UK eyes more C-17s to cover A400M delay

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The UK Ministry of Defence could lease or buy additional Boeing C-17 strategic transports due to uncertainties surrounding the delivery schedule for its planned fleet of 25 Airbus Military A400Ms.

Original plans had called for the A400M to achieve a 2011 in-service date with the Royal Air Force, but the UK and other partners in the European project are now waiting to receive a revised flight-test and delivery schedule from lead company EADS.

"Following the recent announcement of delays by Airbus Military in the A400M programme, we are considering a number of options as a contingency to mitigate any potential capability gaps that may arise," says Quentin Davies, minister for defence equipment and support.

"Options we are considering include an extension to the life of the [Lockheed Martin] C-130K fleet and leasing or procurement of additional C-17 capacity," says Davies. "We are monitoring the situation closely and are pressing Airbus Military for further information so we can make a detailed assessment of the impact on A400M production deliveries and the planned in-service date."

The RAF had expected to retire its last C-130Ks in 2012, 46 years after the type entered use, and will face a serious tactical transport capability shortfall as a result of the A400M slippage. The air force's 99 Sqn earlier this year received the sixth C-17 (below) to be acquired under an estimated £2 billion ($3 billion) deal with Boeing, and the service has previously identified an urgent requirement for an additional two examples.

 
© Gina Vanatter/Boeing

A withdrawal from the A400M project does not appear to be among the options under consideration by the MoD. While the programme's seven European partners could reduce or cancel their orders in exchange for providing compensation to Airbus Military, Davies reveals that a contract clause means "all nations collaborating on the programme are obliged to hold their partners harmless from any associated impact." However, speaking to the House of Commons Defence Select Committee on 25 November, chief of defence materiel Gen Sir Kevin O'Donoghue said: "All of us need the capability, but we can't wait forever."

Separately, Davies confirms that all the UK's A400Ms will be equipped with a fuel tank inerting system, "with the exception of one development aircraft that will either be retrofitted at a later date, or if this proves impossible, excluded from use in areas of significant operational threat". The MoD has not revealed the cost of adding the safety equipment to its A400M production order.

 a400m
© EADS

Explosion suppressant foam has also now been installed on 74% of the RAF's C-130J/K inventory. "All C-130 aircraft routinely deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq are now fitted with the foam," the MoD says. "Those not fitted with the foam will shortly begin to be retired from service." The ministry and the air force faced fierce criticism for the lack of a fuel inerting system following the loss of Hercules XV179 over southern Iraq in 2005.