Bonn's high risk An-70 strategy threatens UK FLA participation

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Douglas Barrie/LONDON Andrzej Jeziorski/MUNICH

German brinksmanship over pre-launch activities on the European Future Large Aircraft (FLA) is threatening to end UK participation in the tactical transport programme.

Sources within the FLA industry partners are warning that unless pre-launch activities gets under way within the next couple of months, then the last "small window of opportunity" to keep the UKMinistry of Defence and Royal Air Force even partially on board the project will be lost.

The pre-launch activities were due to begin in early 1997, but have been repeatedly delayed. In addition, Airbus Military Company, the present concern due to run the programme, has yet to be established.

Industry attempts to breathe life into the pre-launch activities are being stymied by German defence minister Volker Rühe's championing of the Antonov An-70 as the basis for an FLA airframe. Rühe is insisting that the An-70 be considered as the basis for the FLA.

A meeting to discuss the An-70 as an FLA candidate is to be held in Moscow on 9 March, with defence and industry officials in attendance.

The German defence ministry is also refusing to provide Daimler- Benz Aerospace (Dasa) with any funding for the pre-launch activities. Dasa wants the Government to fund its share of the FLA, but one Bonn sources says: " There's no money in the defence budget and the ministryisn't playing ball".

The RAF's second tranche of Lockheed Martin C-130Ks is due to be replaced in 2004-5. With the delays in beginning the pre-launch activities, however, the FLA's chances of getting even close to the RAF date appear thin.

While the wrangling over FLA continues, the RAF, and the UK Ministry of Defence, are becoming increasingly focused on acquiring a strategic transport. British Aerospace, an FLA partner company, is in talks with Boeing over a potential lease of the C-17 Globemaster III for the RAF, while operator HeavyLift has also submitted a C-17 proposal to UK MoD.

The HeavyLift offer is based on three aircraft being introduced into the RAF inventory, with a further three to be used by HeavyLift, but crewed by RAF reservists.

An RAF acquisition of the C-17 would have an impact on the number of aircraft required to replace its remaining C-130Ks. The UK's proposed FLA requirement is 45 aircraft, a figure already viewed with scepticism by some observers, and the introduction of the C-17 would drive this down further.