Tanker pain looming for RAF?

These are worrying times for the UK Royal Air Force, with the service facing major upheavals to its air transport and air-to-air refuelling inventories over the next 18 months.

By the end of this year, the last of the UK’s Lockheed Martin C-130K Hercules will be retired from use, while the replacement Airbus Military A400M won’t start appearing on the ramp at RAF Brize Norton until during 2014. More hours on the hard-worked C-130J fleet will cover part of the shortfall, along with the introduction by March 2013 of two ex-TNT Airways BAe 146 passenger/freighters now being modified for military operations in Afghanistan. The service also recently took delivery of an eighth Boeing C-17.

But it is in the tanker sector that the biggest headache is emerging. The RAF’s last nine Vickers VC10s (Crown Copyright image below) are to be retired in March 2013, with its Lockheed TriStars (including four tankers) to follow by the end of the same year.

VC10 560.jpgIn their place will come a Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) fleet eventually to total 14 modified A330s named Voyagers; although only around nine of these will be in the “core” inventory at any one time. Only one of these is currently in service, initially in an air transport capacity only, and I’m hearing that fuel venting problems encountered during earlier refuelling trials have yet to go away.

As if that wasn’t enough of a concern, the AirTanker consortium responsible for delivering the FSTA service has pulled the plug on further A330 conversions planned to have been performed by Cobham Aviation Services in the UK. Airbus Military will instead complete this work at its Getafe plant near Madrid, in a move which is intended to safeguard a tight delivery schedule planned to have six or seven aircraft available by the end of 2013 and nine in use by mid-2014.

The RAF needs tankers to sustain quick reaction alert duties flown with the Eurofighter Typhoon from Coningsby in Lincolnshire and Leuchars in Scotland, as well as supporting deployed examples defending the Falkland Islands and allied strike aircraft flying over Afghanistan. With the noise of the VC10′s “Conway quartet” to fall silent in only nine months, the pressure is really on for the Voyager to deliver.

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