I meant to post this the other day, but a piece in the Wall Street Journal is probably worth looking at: Airbus’s Military Project Misfires. Sorry, but the link is subscription only.
At issue is the A400M, a four-engine turboprop military transport and tanker, and things aren’t going terribly well:
When Airbus started work on the A400M almost a decade ago, it promised to apply its expertise in handling the cost-obsessed customers and brutal competition of commercial aviation to the world of defense procurement. Instead, Airbus stumbled on problems that have long dogged military contractors: politics, technology and weak project management.
The A400M is Europe’s bid to create an all-purpose airlifter that countries around the world badly need. The four-engine propeller plane, which can carry troops, equipment or humanitarian aid, fills a big gap between two existing U.S. planes: Lockheed Martin Corp.’s smaller C-130 and Boeing Co.’s much larger, jet-powered C-17. Goldman Sachs estimated in a research report in September that the A400M could grab around one-third of the market for military-transport planes over the next 20 years, translating into orders for some 500 planes valued at as much as $60 billion.
But Airbus’s expertise in commercial jets wasn’t so easy to transfer to defense contracting, Mr. Ring conceded. “The logic was wrong,” he said, because the engines and military systems “were more complex than expected.”
The numbers on the plane look good, but like most military systems, particularly those adapted from commercial platforms, making those numbers work in the real world has been a struggle.
An especially thorny issue has been the engines for the plane. Initially, an engine based on an existing Pratt & Whitney design was planned, but when some European customers said they’d only buy the A400M if it used a European engine the decision was made to use a totally new design, the TP400 by Europrop.
When the first test flights of the A400M are made this summer, the engine probably won’t be certified.
Military programs, usually worth bazillions of dollars, are always caught up in this sort of thing. It’s not good, and it sure would be nice if a couple of head-busters would make a major effort to clean things up a bit, but it’s not unusual at all. Sadly.
This is all worth pointing out, though, because the US Air Force is shortly going to be deciding on a new tanker, and the two competitors are the KC-767 by Boeing and the KC-30 by EADS, of which Airbus is a major part. A major argument being made against the Boeing planes is that Boeing has a sordid history when it comes to this program and that they’ve had a lot of issues getting their plane, based on the 767 commercial airliner, to perform up to design specs.
Looking at Airbus’s issues with the A400M should help illustrate that Boeing isn’t the only one with this sort of problem. Boeing isn’t the only supplier who exists withing a broken military procurement system. Does this clear Boeing to do whatever it wants to do? Of course it doesn’t. But I’ve said before that, all things being equal (or even close to equal), going with Boeing is probably a better decision. As a taxpayer, I’m certainly willing to pay a little more for a Boeing, though I am not unaware of the fact that the “Buy American” argument has lost a lot of power in this age of globalization and internationalization and free trade. Plus, as I pointed out last week, EADS promises to do much of the KC-30 work in the US if their plane is chosen.
If the KC-30 is truly the better plane and the better deal, then it’s the right choice. But don’t choose it simply because Boeing has issues while conveniently ignoring the fact that Airbus has issues of its own. And, even in this age of globalization, don’t forget that it’s a questionable practice (at best) to outsource your defense work. Blackfive asked Can We Risk Allowing Airbus to Build our Air Fleets? a couple of days back.
It may surprise some to learn just how vital our fleet of tankers is. In today’s war, in fact, we are far more dependent upon our tankers than on our jet fighters. Even in a “big war” scenario, the F-types are going to need the flying gas stations to get to and stay in the fight. Unglamorous they may be, but they are crucial to our military.
May the best plane win.