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.
A Ticking Bureaucratic Time-Bomb
Ten years ago, the powers-that-be thought they could overcome this regulatory hurdle. Defense Minister Scharping wanted to help the German aviation industry by securing the A400M contract, but didn't really have the money in his budget. He therefore thought he could cut the cost of licensing.
Even back then, the German military procurement office had serious doubts whether the agreement would hold up in court once the aircraft was ready for certification. But the ministry wanted the planes, and Scharping was thinking about all the jobs he could create for the German aviation industry.
For many years, this birth defect in the agreement was kept under wraps as the project was passed on to the subsequent defense ministers: Peter Struck, Franz-Josef Jung, and then Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. However, behind the scenes, officials worried that certification of the aircraft could prove to be a ticking time-bomb.
And yet there were plenty of warnings about the viability of the contractually agreed certification process. In August 2011 a ministerial council pointed out that "international agreements have to be brought into line with domestic legislation, not the other way round." Lawyers at the transport ministry also warned their colleagues at defense that the Bundeswehr's special status with regard to German aviation legislation was "not the basis for legislative authority." In a letter dated November 2009, they wrote that "no legislative powers can be derived" from this, nor could they be transferred to European institutions.
However, the Defense Ministry was clearly deaf to such arguments. At first everything seemed to be going as planned. The EASA issued a type certificate for the plane in March of this year -- albeit only for operation as a civilian aircraft. But the Cologne-based body said it was not responsible for authorizing military use, for instance for parachute jumps, low-altitude flight or freight drops.
It was easy for officials to ignore the agreement's birth defect. Major technical problems, for instance with the novel turboprop engines, delayed delivery of the "Militairbus" by years. The question of certification was therefore left unaddressed. In response to a question from SPIEGEL, the German Defense Ministry denies that mistakes were made. It claims the ministry and Germany's partners had deliberately chosen the commercial certification procedure "because of the huge overlap in the parts used by the military A400M and those in civilian aircraft."
Airbus Military and its parent company, EADS, feel comfortable with the present situation. "The A400M program is back on track and making good progress," an Airbus Military spokeswoman said. That's not the case with the German certification process, whose shortcomings were probably more obvious to Airbus than the ministry. The confusion plays into the company's hands. After all, it has been demanding for some time that certification of aircraft should no longer be overseen by inspectors from the military procurement authority, but that responsibility be handed over primarily to manufacturers.
Time Running Out
The Bundeswehr now finds itself in a quandary with the A400M. Final assembly of the first German A400M is about to begin. It's therefore imperative that Germany's military inspectors certify the aircraft design quickly and oversee production. However, Airbus Military justifiably points to the originally agreed procedure. "According to the agreement, it is not envisaged that German licensing authorities will be involved in the final assembly," it asserts. After all, the company explains, German inspectors already monitor the production of individual components of the aircraft. As part of this "unique European program," it says, every partner has been assigned a very specific role in order to avoid overlaps in work.
German inspectors have therefore practically been shut out of the certification process in Seville. Inspectors at Military Technical Department 61 in Manching are understandably up in arms. Adding to their dismay, their superiors have been cutting back the staff and equipment of the inspection department for more than a decade. As a result, there is not a single inspector who is qualified to check serially produced models of the A400M on behalf of the German air force. This is despite the fact that they would need more than a dozen of them if the transport plane is to be certified according to the relevant regulations. Training engineers for this task takes two to three years.
Stéphane Beemelmans, an undersecretary at the Defense Ministry, is now trying to salvage what can still be salvaged. On December 20 last year, Beemelmans approved the formation of a working group to "develop an organization for the safe use of Bundeswehr aircraft and aviation equipment for transportation."
In a confidential memo, he said such a national military certification agency was required to implement at the national level specifications arising out of the developing European certification procedure in cooperation projects like that of the A400M. In reality it's all about solving the problem of the lack of military certification.
Time is running short. The working group had until May 31 to present its results. Money and personnel are apparently not an issue. The paper says it's quite likely that more staff will be needed. "It is to be expected that at least six more employees at pay grades B7, B6 and B3 will be needed to work in responsible, attractive fields," its author wrote -- although "attractive" probably refers primarily to the associated remuneration. B7 corresponds to a basic monthly salary of more than €9,000.
The working group submitted its final report in late May, as requested. This report provides more details about the future authority: 400 jobs should be created in the first implementation phase of three to four years.
Three locations are under discussion for the new body: Greater Cologne because of its proximity to the German air force's weapons control HQ; Manching in Upper Bavaria because certification is already being carried out there; and Münster -- "for economic reasons" -- because the air freight headquarters there was closed in 2010, and cheap premises are available.
Contacted by SPIEGEL, the Bundeswehr refused to speculate on either the location or the possible workforce, saying these matters would be decided "as part of fine-tuning."
'Temporary Administrative Workaround'
Undersecretary Beemelmans seems to sense that the new body won't be up and running in time. That's why he issued the directive to "create a virtual national military aviation authority for the operation of the A400M." Is this, we asked, literally a virtual -- i.e. not actually existing -- agency, in other words, a scam?
On the contrary, we were told. A national military approval authority was "non-existent for the armed forces at the present time and requires a virtual organization for the period until it can really be set up, especially for the A400M." This was the only way the transport aircraft could be operated in accordance with European regulations. What's more, the virtual body could "form the nucleus for a subsequent organization with even more responsibilities."
The Defense Ministry admits time is running out for certification of the A400M. It therefore describes the virtual body as a "temporary administrative workaround."
De Maizière's national approval authority will probably remain virtual for too long. That's why his ministry is already working on the next stopgap measure. Instead of German inspectors, they now want their Spanish colleagues from the Directorate-General of Armament and Equipment (DGAM) to be responsible for certification.
If they grant approval, the inspectors from the German military procurement authority would merely have to sign the transportation license. That way the Spanish plant need not be certified as an aviation company, which would normally be the case under the Bundeswehr's internal regulations. This is why a Defense Ministry delegation rushed to Madrid last week to "audit" the Spanish authorities, as the military procurement authority calls the procedure.
Although the Bundeswehr will confirm the deliberations, it won't acknowledge that the meeting in Madrid took place. "There are no concrete events that warranting announcing," the Defense Ministry stated -- perhaps because it is aware of the concerns the undertaking raises among the responsible inspectors at the military procurement authority.
They are in effect being asked to grant their approval for a plane they haven't studied closely enough from in technical terms. "The Defense Ministry is acting without a legal basis," complains Hans-Joachim Ahnert, the legal advisor of the Forum for Military Aviation. "This audacious construct puts the inspectors in grave legal danger," the military law specialist from Düsseldorf warns.
According to Ahnert, if the plane is involved in an accident attributable to insufficiently rigorous approval, the German inspectors would be held personally accountable.
While the German inspectors feel let down, their Spanish colleagues can feel honored. Their inspection duties for the A400M have been conferred by royal decree: The directive was signed by Spanish King Juan Carlos himself.