The pan-European aircraft maker hopes the official handover ceremony at the Airbus Military plant in Seville, southern Spain, will launch strong sales to air forces worldwide following a difficult birth.
“It is an extremely high performance aircraft and I am quite proud that France is number one for delivery,” French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a handover ceremony also attended by Spain’s Prince Felipe.
Already, though, there are concerns about orders for the plane.
The French minister, who was returning to a military base in Orleans aboard the plane after the ceremony, said France still planned to take 50 of the A400M aircraft, which has propellers more than five metres (16 feet) long.
But the minister, who celebrated the A400M as a “technological feat”, said France would take only 15 planes “right now” in its 2014-2019 supply programme currently being debated in parliament.
Originally, France had agreed to take 35 planes up front, and it will likely have to negotiate the downsized schedule to avoid penalties.
But France’s minister described the change in plane orders as a minor correction with final objectives remaining the same.
Airbus parent EADS has expressed concern that any decision by France to axe orders could lead other nations such as Spain and Germany to do the same, squeezing the entire programme.
It took 10 years to bring the A400M to the skies in one of the European military industry’s most ambitious projects, backed by seven partners: NATO members Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Luxembourg Spain and Turkey.
The project was dogged by delays and broken budgets as developers struggled with the complex engine and the divergent requirements of client nations.
Finally, four years late and 6.2 billion euros ($8.3 billion), or 30 percent, over budget, Tom Enders, chief executive of Airbus owner EADS, officially handed over the revolutionary aircraft to France, its first client, though the plane was actually ready August 1.
Designed at the request of European chiefs of staff after the first Gulf War of 1991, which exposed the need for such a plane, the A400M is a multi-task military air lifter.
“It will transform the way military operations work,” Ian Elliott, vice-president of Airbus Military, told AFP.
“For the first time ever, it will allow combat delivery in the point of need,” he added.
Equipped with four turboprops, it can transport up to 37 tonnes including armour or helicopters over a distance of 3,300 kilometres (2,050 miles) but also land on unprepared terrain such as sand.
“I have flown about six or seven times and it’s fantastic,” Elliott said, touting the comfort in the cabin, modelled on that of the Airbus double-decker superjumbo A380, and other assets such as its quietness and its seats, developed with the advice of paratroopers.
The A400M will be the sole plane on the market to challenge the US-made Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules, which has a capacity of 20 tonnes and was designed more than 50 years ago.
Its other rival, the C-17 Globemaster, which can lift 76 tonnes, will exit production from 2015, US manufacturer Boeing announced recently.
Within a month, France will receive its second A400M and Turkey its first. A third plane is scheduled to be delivered to France by the end of this year.
Airbus Military aims to export 400 A400M planes in the next 30 years, beyond the 174 already ordered in Europe and Malaysia. Germany has ordered 53, France 50, Spain 27 and Britain 22. The manufacturer will assemble 10 planes next year, and then about 30 a year.
Airbus Military is targeting the Gulf and the Asia-Pacific region, where several countries are renewing fleets.
The reaction of French and British air forces will be key, said Airbus Military’s Elliott.
“The French Airforce and the Royal Air Force have a great credibility all over the world so if they are really happy about it, their opinion will matter,” he said.
“We are already talking to many US military officials,” Elliott said, adding that the aircraft would also be “perfect” for humanitarian operations.