Howard Gethin/LONDON

The UK Ministry of Defence may consider the Airbus Industrie Beluga and the Antonov An-124 as alternatives to the Boeing C-17 to meet the near-term Royal Air Force need for a strategic airlifter. The requirement was confirmed by the Government's recent defence review.

"Although there has been much speculation about the C-17, that aircraft is not the only solution," says Sir Robert Walmsley, Chief of Defence Procurement. "There are other aircraft, such as the An-124 and the Beluga," he adds.

An invitation to bid for the contract for four aircraft will be issued next month, calling for delivery in 2001. The aircraft will be leased for about seven years, "plus or minus one or two years", says the MoD.

The Antonov is widely used in the military role in Eastern Europe. Given the RAF's opposition to the Antonov An-70 as a possible Future Large Aircraft contender, it would be ironic if it selected the An-124 for its strategic requirement.

The Beluga, which is based on the A300-600, was developed to ship large subassemblies between Airbus factories. Special Airbus Transport International, the aircraft's builder, is looking for other customers - although, as it stands, the Beluga has neither the range nor the roll-on/roll-off capability of the other candidates.

The MoD is also considering leasing the aircraft back to chosen civilian operators to offset the operating costs, estimated at around £1 million ($1.6 million) a month for a C-17, parallelling a similar scheme already under way for the provision of new roll-on/roll-off ships for the Royal Navy.

"We wouldn't just lease them and pay money when we used them. We would have specific requirements for availability of the aircraft, for example for training the pilots," says Ian Fauset, Procurement Executive director of air systems.

The MoD has previously held talks on the use of heavy cargo aircraft with civilian operators, including HeavyLift, which has carried out long distance cargo operations for the RAF with the An-124.

"We have had previous discussions with the MoD about using the An-124 and we will be taking action," says commercial director Graham Pearce.

The proposals are part of the MoD Procurement Executive's new "Smart Procurement" plans, which are designed to simplify procurement, reduce costs and "-change the culture of procurement in the armed forces".

Source: Flight International