* May lease or buy alternative aircraft
* No comment on whether Boeing C17 is being considered
By Tim Hepher and Matthias Blamont
PARIS, March 17 France may need to reduce its
order for 50 A400M military transport planes from European
aerospace group EADS EAD.PA because of development delays, the
country's top defence procurement official said on Tuesday.
The A400M programme is running at least four years late,
said Laurent Collet-Billon, recently appointed director general
of French defence procurement and export agency DGA.
The DGA is looking at the possibility of leasing or buying
alternative transport aircraft to meet the shortfall as it
struggles to maintain a fleet of ageing transport aircraft in
Afghanistan, he said.
"It is one of the alternatives which we have to examine. We
have not yet finished examining the capacity gap and that could
lead to a reduction in the target (of 50 aircraft)," he said.
He declined to comment on whether France would consider
acquiring Boeing's (BA.N) C17 strategic jet-powered airlifter
but said he was looking at an aircraft in that category which he
declined to identify.
He ruled out buying Lockheed Martin's (LMT.N) C130 Hercules,
which is smaller than the A400M.
Like Britain, France was studying bringing forward
deliveries of combined troop carrying and refuelling aircraft to
help meet the gap left by the A400M.
The A400M is a military airlifter being built by EADS's
Airbus Military division on behalf of seven NATO nations who
have together ordered 180 of the planes.
The manufacturer says it is running 3-4 years late amid a
dispute with suppliers over engine problems and has asked for
more time to finish the project as well as relief on billions of
euros of potential delivery penalties.
"One shouldn't get fixated by this delay," French Defence
Minister Herve Morin told Reuters on Tuesday. "What is certain
is that we need this aircraft. We need to renew a part of our
transport fleet that is very old." Morin also said Britain's
transport fleet was ageing and needed overhauling.
NATO countries that initially ordered the plane agreed last
week to call for a three-month moratorium to prevent individual
nations walking away from the project.
(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Dan Lalor)