PARIS -- French officials are in tough talks with Airbus Defense & Space for a timely delivery of a more capable "tactical" version of the A400M military transport plane, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said.
"The problem is the company," Le Drian told the defense committee of the lower house National Assembly on Nov. 2, the official minutes of which were recently released. "Today, the A400Ms delivered are not operational – and the problem does not concern just France: that is the case everywhere.
"As this meeting is public, perhaps my remarks will reach Mr. Enders. It can be said that the talks I have with the Airbus executives are … lively."
Tom Enders is chief executive of Airbus group. The Air Force is flying the A400M in its basic version as a cargo plane into secure airbases.
"I have asked for a plan to catch up, both for the aircraft's capabilities and delivery rate," Le Drian told members of parliament. The delivery delays were unacceptable and the lack of capabilities for parachute drops, self defense and landing on short runways caused concern.
The ministry has reached an agreement for 2016, he said. "I hope it will be upheld," he said. "In any case, we have an extremely close dialog with the company."
France had ordered four Hercules C-130J transport planes to meet urgent requirements and tackle the problems of an aging fleet, but that purchase had not been planned at the outset, he said.
The French Air Force expects to receive by the end of the year six A400Ms of the "tactical" version, Air Chief of Staff Gen. André Lanata told the French Senate Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed Forces Committee on Oct. 12. Parachute drops are key to that tactical model, he said.
A tactical model is equipped with a protected cabin and a self-defense system to protect the aircrew and aircraft when flying over hostile zones.
"We expect the company concerned to make every single effort to allow us to undertake our very many operational commitments," Lanata said.
The A400M engine is now the major concern for the service, as the motors require an inspection every 80 hours, an unsustainable rate leading to fleet availability shortages, he said.
An interim solution to the engine will be delivered between now and Spring 2017 until a permanent remedy is ready, which will make the situation manageable – which it is not right now, he said.
Airbus D&S declined comment on the issue.
Of the six tactical aircraft, three will be new units and three will be retrofits of the A400M aircraft already in service with the Air Force. The service flies eight of these as cargo lifters into secure areas.
France was the first country to receive a tactical version with the June 8 delivery to the Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office. That plane included cockpit protection for the flight crew, among the contracted tactical capabilities.
The engine problems stem from the Avio propeller gearbox on the TP400-D6 engine from Europrop International, a consortium comprising ITP, MTU Aero Engines, Rolls-Royce and Safran Aircraft Engines.
Avio and its parent General Electric are delivering a modified pinion on the gearbox to fix cracks detected on the gearbox.
Airbus announced July 27 a further €1 billion ($1.1 billion) of financial charges on the A400M program due to the problems on the engine and fuselage. That came on top of €5 billion of charges previously booked for work on the airlifter.
The French Air Force has asked for the A400M to drop a full complement of 116 paratroopers jumping from both sides of the fuselage, with 58 from each side door. The requirements also include refueling helicopters in-flight and self-defense equipment. The service expects to have 11 units by the end of the year, with the three new units boosting the present eight-strong fleet.