France is believed to have officially requested pricing and availability data on Boeing's C-17 strategic transport to bridge a capability gap caused by development delays to the Airbus Military A400M.
Defence ministry officials wrote to the US Air Force on 25 March enquiring about a possible future acquisition of three C-17s, says an industry source. It is unclear whether Paris could be interested in options on an interim lease agreement or a direct purchase.
"There is an operational gap for military transport and the French defence ministry is looking forward and studying all the transitional solutions," says a statement released to Flight International by the nation's DGA procurement agency on 2 April. "The C-17 is one of them, but there are several other options and nothing is decided at the moment." It declines to confirm whether formal requests have been submitted for the C-17 (below) or other types.
© US Air Force
While France's confirmation of potential interest in other transport types will come as an encouragement to US suppliers Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the DGA is quick to stress that "the French defence ministry is determined to find a good solution to continue the A400M programme".
The French air force has 50 A400Ms on order, with the service scheduled to take delivery of the programme's first production example no sooner than mid-2012. It had previously expected to field the type from later this year as a replacement for its Dassault-Breguet C160 Transall tactical transports, which entered use from 1965. The service has an active fleet of 53 C160s, according to Flight's MiliCAS database, including two dedicated for electronic intelligence tasks.
The A400M (below) remains the subject of a contractual dispute between EADS-led Airbus Military and its seven launch customers, represented by Europe's OCCAR procurement agency.
EADS on 30 March said that it "remains fully committed to the construction of the A400M", but repeated an earlier assertion that its current fixed-price contract "does not provide the necessary conditions for the successful development of the programme".
The company has urged launch nations Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey and the UK to make use of a three-month moratorium period proposed by OCCAR to attempt to resolve the crisis. This comes after EADS chief executive Louis Gallois recently played down the threat of the partners using a termination clause if the A400M failed to fly by 31 March.
Boeing declines to comment on the reported French request for the C-17, but had named the nation as a possible future customer for the type long before the current turmoil affecting the A400M programme.
The UK has also voiced interest in boosting the size of its six-strong C-17 fleet or in leasing or buying additional Lockheed C-130Js because of the crisis facing its planned introduction of 25 A400Ms. EADS earlier this year suggested that its customers could use a bridging capability with Airbus A330 transports and "other airplanes" to provide airlift services until its delayed model is ready for frontline use.
The C-17 is now in use with the air forces of Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA, while the United Arab Emirates also recently signed to acquire the type. Boeing has also within the last several weeks held major join ceremonies for the first examples on contract for Qatar and a coalition of 12 NATO members and Partnership for Peace countries, not including France.
For more on the A400M and C-17 programmes, see our aircraft profiles
Source: Flight International