Protect and survive

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It took the loss of an RAF Hercules for the UK to address the type’s risk to fire. But is the MoD doing enough to safeguard its personnel?

These are busy times for the UK Royal Air Force’s air transport community, with the service required to maintain a high tempo of operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But a cloud has hung over the RAF for well over a year now, following the loss to enemy fire of one of its Lockheed Martin C-130K transports and 10 personnel near Baghdad in January 2005. Would the loss of Hercules XV179 be attributed to nothing more than a “lucky shot”, or taken as proof that more could be done to protect the UK’s airlifters against a growing threat from surface-to-air projectiles?

The Ministry of Defence at last seems to have faced the facts, and last week announced that some of its C-130s will be fitted with wing fuel tank fire-suppression systems in time to conduct operational duties “within the next few months”. However, while this decision appears to have paid heed to the recommendations of a Board of Inquiry report into the loss of XV179, questions remain over the MoD’s slow pace of action to date and the limited scope of its planned fleet modification programme.

Armed forces minister Adam Ingram declined to reveal how many of the RAF’s approximately 48 C-130J/K transports are to receive the fire-protection upgrade, but the odds are that only a handful will be modified. Why is this, when the UK is probably faced with a requirement to continue operations in Afghanistan for the next five years, and to remain in Iraq for considerably longer?

As an increasingly expeditionary force, the RAF cannot expect any of its transport aircraft to remain within the safety of UK and European skies for the entirety of their service lives. So why is it being forced to cherry-pick which of its transports should be equipped with adequate countermeasures equipment before deploying them into harm’s way?

The RAF’s newly installed chief of the air staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy, says his service will “never put an aircraft into Afghanistan which does not have a defensive aid suite [DAS] that we think is capable of taking on the threat which they may be faced with”. But one look at the aircraft now in theatre is enough to prove that not every Hercules is equally well protected, and as evidenced by XV179’s loss, intelligence is a fallible beast.

Flying around Afghanistan or Iraq in combat body armour and a helmet is a sobering enough experience for British troops without a nagging concern about the specification of DAS installed on their available transport. True, nothing is flying in either theatre without some level of protection, be it the Lockheed TriStar C2 transports delivering troops or Boeing C-17s carrying vital outsized cargo such as transport and attack helicopters.

Ageing and ailing types like the TriStar are being further hamstrung by the variety of DAS installations and other equipment being introduced across their fleets, which means that if one breaks down, there is often not another available to suitably replace it.

The MoD now has a clear opportunity to reverse its past mistakes and commit to acquiring its replacement transports – the Airbus A330-200-based Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) and the Airbus Military A400M – with full and common self-protection systems. Only nine of the RAF’s future 25 A400Ms are to be supplied with DAS equipment under a cost-cutting step worth £240 million ($420 million). Who knows, perhaps current demands could even encourage Whitehall to finally advance its long-delayed FSTA project by placing a contract with the AirTanker consortium?

As taxpayers, maybe we should be reluctant to see every one of the RAF’s future fleet of more than 70 fixed-wing transports and tankers equipped with state of-the-art countermeasures systems. But the equipment is required, and the MoD often ends up paying considerably more money to acquire it under urgent operational requirement conditions than to dig deep and have it sit on the shelf just in case. With lives at risk, the MoD must change its penny-pinching culture.

But another aspect of the force protection debate must be addressed more immediately: can the MoD truly afford to withdraw its six BAE Systems Harrier GR7A close air-support aircraft from Afghanistan on 30 June, as planned? With more than 3,300 of its personnel to be in the country’s volatile Helmand province by mid-year, can the UK afford to rely on its coalition partners to look after its own? Surely if a duty of care is to continue in Afghanistan, so must the Harriers.