RAF official warns of strategic transport shortfall

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Strategic airlift remains a key capability shortfall for the UK, despite the Ministry of Defence's recent completion of a six-aircraft purchase of Boeing's C-17, says one of the Royal Air Force's highest-ranking officers.

Praising the performance of the UK's C-17s, the first four of which entered use from 2001 under a lease-to-buy agreement with Boeing, Air Marshal Sir Barry Thornton, the RAF's air member for materiel, notes: "We still do not have enough strategic airlift."

Expanded this year through the delivery of two purchased aircraft (ZZ175 pictured below), the fleet in 2007 operated at 122% of its planned flying rate, "and that's continuing", says Thornton.

 
© Craig Hoyle/Flight International

The RAF has previously shown interest in acquiring a further two C-17s, and continued high demand for the type in supporting British operations in Afghanistan and Iraq could result in a fresh orders boost for Boeing, which is seeking further sales to safeguard its at-risk production line for the type.

Speaking at an Air Power Association event in London yesterday, Thornton said the RAF also faces a challenge in maintaining its strategic airbridge to the two war zones, due to the age of its Lockheed TriStar and Vickers VC10 transports. The aircraft will be gradually replaced by the Airbus A330-200-based Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft fleet from 2011.

But with the UK National Audit Office having earlier this year warned of a potential RAF tactical transport crisis from early next decade caused by the retirement of some of its Lockheed Martin C-130Ks, development delays to the replacement Airbus Military A400M are of increasing concern.

"We need to understand what the true status is of the A400M, and what the realistic delivery time is for that aircraft," says Thornton. The RAF's 25 aircraft had been expected to arrive between late 2010 and 2015, but with the type yet to make its first flight this schedule appears likely to slip further.Thornton says the UK and other A400M customers are waiting for a "true picture" on the programme's status from Airbus Military and EADS. "Gaining multinational agreement on the way forward will be a challenge," he adds.

 
© EADS

Once informed of the facts on the A400M (above), Thornton says the MoD will launch an assessment of possible bridging measures, including a proposed upgrade and life-extension to several of the RAF's more than 40-year-old C-130Ks or investigation the lease of additional airlift capability.