Clipped Wings Berlin Struggles to Certify Military Plane
German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière, in trouble over the costly cancellation of the Euro Hawk drone, faces a potentially even greater problem. Certification for the A400M military transport plane is behind schedule and plagued by legal pitfalls.
The image was truly emblematic: A huge, heavy transport plane painted in camouflage gray stood unable to move, the wheels of its landing gear sunk up to the axles in the soft sand of eastern Germany's Lausitz region.
Although the incident occurred more than a year ago, few people heard about the pilot mishap that stranded the A400M Atlas aircraft. That is, apart from the manufacturer -- Airbus Military -- the German armed forces, and the six European air forces that had put in orders for the massive four-engine turboprop plane.
The aircraft, which was designed for a maximum starting weight of 141 metric tonnes, was undergoing tests on the grass runway of Cottbus-Drewitz Airport. The test landing had gone without a hitch, but when roll and braking tests were conducted, the heavy prototype suddenly slid, and its left undercarriage ploughed into the ground.
The image of the stricken colossus could be symbolic of the fate of German military procurement at the present time -- and yet the aircraft is part of a prestigious European project, with orders for 170 planes worth a combined 25 billion ($32.9 billion). Last year crews spent hours using shovels and heavy lifting gear to free the plane from the sandy ground. But now a different and far more serious problem threatens to keep it grounded: The German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, can't meet the legal requirements for getting military certification for the A400M.
While a parliamentary committee of investigation began this week to probe the failure of the Euro Hawk reconnaissance drone to obtain flight certification, officials at the Defense Ministry were plagued by worries of a very different nature: If the A400M doesn't get its military license, it could cost the government 9.5 billion. That's the total price of the 53 transport planes Germany has already ordered and partly paid.
Hapless Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière is now facing his next debacle. Following the expensive cancellation of the Euro Hawk program, the Bundeswehr was last week forced to confirm a SPIEGEL report that the Eurofighter program would be several billion euros more expensive than previously thought. Here too, irregularities in the certification process played a part.
However, officials haven't admitted yet that the A400M could now find itself in a similar situation, as classified internal documents indicate.
Parts for the first A400M planes for the Bundeswehr are arriving at a plant in Seville, Spain for final assembly. The Bundeswehr's very first A400M is due to roll off the production lines by the end of next year. The procedure for obtaining military certification for the plane should therefore be starting now. According to German law, even the production process itself should now be monitored by inspectors from the German military procurement authority; the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw).
But the BAAINBw hasn't got its act together. It has no inspectors and no legally watertight concept for certifying the project. From the legal point of view therefore, the A400M is currently a plane without wings as far as the Bundeswehr is concerned. That's in stark contrast to the situation in France, whose military plans to certify and start operating its first A400M in the coming days.
Meanwhile panicking German officials are hatching bizarre plans. Among other things they want to set up a "virtual national military aviation authority for the operation of the A400M;" a possibly unprecedented move in the history of German bureaucracy. This the officials hope will form the "nucleus" of a national military certification authority.
Defense Minister de Maizière mentioned the creation of such an institution last month when speaking to the parliamentary defense subcommittee about the ill-fated Euro Hawk. "We will create a military aviation authority that will decide on the certification of all military aircraft," he told parliamentarians.
The minister had presumably wanted to sound proactive, but in reality the project has nothing to do with the Euro Hawk. Defense Ministry chiefs have known for more than a year that they desperately need an authority of this kind because it is required under agreements Germany made with its European partners on the licensing of military aircraft. Now it's clear that the minister needs the authority for his new transport plane.
A Failed Attempt to Cut Red Tape
De Maizière hopes this will help him wriggle out of the mess left behind by his predecessor, Rudolf Scharping. While negotiating contracts just after the turn of the century, Scharping made a momentous blunder: According to the agreement, certification of the A400M -- colloquially referred to as the "Militairbus" -- was to be granted not in accordance with central regulation ZDv 19/1, as has always been the case in the past. Instead, a "commercial" approach was chosen that pretends the A400M is a civilian aircraft - an unprecedented move in the history of the Bundeswehr.
With civilian planes, the manufacturers are largely responsible for testing new projects themselves to ensure they meet all the safety standards. This is overseen by the licensing body (in Europe this is the EASA), which basically only looks over test documentation and provides so-called "type certificates." Planes cannot be used for transportation or fly over European airspace without such a license.
This is what those responsible at the time hoped would happen with the A400M, namely a commercial approach for an approval at the European level. Unfortunately, an appropriate certification system for military aircraft hadn't been established in Europe. In fact, it's still being developed. The main problem for the German military is that the European certification system for commercial aircraft agreed for the A400M is incompatible with key Bundeswehr directives.
However, official Bundeswehr approval is required if the plane is to be used for military purposes, because current German legislation exempts the Bundeswehr from civilian commercial procedures. Instead, its planes are mainly licensed by either the quality standards authority in Koblenz or Military Technical Department 61 in Manching, Bavaria.
- Part 1: Berlin Struggles to Certify Military Plane
- Part 2: A Ticking Bureaucratic Time-Bomb