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France, Spain Scramble To Save Airbus A400M

French defense minister said it was crucial to save the military transport plane, despite delays and an estimated $7.3 billion in cost overruns.

PARIS (AP) -- The defense ministers of France and Spain emphasized their support for the A400M military transport plane as the seven partner nations held closed-door talks Thursday to discuss ways of bailing out the vastly over-budget program.

The government envoys were meeting in London to discuss funding in a standoff with Airbus, which has said the troubled program is draining money and valuable resources better used elsewhere. On Tuesday, top executives at Airbus and its parent company EADS urged governments to resolve the issue by the end of January. It is far from clear whether such a deadline can be met.

Germany has been especially reticent about plowing any more funds into the plane, which is now four years behind schedule and more than euro5 billion (US$7.3 billion) over budget, officials say. Britain almost pulled out last year, before renewing its support.

Defense Minister Carme Chacon of Spain, where large-scale assembly is planned, said Thursday her country considers the A400M "essential to our defense."

The A400M, a four-engine turboprop, is seen as inhabiting an important niche market between the Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules, which carries only half the payload, and Boeing's C-17 Globemaster III, which is larger, costlier, and less tactically versatile.

"We see a bright future for this Airbus especially in view of its competitive qualities," Chacon said in Brussels. "Let's build on the success of this Airbus."

But Chacon declined to comment about how the additional funds could be distributed between Airbus and the governments, who have different priorities.

The A400M had its maiden flight last month. The program was launched six years ago with an order for 180 airplanes from seven governments -- Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey.

In Paris, French Defense Minister Herve Morin said the plane amounted to a bet on Europe's defense credibility and insisted cost overruns must be split between the plane maker and the countries.

The program is important to show that "Europeans can build a military transport plane and that they don't simply become clients of the only constructor left, which is an American constructor," he told Radio France Internationale.

French Defense Ministry spokesman Laurent Teisseire told The Associated Press: "We have said that we are ready to increase our share within the limits of the law" -- referring to France's law on military programs, which lays out future defense spending.

"The question is: How the cost overruns are going to be shared," he added. Laurent Collet-Billon, head of France's military procurement agency DGA, led the French team in London, he said.

A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday the meeting was mainly intended to improve coordination between the partner nations, and that Germany will not be pressured.

Citing security reasons, officials declined to specify what time the London meeting was taking place, and said no news briefing was planned afterward.

AP writer Slobodan Lekic in Brussels contributed to this report.

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