PARIS — Airbus Defence and Space delivered this week a first retrofit of "tactical" capabilities on the A400M, missing a French deadline for six of the military airlifters in the advanced version to be delivered last year.

"The first of the three, which are undergoing retrofit, was accepted Jan. 9," a spokesman for the French Direction Générale de l'Armement (DGA) procurement office said Wednesday.

Meanwhile in strategic airlift, François Cornut-Gentille, a member of France's parliament, has asked the national audit office to publish detailed figures on the real cost of relying on a Russian leasing company and a NATO specialist agency to fly supply missions for the services overseas.

A delivery in January meant Airbus DS failed to hit last year's target of six tactical A400Ms for the French Air Force, comprising three retrofits and three new aircraft.

That tactical standard converts a cargo plane into a more capable aircraft fitted with self-protection kit, capable of parachute drops, short runways, refueling fighter and transport aircraft, and being refueled.

The first retrofit version was accepted and flown Jan. 9 to the Orléans air base, central France, with two more due for delivery, the DGA said. The third new A400M was delivered Dec. 23, bringing the French fleet to 11 units.

France has ordered 50 A400Ms.

"The company has to find a way to ensure production meets the timetable set out in the contract, with a normal quality standard," DGA chief Laurent Collet-Billon told the defense committee of the lower house National Assembly on Oct. 12.

"Today, we are not sure the delivery rate meets the one expected by the nations. However, I think the situation at the end of the year will be less awful than at the beginning of the year," he said.

France expects the delivery of three more A400Ms this year, according to the 2017 defense budget.

The A400M program ran into production delays last year as cracks on the propeller gear box, a key engine component, had to be fixed.

On strategic airlift, Cornut-Gentille wrote Wednesday to the national audit office, pointing out two concerns:

  • France suffers a capability gap due to the late delivery of the A400M, which forces a reliance on "external partners," which weakens its operational autonomy.
  • Because of a permanent engagement in foreign theaters, strategic transport is a significant part of the budget overspend on overseas operations..

But the report on the 2012-2015 French overseas operations by the national audit office, published in November, is "curiously imprecise," he said, prompting him to request clarification in an questionnaire containing 
no fewer than 16 detailed questions.

A key issue is the French reliance on the Russian state-owned lessor 
International Chartering Systems (ICS), which apparently charged a much higher rate than NATO's Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS).

"On average in 2013-2014, it would have cost 32 percent more to transport a ton of freight by ICS than SALIS," according to the audit office report.

Cornut-Gentille asked the audit office to provide more information on the cost of an ICS flight hour and whether the office questioned the company while drawing up its report.

The audit office report also said that due to an "anomaly," France in 2015 failed to use up the flying hours already paid for with SALIS, which led to a €4 million (US $4.2 million) cost. What was that anomaly, and has any corrective measure planned, the MP asked.

France relied on leases with ICS and the NATO agency to fly more than three quarters of tonnage flown to its overseas operations, which cost two-thirds of total transport costs in 2012-15, the audit office report said.

In the period covered, France launched the Serval mission in Mali, Sangaris in the Central African Republic and the present Barkhane operation, which is conducted in cooperation with five countries in Africa's sub-Saharan Sahel region: Burkino-Faso, Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauretania.

ICS leases out a seven-strong fleet of Antonov 124-100 and Ilyushin Il-76 heavy airlifters.

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