* Seeking deal as quickly as possible, arms official says
* No date yet announced for talks to resume
By Matthias Blamont
PARIS, Feb 8 A keenly awaited deal on the future
of the troubled A400M military transport plane, affecting up to
10,000 European jobs, could be reached this week or next,
France's top arms procurement official said on Monday.
"We hope to have an agreement as quickly as possible; that
could be this week or next," Laurent Collet-Billon, head of the
DGA arms procurement and export agency, told reporters.
France has ordered 50 of the troop and heavy equipment cargo
planes developed by EADS EAD.PA subsidiary Airbus.
It is one of seven countries that ordered a total of 180
airlifters for deployment in rugged areas such as Afghanistan.
Total development costs have ballooned by 11 billion euros
and deliveries have been pushed back four years to 2013, raising
doubts over the future of Europe's biggest defence project.
EADS and seven commissioning nations, including France, are
locked in negotiations over a rescue deal, with EADS appealing
for more than 4 billion euros of additional public funding.
Talks held last Thursday raised the prospect of government
loans to help bridge a 2.4 billion euro gap in the amount EADS
and buyers are prepared to invest in keeping the project afloat,
but Germany said nothing been set in stone. [ID:nLDE61405Y]
No date has yet been announced for the talks to resume, but
Collet-Billon said parties wanted to keep up the pace of talks.
He confirmed that nations were ready to waive penalties for
late delivery in the event of a funding deal.
"If the negotiations are successful, it is absolutely clear
that governments will make a big effort on penalties," he said.
The A400M plane stems from a 25-year collaborative effort to
wean Europe off transport capacity provided by Lockheed Martin
(LMT.N) and Boeing (BA.N) but has been dogged by disagreements
over industrial decisions, investment and timetables.
But Collet-Billon hit back at Airbus suggestions that
political interference should be blamed for part of the delay.
"The delay in the programme shows up serious deficiencies on
the industrial side. I am not so sure that (buyers) are to
blame. You should really ask more about how the contract was
executed," he told an annual briefing on French arms sales.
A German newspaper reported that EADS wanted its suppliers
to take on more risks including some of the cost overruns linked
to the production problems. [ID:nLDE617097]
Airbus has sparred not only with buyers but also with its
engine makers over responsibility for the delays, after problems
with engine control software and the complex task of integrating
on-board electronics. Suppliers say they have delivered on time.
The A400M, which first flew in December, is powered by the
West's most powerful turbo-prop engines from a European
consortium including Britain's Rolls-Royce (RR.L), French group
Safran (SAF.PA) and MTU Aero Engines (MTXGn.DE) of Germany.
France's Thales (TCFP.PA) supplied the aircraft's flight
management system, or electronic "brains".
The DGA agency meanwhile said French arms firms had won 8
billion euros of export orders in 2009, up 21 percent.
Total French defence orders reached 20.9 billion euros
including 1.3 billion euros linked to an economic stimulus plan.