The A400M Airlifter is in Trouble. How much trouble?

It was a tempting deal for European nations: an airlifter with the capability of the C-17 for the operating cost of the old standby, the 1950s-vintage C-130 Hercules. Plus, it would be all-European and not subject to the winds and williwaws of American politics and foreign policy, which tend to strike Europeans as puzzling at best, and bat-guano crazy at times.

.

Airbus Industrie was going to do this by applying all its advanced processes and technologies from its airline experience to the A400M Atlas. Nations with fleets of aging C-130s and Transall C-160s rushed to sign up, and planned their airplane retirements for the arrival of the new cargo lifter in 2011.

They’re still waiting. What went wrong? France24:

Originally planned for 2011, the plane’s launch was delayed until 2013.

The A400M’s delivery has also run into substantial delays due to a string of technical problems and different requests from the governments.

An A400M plane crashed during a test in May 2015 near Seville in Spain, killing four of the six people on board and seriously injuring the two others.

And new faults were discovered in the propellor engines last year.

They’re actually turboprops, of course.

Airbus A400M Compared to the two US competitors. Wall Street Journal graphic.

On Wednesday, Airbus said its profits nosedived in 2016 due to charges related to problems with the plane.

Speaking to reporters when the group announced the results, [Airbus CEO Tom] Enders said that Airbus needed “the cooperation of clients… to push the programme forward and end the haemorrhaging.”

It turns out, what Tom is gathering the customers for next month in Madrid is a bit of the old hand-out begging: Airbus is being crucified, financially speaking, by penalty clauses in the A400M contracts, and he wants the buyers to waive further penalties.

Which certainly suggests we haven’t seen the end of delays.

Airbus delivered 17 A400M in 2016, compared with 11 in 2015 and has delivered two of the military transport planes so far this year.

But the Germans alone were counting on 12 planes in 2016, and didn’t get them all.

Who pledged to buy A400Ms? (The grounding from a 2015 test-flight accident was long ago lifted).

Still, the project, after a half-decade of delays and billions over budget, is at least delivering airplanes, and they can take off, land, navigate, and haul cargo. So far, the crews love and trust the new ship.

That’s all fine and good, but as is common for new airplanes with a lot of new engineering, they’re not being delivered with all capabilities. For example, they can’t air-deliver paratroops or cargo, yet. The promised self-defense system (anti-missile countermeasures) is still a prototype. A helicopter air-refueling package hasn’t shipped, forcing France to go shopping for C-130s to support special operations and SAR helicopters, or forego the benefits of substantial investment in refueling systems on the receiving side.

The delays have cost Germany alone €300 million, by requiring a life-extension for its Transalls, some of which are fifty years old.

Thomas Wiegold of AugenGeradeaus.net calls it “a question of perspective,” (Awful German Language warning, although quotes from English sources remain in English). Wiegold notes that while the Luftwaffe and therefore the German MOD is unhappy with the plane, the RAF and therefore the UK MOD are well pleased by it. (The RAF also operates Hercules and C-17 cargo aircraft).

Airbus, for their part, is hinting that buyers must be prepared for either more cost overruns or more delays, because “Airbus is too important to Europe.” Ender is making the argument, implicitly, that Airbus now is too big to fail. The Germans, for their part, seem to be sticking to the contract, saying in effect, “This is what you signed, live up to it. Or compensate us for the costs your failure to perform has imposed on us.”

The latest problem relating to cracks in combustion chambers of the engines is just one more setback, but setbacks, delays and overruns are the norm and not some rare exception, in extreme engineering tasks like this.

We’re reminded of the one engineering manager at North American Aviation who, on military or NASA contracts, always came in on time and on budget. Company executive Tex Johnston (the former Boeing test pilot who famously rolled the KC-135/B707 prototype during a public demonstration), asked the prodigy how he managed it, when everyone else always underestimated.

“Well, I get my three best engineers to make an estimate.”

“Ah, and then you average them!”

“No, sir. Then I add them up.”

And that’s how it goes in cutting-edge engineering. Especially with a demanding customer who’s spending Other People’s Money (like a single MOD, let alone a bunch of them).

35 thoughts on “The A400M Airlifter is in Trouble. How much trouble?

  1. HORSE GUNNER

    QUALIFICATIONS: NO/ZERO/NIL SF/SO training or experience, but 51 months Jump Status in The 82d Airborne Division, starting in the Carter-era ‘Hollow Army”.
    COMMENTS: RE: C-160 TRANSALL. Did anyone consider “stretching” the fuselage of C-160 to increase cargo capacity (when combined with better engines)? This is what RAF did with their C-130Ks in early 1980s.
    The initial C-130K/C1 fuselage was lengthened 5-6 meters by Lockheed at their plant outside Atlanta.
    The original fuselage was cut ahead of the wings, and a 2-3 meter section added; next, the fuselage was cut behind the wings and another 2-3 meter section was added. And engines and avionics were upgraded.
    The resulting C-130K/C3 could jump (IIRC) 90 Paratroopers (45 per Jump Door) vice 64 Paratroopers for C-130K/C1 (and US C-130E and US C-130H). Also, three(3) standard pallets, instead of 2 pallets.

    1. Ward Hopper

      I think that’s basically a C-141. The A400M is remarkably similar to a pre-stretch C-141A with turboprop engines.

      Most of the problems involve the engines, which they insisted in making do novo in Europe because a Canadian-built P&W wouldn’t have worked politically.

      1. Sommerbiwak

        No. Just no. The Starlifter and the A400M have nothing in common apart from being both four engine aeroplanes. The A400M is mostly built from synthetics, carbon fibres and such whereas the C-141 is built from aluminium mostly. Also the dimensions, the interiour diameter especially is much much bigger in the A400M.

        You bare right with the engine. This turbo prop treads jew grounds in many ways and just like the rest of the plane is being built by a firm that has never done this before. Air us has never built a shoulder decker plane. Never built a military freighter. Same for the members of EPI consortium who have never built a turboprop engine this size and power.

        But then the C-130 A also has had lots of problems. Or the first C-160 etc. But the cuddly relationship and the situation that there is no real alternative on the market binds the customers and Airbus together.

        Actually France and Germany are going to operate around a dozen Hercules to replace the aging C-160 and close the gap until all A400M are delivered. Oh the irony considering that the Transall is about ten years younger than the Herc, but nothing else is on the market available right now. Well done France and Germany letting the Transall rot and not invest in its development and procure newer variants of it.

    2. Hognose Post author

      My friend, your disclaimer is not needed. You are among your own kind here; SF are paratroopers with a different mission; we have great respect for the infantry men, other combat arms, and support soldiers in Division.

  2. SiGraybeard

    The A400 carries less than half the amount of cargo of a C17 but costs only 15% less? Seems like a no-brainer based on that. Yeah, I know lifetime costs add to that, and have got to be considered before they can decide, but the A400 is starting in a deep hole.

    Even compared to the C130J, it doesn’t seem like a fantastic deal. Carries twice the volume, about 60% more by weight, but still costs 2.5x more.

    1. Chris

      I was thinking the exact same thing. For the price of one A400 they could buy three C-130Js and have spare change for parts, training, fuel, etc. It would be interesting to see lifetime costs on each aircraft for maintenance, fuel, etc.

      1. Kirk

        You’re completely confusing the intent of this project; it is not to provide effective, timely, and cost-rational air transport for European military forces. Instead, it is a jobs program for the various aviation companies in Europe, and the money spent is meant to provide jobs and employment for the aviation industry first, and an aircraft second. So long as the employees have jobs, the mission is achieved. Being able to subsidize Airbus to compete with Boeing is far more important than actually getting militarily useful flying aircraft out of it all. Hell, look at the A-380 program for another example of aviation industry irrationality–I’d love to know what the real numbers are on that deal, and whether or not they’re ever going to even come close to getting their money out of the program.

        Stop looking at European defense as being intended to defend Europe against anything. That’s what the Americans are for, in the final analysis. The entirety of the European defense effort is a jobs program, pure and simple, and we’ve been enabling their politicians to get away with it for decades.

        Kindest thing the US could do? Tell Europe to fuck off, and go back to minding our own business. They’ve been able to live in la-la land since ’45 or so, and it shows. It’s only gotten exponentially worse since ’89, when the Wall came down, and the nasty, nasty Soviets folded their tents and went home.

        Without the US footing the bill, none of the Europeans would have been able to afford the corrosive socialism they’ve taken up, and they’d all be a bit healthier. As it is, I sometimes suspect we did this to them deliberately, and are about to throw them to the wolves, now that their cultures and governments have gotten so ennervated that they’re no longer capable of defending themselves. Call it payback for what they did to world civilization in WWI and WWII, I guess. Either way, what’s going on right now is just a horribly prolonged suicide by the entirety of European civilization. What comes after the Islamo-African wave rolls over them? You tell me, but it ain’t going to be anywhere near as civilized or successful. They’re effectively replacing a population with an average IQ of 110 with a population that has one closer to 60 or 80; I don’t see them running high-quality machine tool production over the long haul.

        The US and China are probably going to be the only real civilized regions of the world, in a few generations, in any long-term sense of the word. Europe doesn’t seem to be able to defend itself in any effective way, and the likely long-term effects of what is going on will leave the whole mess in either a state of continuous warfare, or a genocide of one or more groups. Demographically? It’s not looking good for the ethnic Euros. Look at the birth rate of the various ethnic European groups in their home countries–Germany is hovering around something like 1.14, the last time I looked. That’s less than half of replacement rate, and only God and the demographers really know how many of those babies are actually German, genetically.

        German emigre I know has a really dark view of the whole thing–Last time he went over and came back, he said something to the effect that if anyone wanted to see the great sites of European civilization, they’d better do it within the next 15-20 years, because they were likely to wind up like Petra after that point–Blown the fuck up by barbarians. I guess he’s really pissed at his family, because of how they’ve raised his nieces over there, and what kind of situation they’re being left to live in. From what he’s told me, the balance in his hometown is now about fifty-fifty German and “immigrant”, with most of the migrants unemployed. He’s really not at all happy that most of the places where he went in his youth are now effectively off-limits to him, because they’ve been taken over by the migrants.

        Dude is really depressing to talk to, to be honest.

        1. gebrauchshund

          Petra (in Jordan) is still intact and well preserved. I think you’re probably thinking of the Bamiyan buddhas in Afganistan, which were indeed blowed the fuck up.

          1. Hognose Post author

            Perhaps he was thinking of Palmyra, a site that rivaled Petra in some of its surviving architectural beauty, before it was Improved Mohammedan Style.

          2. Kirk

            Yeah, I was thinking Palmyra, and fat-fingered Petra.

            No matter–Give it time, and that post will be correct. Add a bit more time, and you can include cities like Paris, Cologne, and other historically significant European sites.

            I do wonder whether Notre Dame will be converted over to a mosque, or simply blown up? I suppose it will depend on the whims of the new owners…

        2. Y.

          The US and China are probably going to be the only real civilized regions of the world, in a few generations, in any long-term sense of the word.

          Yes, especially once US steps in it, once again, to aid poor Muslims guerrillas getting their just desserts – just like in Kosovo.

          1. Kirk

            Remember, the ass that did that was one of your elite-approved fellow-travelers, a man lauded all over Europe for his sensitivity and good intentions. Not to mention, he did it partially at the urging of all the right-thinking Euro elites, so… Yeah. Y’all got precisely what you asked for.

            Same with the feckless Obama foreign policy geniuses. Libya was entered into with the full connivance and complicity of the Euro elites, for whatever idiotic reasoning they followed.

            It astonishes me that the average working person in Europe universally blames the US for all this shit, when their own leaders are the ones who have embarked on all these population and electorate replacement programs, all performed without so much as a by-your-leave plebiscite. And, because they’ve gone sleepwalking off the cliff behind these one-world morons, that’s somebody else’s fault.

            Ah, well… On the bright side, we’ve managed to end colonialism, a project the unelected elites here in the US have been working on for generations. I don’t think they will like the consequences, though.

          2. Kirk

            True, that.

            Only difference was, when the Euros did colonialism, back in the day, they brought along a certain amount of civilization with it. For examples, see “suttee”, and John Napier for positive examples, and the Belgian Congo for negative ones. I doubt those returning the favor on this turn of the wheel will be doing anything quite as uplifting as Napier did. Although, to be honest, the Belgians kinda do deserve a bit of return for all that King Leopold got up to on his watch.

            I suppose it is kind of karmic; although, the victims this time ’round won’t be the ones responsible for the bad things that were done back in the old days. They’re still going to pay the price, and then the merry-go-round of history will swing again, and the shoe will go back on the other foot.

            There are times when I really, really loathe other human beings.

        3. Daniel

          The perfect example of the failure of Europe to tend to its own is the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. If ever, Europe was ripe to take care of their own back yard….but no….Bill Clinton had to send US Airpower on a European Airshow circuit before cutting all funding.

  3. Squid

    Airplane making is hard. Really hard. People want the shiny but are then shocked by the price tag.

    Every new aircraft goes through a stage where it is finally together and the team is finding out what needs to be changed and the press starts the chant “Look how horrible this is, and expensive, and now there are cracks in the …, and the schedule is delayed!” Recent examples: V-22, Airbus 380, Boeing 787. Orbital and SpaceX seem to have avoided the pattern but they have much more control over design AND requirements.

    Program management always insists on highly optimistic budgets and schedules. It seems to be based on the theory that if you give a contractor a ceiling they will spend to it even if they don’t really need to. I know that if I’m given extra time it generally gets used.

    1. bloke_from_ohio

      The solution is to stop asking for shiny and keep things simpler in your requirements. A good heaping helping of expectation management would go a long way.

      Secondly, building golden chariots is great in peace time. But, the more complex a system is, the harder it will be to make and the longer it will take to build/repair. This matters if you are trying to either do a surge type build up or replace/repair losses.

      Quantity is a quality in and of itself.

  4. Ti

    You guys have great comments. HORSEGUNNER very interesting, thanks for sharing. That C-160 reminds me of the Fairchild Provider C-123, ala C-123 “upgraded to C-160” type technologies.

    The new POTUS will be interesting in what kind of pgm mgmt. he pushes, and how that applies to Mr. Hognose’s last paragraph.

  5. Greg

    If you think the A400M is bad, check out the Australian experience with these Airbus problem children:

    Tiger ARH (think Apache-lite):
    https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/management-tiger-armed-reconnaissance-helicopter-project-air-87

    https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/tiger-armys-armed-reconnaissance-helicopter

    And the MRH90 (NH90 – Blackhawk replacement):

    https://www.anao.gov.au/work/performance-audit/multi-role-helicopter-program

    The takeaway: never buy European military aircraft.

  6. Running Man

    Good comment on estimating development jobs. Triple the engineering estimate. Forgot to also double their schedule estimate. Most program failures are management / business development being aggressive to win the job. Then, predictably, it turns into a red program (over budget and behind schedule). What follows is more project management and CAM training, obviously the teams just can’t execute and manage properly. The big contractors have it down to a science.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Then, they add engineers to try to catch up, so more time is tied up in 2-hour meetings with 26 people instead of 3 minutes with 3 people, and they’re puzzled as monkeys when the project falls further behind….

  7. Jim Scrummy

    Hmmm, customers making a manufacturer live up to a contract? What an interesting concept, contract law. Gee, everytime I read the interwebz (who reads the fishwrappers these days?), LockMart get’s performance bonuses for the F-35, even though LockMart doesn’t merit the bonus. All the USAF F-35 acquisition burocrats are eyeing their landing spot at retirement… They are all mini-Darleen Druyan’s, but more discreet.

    1. Kirk

      Military contracting was ever thus. Some of the scandals surrounding the Venetian contracts to run their dockyards would look super-familiar to anyone following modern procurement scandals, and you can find similar issues with Roman arsenal work.

      From history, I think we can safely conclude that war has always been something of a racket.

  8. Keith

    I was going to post something…but then Kirk you da man! Instead I offer this, if you haven’t, read “Caliphate” by Tom Kratman.

    Keep your powder dry and your faith in God.

    1. Kirk

      No, I’m the cynical realist.

      Hopefully, they manage to pull something out of their asses, but I’m really not confident that they will. Socialism is a disease process, and we’re probably too far along to really be able to do much more than provide palliative care until the final death-rattle comes. What we’re observing right now is civilizational Cheyne-Stokes breathing, and it’s only a question of time until the end.

      They can’t even articulate a justification/reason to defend themselves, or the civilization they’ve built up–Which means they’re pretty much gone, in terms of recoverability. Those German chicks holding up signs welcoming the refugees? Odds are, were those foolish women transported back to 1945, they’d have been likely doing the same thing for the Red Army, and suffering the same fate as their stay-behind Communist great-grandmothers did, that waited to be “liberated” by the Soviets. Geniuses, all.

      And, to a degree? We’ve created this situation, by enabling it. Had we not provided the enveloping grace of the NATO alliance, the Euros would have had to grow up and provide for themselves all these years.

      1. Y.

        You are not a realist if you believe that distillation of mass foolishness is wisdom.

    2. RT

      Caliphate and the rest of the series should practically be required reading.

      As should be the freehold series.

      While you’re at it you should take the time to read Ringo’s legacy of the aldenata series.

      Makers by Corey Doctorow (free for download in like six formats on his site BTW)

      Snow Crash & the Diamond age

      I grew up reading these things, and I have to say that it’s a major part of why I don’t find the future we see developing at all surprising, disappointing yes but never a surprise!!

      1. Hognose Post author

        Even Bill Forstchen, who got his NYT bestsellers with a grim trilogy of life (and mostly, death) after a crushing EMP attack, has a positive novel about a space elevator. Seriously, spend a week hanging around Mojave… there are geniuses working for food there, like the early days of Silicon Valley.

  9. Wheelsee

    The 3x rule isn’t just for military/engineering. In healthcare, a specialist I worked with wanted to remodel his clinic. The contractor came in and gave an estimate as well as time to finish. After work began, the specialist told me it would take 3x as long as stated (this was the 1st time I had heard of this). While I was not privy to the finances, I do remember the completion date being right at 3x the original stated. And the specialist just smiled at me.

    1. Kirk

      As a contractor, I have to defend the trade–An awful lot of “contract slippage” comes from the customer not having a damn clue what they want, or the effect of them making these “minor little changes”.

      It is a rare person who can look at a plan on a piece of paper and then visualize what it’s going to look like on completion. Some contractors have trouble with that, but when the customer has approved the plans, and you’re a third of the way into completing them… And, the customer comes out to inspect the job, and realizes that they didn’t understand the plans, and now the project isn’t going to look like what they visualized… Oy. And, Vey…

      As well, timely choices on things like finishes, appliances, and fixtures…? Don’t make them when you’re supposed to, and what happens next? You find that the specific sconce that you simply must have in your dream home isn’t available down at the local supply house, and is, indeed, backordered to China, to appear in six to eight weeks, and since the painter can’t match the shade you want with the fixture…

      Lord, save me from people like that. We were subcontracting framing and finish on a job, and the poor guy who was the general nearly lost his mind because the client couldn’t make a decision, and kept wanting change orders, while simultaneously failing to comprehend that the contract which said “changes mean time to completion changes” was actually for real. End of the contract, they’d spread the sumbitch out over an additional six months, and had the temerity to sue over the time-overrun, when the general contractor had been extremely generous in not charging them for each and every change order they’d made. At the arbitration, the lawyers took one look at the evidence submitted, looked over at the client, and basically said “You really, really don’t want to do this… Because, by the terms of this contract, you actually owe another $200,000.00 in penalties and fees, and we’d actually award them if he asked us to…”.

      You don’t see that very often. Sometimes a bad contract is as much the fault of the client as it is the contractor…

Comments are closed.