The UK Royal Air Force is experiencing its worst period of stretch since the end of the Second World War, according to one of the service's highest-ranking officers, who attributes the situation to the demands of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and an ongoing rationalisation process which will cut its personnel strength to around 41,000 by early 2008.

"At no time in the last 50 or 60 years has the air force been more operationally stretched," says Air Chief Marshal Sir Clive Loader, commander-in-chief of the RAF's Air Command organisation.

The consistently high operational tempo maintained by the air force is being underlined by a month-long "relief in place" operation launched on 10 September to support the rotation of more than 12,000 land forces personnel in Afghanistan. Conducted on top of the RAF's routine air transport duties, the mission will place additional demands on its already overworked Boeing C-17 and Lockheed Martin C-130J/K fleets.

C-130K Afghanistan 
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Revealing that the UK's current four C-17s are being used at more than 120% of their planned flying rate, Loader says that while another two aircraft will be introduced by late next year, the current level of demand "will have some deep effects downstream" in providing long-term support for the type. RAF C-130s meanwhile amassed over 30,000 flying hours in 2006, and Loader says the service "will have to be very careful" if it is to ensure a smooth transition from its older Ks to the Airbus Military A400M from early next decade.

The air force must configure itself for "a moderately medium-term war" in Afghanistan, says Loader, who notes: "I don't know what Iraq is going to look like in one or two years' time, but I've got a clear idea of what Afghanistan is going to look like in three or four years, and it might not be very different."

Loader says the RAF must also "carefully balance between operations and equipment, and people and their aspirations", adding: "The air force is not broken, but there are things that need tweaking for sure."

Recent logistics improvements have dramatically cut the per-hour operating cost of the RAF's BAE Systems Harrier GR7/9 and Panavia Tornado fleets, but Loader says further rationalisation must come through the UK's ongoing defence airfield review. "Airfields have four corners. We want to stuff a squadron into each corner and then pack out the middle bit with as many other operational elements as we possibly can," he says. "We had 73 or 74 airfields in 2003 across defence, but we never had enough money to keep a lick of paint on them."


Source: Flight International