On a Wing and a Prayer
Europe's new military transport aircraft is finally flying -- but that shouldn't be a cause for celebration.
Europe is in a celebratory mood: Its multibillion-dollar transport aircraft, in development for 15 years, can fly! Commentators across the continent have hailed last week’s successful maiden flight as the milestone that could save the troubled program. But despite all the excitement, the A400M’s future was secured long before it took off. Although the final word has not yet been spoken, several months earlier Europe sent the signal that it would bail out the program. And it’s for reasons that should not be cause for celebration.
In July, European governments had the chance to opt out and get their money back. The aircraft’s manufacturer, Airbus, had been in violation of several contract provisions. Although the first planes should have been delivered this year, the aircraft had not even entered the lengthy flight-testing process. Rather, it gradually became clear that the A400M would be delayed at least three to four years. This delay meant serious trouble for most European states, as it would exacerbate existing shortfalls in strategic and tactical airlift capabilities.
Actual delivery dates were not the only source of concern. Questions about the A400M’s performance also surfaced. Airbus has already announced that the plane isn’t able to carry out some navigational and low-level flight maneuvers. More importantly, during the development phase, the aircraft was considerably heavier than expected. According to a French Senate report, the aircraft weighed 12 tons more than projected, a level of extra weight that would shorten range, reduce payload, and lengthen takeoff.
Worse yet, in addition to lateness and questions about performance, the aircraft’s cost was spiraling out of control. The $30 billion program had already experienced a cost overrun of nearly $11 billion, with a potential risk of $4.5 billion more to come. Of these, Airbus is trying to unload $7.3 billion on its customers by renegotiating the agreed-upon price. This cost is on top of whatever customers are already paying for the interim solutions they’ve had to come up with while they wait for the aircraft to be delivered.
Despite this, European customers decided not to walk away from the program. Instead, they agreed to enter renegotiations with Airbus, without seriously considering a Plan B. The signal was clear: The troubled program would be bailed out.
Why would European governments be willing to drop the delivery schedule and performance targets, and pay substantially more? The logic of Europe’s continuing support for the program seems hard to follow — especially at a time of intense budgetary pressures, increased operational needs, and the availability of viable alternatives.
The explanation is simple but troubling. The A400M program was always meant to provide more than airlift capability. By opting for a European solution, governments hoped to strengthen an independent European aerospace and defense industry and promote defense cooperation. The A400M, Europe reasoned, would allow it to capture a share of the defense market, create thousands of jobs, and compete with the United States. The choice unapologetically served political ends as much as military ones. In other words, the A400M was far more than just an aircraft.
As the program ran into trouble, the option of dropping it was never credibly on the table. No alternative was ever crafted. It was instead simply accepted that such a step would weaken a European industrial champion and more broadly undermine the effort to create a joint European industry. This message was not lost on the manufacturer, which understood that the order would not be called back no matter what.
Some may argue that this sort of protectionism is the price of Europe’s independence. This view is flawed. Rather, such complacency undercuts the very political objectives Europe had set out to achieve.
Limited capabilities already restrain Europe’s ability to undertake military operations, a situation further exacerbated by growing budgetary constraints. Instead of increasing European military capability and independence, the A400M program’s delivery delays and cost overruns have already negatively affected both. The result is less flexibility and autonomy for European militaries, which should be of concern not only to Europe but its allies across the world.
Furthermore, by fostering inefficiencies, European governments’ unequivocal support of the A400M undermines the long-term prospects of the industry they hope to promote. Europe’s defense market is in fact too small, which makes its defense industry heavily dependent on exports. With fast-climbing costs, reduced capability, and delayed delivery, the export prospects of the A400M are slim. South Africa’s recent exit from the A400M program, leaving current exports to only four aircraft, highlights this fact. This will also mean that the jobs European governments tried to protect will be jeopardized in the long run.
The problems encountered by the A400M are unfortunately not an isolated case. The previous flagship program of European defense collaboration, the Eurofighter Typhoon, has been haunted by similar problems; neither delivered on its promise to produce capable, cost-efficient, and globally competitive products.
It does not have to be this way, however. All collaborative defense projects have important political dimensions, but this doesn’t mean they should be pursued at all cost. European defense collaboration has the potential to deliver excellent and globally competitive products. To achieve this, however, Europe must draw the right lessons from this experience. First, no programs, or companies, should be too big to fail. Second, alternatives should always remain credibly on the table. Third, and finally, European defense industries should only be propped up when they deliver. Unless Europe takes these lessons seriously, the next European defense collaboration projects will produce the same results, and Europe will continue to lose more than it gains.