Defence ministers from the A400M partner nations will meet in Nice, France on 24 July, where they will make a potentially crucial decision on the future of Airbus Military's troubled airlifter.

The A400M's failure to fly has placed the project at risk of cancellation since late March, and partner nations Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK in June agreed a one-month extension to a rolling moratorium period to agree its fate.

EADS-led Airbus Military has continued development work on the A400M since the last agreement was reached, and has previously said that it will continue to do so until the end of this year. This should allow its customers time to agree a new contract for their combined 180 transports via Europe's OCCAR procurement agency, it says.

© Airbus Military

The late availability of the Europrop International (EPI) TP400-D6 engine has been a key area of attention since Airbus Military rolled out its first A400M in June 2008, and the project has experienced mixed fortunes since last month's Paris air show.

EPI member MTU Aero Engines delivered a new version of the propulsion system's full-authority digital engine control software in late June as planned, with this now undergoing test using an "iron bird" facility in Toulouse, France. Airbus Military says the software will be further updated "by the end of the summer", and delivered for flight test late this year. First flight of the A400M is expected between "the end of the year and the start of 2010", it says.

 TP400 testbed
© Airbus Military

But risk-reduction activities using a modified Lockheed Martin C-130 testbed (above) in the UK have failed to add to a pre-Paris total of 12 flights and 35 flight hours; some 15h short of a planned programme total which EPI officials had expected to conclude by mid-July. However, Airbus Military notes that additional testing has been performed since the show using some of the TP400 programme's six ground-test engines.

The UK has been the most vocal of the partner nations throughout the A400M's development difficulties, with its Ministry of Defence having stated that it is not willing to spend additional money above its fixed-price deal for 25 aircraft.

But industry sources say that with future wing work on Airbus's A350 XWB and future narrowbody products at stake in the UK, the UK government is unlikely to walk away from the A400M. Withdrawing from the project would also cause a new budget crisis, they add, as the MoD would have to somehow find the money to acquire additional Boeing C-17s and Lockheed C-130Js instead.

Source: Flight International