THE TROUBLE WITH collaborative projects is that, in order for them to succeed, people have to collaborate, whole-heartedly. Such commitment has rarely been a feature of European collaboration on defence projects, and it certainly appears to be absent in the case of the Future Large Aircraft (FLA) project. The tragedy (or triumph, depending on your point of view) is that this lack of commitment seems almost certain to kill off the project before a definitive design line has been drawn.

The latest evidence of the lack of commitment comes from the Royal Air Force which was committed to the project by its political masters a couple of years ago, but which has never been a whole-hearted enthusiast for it. No matter what then UK defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind said at the time, the RAF has never seen the FLA as the total answer to its transport and tanking needs. Yes, it needs a second tranche of tactical transports to replace the younger of its existing Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules, and a long-range strategic tanker-transport to replace its Lockheed TriStars and British Aerospace VC.10s.

It can be argued that as a more modern, larger and faster design than the C-130J Hercules II, the FLA would be a better Hercules in the tactical role. As a short/medium-range turboprop , however, it will be too slow, too small and too range-limited to replace the TriStars and VC.10s. (The RAF's need for that class is so acute that it is even contemplating leasing McDonnell Douglas C-17s.) Hence the RAF's indication that it certainly will want no more than 25 FLAs to replace a similar number of Hercules - and that it might not even want those.

Given that it needs a big, fast, long-range turbofan tanker/transport, and that it will already have 25 newish C-130Js, it may see nothing but headaches in introducing small numbers of a third type into what is, even in modern lean terms, a fairly modest transport fleet. The attraction for the third type becomes even less as the prospective total number of FLAs to be built continues to drop, pushing unit costs higher. The FLA would already be more expensive than a Hercules, even should the most optimistic predictions of orders from the 13 FLA partner nations and potential third-party customers be borne out.

The likelihood of that is remote. The French may have been among the most enthusiastic backers of the FLA project initially, but it was their decision in 1996 to stop funding it which has been the most damaging to the cause. Given the increasing pressure on public expenditure there, FLA proponents should not bank on large French orders.

The German armed forces have, perhaps, been slightly more enthusiastic supporters of the FLA project, but even they have not been as enthusiastic as the German industry. If German support for the FLA really stems from support for German involvement in building military transports rather than from a desire to own FLAs, the Germans (and most of their European colleagues) would be better-off involved in a project which had greater chances of commercial as well as military success.

There are possibilities of such projects, although inevitably they involve the USA, which is the most likely customer for large numbers of new military transports. The US armed forces will need a replacement for their Lockheed Martin C-141 Starlifters early in the next century. Such a replacement programme is likely to be at least as large as the European FLA project would be, but with the advantage of a single large customer to launch the project. Even the two big US manufacturers which are likely to bid on such a programme are looking for partners, and both are likely to welcome European partners if they bring with them the prospect of European sales. (Lockheed, after all, was a partner in the FLA project for the first few years in the 1980s.)

The chosen instrument for FLA production, Airbus Industrie, appears to be as frustrated by the lack of firm progress on the project as are some of the potential customers. It probably would not regret the FLA's demise, and while it might not want as an entity to get into bed with a large American partner, some of its shareholders might see the American solution as the best outlet of all for European collaboration.

Source: Flight International