Airbus Military has reacted with genuine shock to the South African government's announcement that it will cancel its commitment to Europe's troubled A400M airlifter project.

"Not now" must have been the frustrated cry, since activities to prepare its first aircraft for flight test in Spain finally appear to be making genuine progress. MSN001 should this week move a significant step closer to a delayed flight that Airbus is increasingly confident will occur during December.

With negotiations on a new contract ongoing with its seven European launch nations, but expected to conclude before year-end, Airbus must have been starting to feel that the planets were finally beginning to align after more than two years of turmoil.

Airbus Military A400M
 © Airbus Military

The cancellation of South Africa's eight-aircraft deal - which had been the first of only two export successes for the A400M so far - will not kill the programme. Nor is it likely to be the catalyst for a "death by a thousand cuts" series of order reductions from the remaining customers. But the timing of its decision is as inconvenient as it is embarrassing; now Airbus must conduct fresh cost analyses and ponder whether to shift industrial workshare from South African industry to elsewhere among its customer base. These are fresh headaches that it can certainly do without.

And for South Africa, the demise of a rapidly approved and at the time surprise order for an unproven aircraft that it believed could serve its domestic needs and also support humanitarian relief operations throughout Africa is a disaster in itself. Public criticism of the seemingly extravagant deal had mounted over recent weeks, as reports surfaced of rocketing programme costs and delivery delays.

With other financial pressures, such as hosting next year's football World Cup, already on its shoulders, approving more money to salvage the A400M deal appears to have been an option too far. Now the nation's air force must continue to fly an aged fleet of Hercules, and hope that the politicians get it right next time.

Only the next few months will prove whether South Africa's loss of faith in the A400M was the right decision. If Airbus's core customers agree to slash aircraft numbers or capability and spend more money on the type then it will appear vindicated. But if the company's recent optimism about the pace of progress is backed up by a successful start to flight-test activities then its withdrawal will be open to question.

Source: Flight International