The Royal Air Force is stepping up studies into leasing the McDonnell Douglas (MDC) C-17 as a strategic transport, with indications that it is trying to get approval in principle for the deal before a UK general election has to be called by mid-year.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) Procurement Executive is studying pricing data on the lease of six C-17s, although even a draft staff target has yet to be established.

Whitehall sources claim that there is support at a senior level within the RAF for acquiring a limited number of C-17s to provide a strategic airlift capability.

The MoD will only comment that"-we have received a bid from McDonnell Douglas and are looking into it." MDC declines to discuss a potential RAF lease of the aircraft.

Acquisition of the C-17 is a sensitive issue. The UK has also stated its intent to rejoin the collaborative European Future Large Aircraft (FLA) programme. Although there is a clear difference in the operational capabilities of a turboprop FLA and the turbofan C-17, a lease of the latter would probably reduce the number of FLAs that the RAF eventually purchased.

The FLA programme, however, remains in considerable doubt, and senior RAF officers are believed to be concerned that even should the project get a go-ahead, the development timescale will not meet its requirements to replace its remaining Lockheed Martin C-130K tactical transports.

Some novel approaches to leasing the C-17s are being considered, including using a private finance initiative and "sharing" the aircraft with a civil cargo operator which could use the aircraft when they are not required for RAF operation.

The RAF's interest in regaining a strategic airlift capability has been rekindled by increased requirements to support out-of-area operations, rather than being focused on operations in central Europe, as during the Cold War.

Source: Flight International