military in charge of selling the plane. And the Chief Test Pilot, Ed Strongman.
There was a lovely anecdote from Ed Strongman about the nickname for the plane. Waiting to take off on the plane's first flight, they were asked for a call sign by the tower, and came up with "Grizzly" in a minute or two. Airbus marketing experts had been pondering acceptable names for a year.
Mr Scoffham reeled off Grizzly's performance stats like a boy with a pack of Top Trumps.
- Load : 37 tonnes ( 18 more than a Hercules)
- Range: 3,450 nautical miles carrying 20 tonnes, (1,850 more than a Hercules)
- No of fully armed Paras it can fly : 116 (54 more than a Hercules).
I've been a journalist for over 20 years, and I can tell a sales pitch when I smell one. But who watches my reports and then buys an A400M? Points West has a third of a million viewers, and none of them, to my knowledge, has £100m and a taste for huge tactical and strategic airlifters.
Except one, perhaps.
Dr Liam Fox, MP for North Somerset. The man running the defence review.
"A400M is absolutely up for discussion," says Alex Ashbourne-Walmsley, defence analyst and Associate Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). "Nothing is off limits, and there are plenty at the MoD who want to kill the A400M project now."
"We must act ruthlessly," Dr Fox told RUSI in June, "and without sentiment. It is inevitable that there will be the perception of winners and losers as we go through this process."
Now Airbus is a huge European company, and it takes media relations very seriously. In advance of the Fairford Air Tattoo, where A400M will make its UK debut, and the Farnborough Air Show, where it will be displayed to the world's defence community, Airbus has a duty to explain its programme. Billions of Euros are being spent on it by the six European governments buying the aircraft.
But if the deal was done, if no-one was talking of pulling out, would they need to sell the aircraft so hard?
Peter Scoffham is a very affable, very experienced marketeer. He showed us around the factory, answered every conceivable question, and played a straight bat on the politics. A reporter wondered if Airbus Military could survive if the UK pulled out. "You'll have to ask the Ministry of Defence about the UK's plans," he smiled, and repeated some of the A400M's impressive vital statistics.
Most of the attack on the plane has been that it is just too pricey for these cash-strapped times. Yes, it can fly lower and slower than any other tactical airlifter, or for that matter higher and faster. Yes it can carry more. And those propellors can take a direct hit a without flinching. But for the same money, you can have two or maybe three Hercules.
I say "you", but of course that's only right if you are the Defence Secretary. Airbus, I am quite sure, are making their case very directly and very discreetly. But here's the big problem with the Defence Review for Airbus. The A400M is not in service yet, so scrapping it would be easier than, say, axing a regiment or an aircraft carrier.
That, perhaps, is why the company is so keen that the British public understands what a formidable aircraft the Grizzly is. Airbus need people to know what we might miss, if Dr Fox scraps it. And Peter Scoffham knows how to fight a public battle.
Roadside bombs have become the scourge of Afghanistan. It seems almost daily on BBC Points West that we bear sad news about casualties in 40 Commando from Taunton, fightin in Helmand. On the ground, the response is to add more armour to the troop carriers and Landrovers that carry our soldiers. But this makes them heavier.
In fact, they are now so heavy that an Armoured Personnel Carrier has gone above 20 tonnes, too heavy for a Hercules. But the A400M could lift one, and plenty of men and ammo to fight in it, and land right where it's needed.
Only the Grizzly can protect our men in Helmand, runs the message.
The other argument is about earthquakes, famines, tsunamis. Grizzly can fly over a hundred wounded patients with 25 medics and all their gear out of rough airstrip. Food, medicines, tents and blankets can be dropped more safely by flying lower and slower than ever before.
"But if you're lying under a collapsed hotel after an earthquake, you don't want food or even water first," says Mr Scoffham. "You want someone to lift the hotel off you. And this plane can carry a 25 tonne crane, and land right next to the crumbled city. The crane can roll down the ramp and get lifting." Boeing's C17 Globemasters, of course, will have to wait until the airport has been cleared and its runway patched before they can get in.
It's all powerful stuff. But ironically, it may not be the deal-clincher. I'm told that the best case for the Grizzly is actually that it is too small a budget to deliver the necessary savings.
Yes, £2.5bn is not enough. Dr Fox needs deeper cuts, to deliver year on year savings in the MoD's annual budget of £37bn. And he needs to carry on fighting in Afghanistan, or places like it. Analysts tell me he may reduce the order from 22 planes, perhaps, to show that the pain is being evenly distributed. But the RAF will get their new, Filton-made, wings.
Huge as the Grizzly is, it might be just small enough to escape the Fox this time.