French air force chief eyes new tanker deal

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France hopes to proceed to the next stage of an evaluation process involving the Airbus A330-based KC-30 and Boeing KC-767 tankers "as soon as possible", and is closely following the UK's protracted private finance initiative deal with the EADS-led AirTanker consortium as a possible procurement model, says air force chief of staff Gen Stéphane Abrial.

The air force is seeking 15 new aircraft to replace its Boeing 707-based C-135s, but will not have time to put a private finance initiative deal in place for the first three tankers that need replacing in 2011, says Abrial.

"For the first three there is not enough time for a private finance initiative" deal, he says, adding: "2011 is tomorrow - we are almost late already."

But for the remaining 12 aircraft a PFI could be put in place depending on the success of the UK programme, he adds.

The Royal Air Force is to receive 14 A330s under its estimated £13 billion ($26.6 billion), 27-year Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft programme, but EADS has yet to secure funding from financial institutions to launch work on the aircraft.

Speaking to the French aerospace journalists' association AJPAE on 19 November, Abrial also confirmed that the air force will face extra maintenance charges on its C160 Transall fleet if the Airbus Military A400Ms under contract to replace them are delayed further.

The service "can manage with its existing fleet" if EADS sticks to the revised delivery delay of up to one year as recently outlined, but must gradually reduce the pace at which it is using its remaining Transall flight hours to do so, he said. France had originally been scheduled to receive its first of 50 A400Ms in late 2009.

Abrial did not say how much it would cost to carry out the additional maintenance required to keep the ageing Transall aircraft going if the programme is delayed any further.