Germany has dealt the credibility of the European Future Large Aircraft programme a considerable blow by demanding that the Ukrainian Antonov An-70 transport be re-examined as the basis for a collaborative project with Airbus Industrie.
Volker Rühe, the German defence minister, is pushing for the An-70 to be considered, claiming that Airbus has already agreed that this option should be explored. Airbus sources close to the FLA have responded with incredulity to this suggestion.
The FLA policy group released the request for proposals (RFP) to Airbus in September, providing the faltering programme with a badly needed impetus. Rühe's move seriously threatens to undermine this.
The German defence ministry confirms that the the possibility of joint production of a military transport based on the An-70 is now being examined by Germany as part of the FLA programme. Rühe says: "The political will for such a project is there."
This may be true of Germany, but it is not the case with the UK. The Royal Air Force remains sceptical about the FLA project, and Whitehall sources are dismissive of any tie-up with Ukraine on the An-70. Rühe's move will do little to bolster the UK Ministry of Defence's (MoD) confidence in the project, say political sources.
The MoD, having approved the release of the RFP to Airbus, is also expected to issue it to Boeing and Lockheed Martin in considering alternatives to an FLA procurement.
Airbus sources admit that Rühe's move is forcing it to once again address the An-70. It has previously been considered, and disregarded, as a potential airframe option to meet the multi-national FLA requirement. One official describes an An-70-based FLA programme as somewhere between "very difficult and impossible."
Airbus partner Daimler-Benz Aerospace, however, says: "A co-operation with Antonov is conceivable." Airbus is expected to discuss the An-70 programme with Antonov after the Rühe initiative.
One official close to the programme says that, while the idea of using the An-70 as the basic airframe for the FLA programme may be superficially attractive, it is substantially less appealing when examined in any detail, with cost and risk being serious issues.