By Sabine Siebold
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's defense minister says a decision may be made soon on acquiring smaller military transport planes to cover a serious gap in capabilities once the Transall transporter leaves service in 2021.
NATO member Germany is part of a European consortium that funded development by Airbus of the A400M transport plane. But German studies have said there is a need for extra planes that can land at sites with "minimal infrastructure," which they say are challenging for the A400M.
The smaller Transall transporters, which date back to the 1960s, are able to land in tight spots on rough terrain, but will be retired in 2021.
German officials say they first recognized looming "significant capability gaps" in the mobility, deployability and endurance of its transport fleet in 2008, but the issue has taken on new importance as Transall's retirement nears.
"I am optimistic that we will be able to provide answers this autumn," Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told Reuters in an interview. "That includes how we want to cover the expected capability gap for the time after 2021."
Von der Leyen declined comment on whether Germany could buy C-130J Super Hercules transport planes built by Lockheed Martin Corp on its own, or with other, countries.
She said Germany was working with other countries involved in the A400M program about how to cover needs not addressed by the new transport plane.
"Since the A400M was a joint program by several countries, we are examining whether we could fill this gap with some of those countries," she added. "We are in talks with several countries that are very interested in such a cooperation."
Von der Leyen did not name those countries, but sources familiar with the matter said Germany had been in discussions with France, which has already decided to buy 4 C-130J aircraft.
It has also been in touch with Britain, which was the launch customer for the J-model of Lockheed's workhorse C-130s in 1998 and has said it is looking at selling some of the first C-130Js it bought.
Airbus says it is meeting the specifications set out for the larger military transport, and says the A400M has demonstrated "outstanding unpaved runway capabilities which are superior to any aircraft in service today."
Airbus spokesman Kieran Daly said the plane was already certified to use gravel runways at its maximum weight and flight-testing of its ability to land on grass and soft-soil runways had been completed.
"There are, of course, some airfields in the world where the taxiways or ramp area are not capable of supporting the weight of any heavy aircraft. This is entirely unconnected from an aircraft’s unpaved runway capability," he said.
Military experts say Germany will still need a smaller transport outside the A400M to carry out specific missions at remote sites for which the new transport was not designed.
"The A400M has only a very limited ability to land at unprepared runways," said one military expert. "The danger of damage to the airplane during landings is just too great."
Government sources said in the past that the purchase of additional planes would be a last resort, with officials hoping to develop a multinational solution, such as leasing transport capabilities from Britain, the United States or France.
Germany has also looked at buying planes with other countries and operating them together.
Von der Leyen declined comment on the total sum of fines that Airbus faced for delays in deliveries of its A400M aircraft. She said negotiations were continuing on that issue.
"Under the current contract, each day of delay costs the company money. The total sum will depend on how quickly the manufacturer can solve its problems and deliver what was promised," she said.
(Reporting by Sabine Siebold, Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Richard Balmforth)