The Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft or FSTA is the RAF’s new tanker and strategic transport aircraft based on the Airbus A330-200 aircraft. The 14 aircraft will replace the existing and rather knackered Tristar’s and VC10’s that are valiantly soldiering on maintaining an airbridge to the Middle East and other places.
To provide some idea of just how much the RAF is having to rely on the civil aviation sector a recent (March 9th) Parliamentary answer on the subject revealed the following providers had operated flights from RAF Brize Norton (the main transport hub) in a 1 year period from Feb 2008. The answer was;
- Air Alitalia
- Air Berlin Gmbh
- Air Charter Express
- Air Charter Transport
- Air Finland
- Air Slovakia
- Antonov Design Bureau
- Atlas Air
- Avico, Corsair
- Kalitta Air
- Kuzu Airlines
- Maximus Air
- MK Airlines
- Monarch Airlines
- My Travel
- Omni Air International
- Polet, Ruslan
- Thomas Cook
- Thomson Fly
- Titan Airways
- Volga Dneiper Airlines
- World Airways
What is unusual with this deal is that it isn’t a normal acquisition of aircraft, spare bits and a couple of Haynes manuals it is being contracted via a PFI and for a capability not aircraft. The wording is ‘a usage and performance-based service delivery contract’
The aircraft, crew, support, infrastructure and pretty much everything else will be made available to the RAF from the AirTanker consortium whose shareholders include Cobham, EADS, Rolls Royce, Thales and VT Group. The deal is the largest PFI in the world, will run for 27 years and cost £13 billion.
The aircraft will be utilised by civilian customers when not required for the RAF. The wings have recently left the Airbus UK Broughton plant en route to Toulouse for assembly.
It’s hard not to be enthusiastic about taking a positive step towards replacing the existing VC10’s and Tristar’s.
Today’s wing ceremony marks a significant stage in the life of the Future Strategic Air Tanker and is good news for the RAF and good news for industry and UK jobs. Quentin Davies – Minister for Defence Equipment and Support
Air-to-air refuelling and strategic airlift are fundamental to the UK’s expeditionary capability and the Future Tanker is a crucial element of that capability. These aircraft will provide the RAF with the modern air-to-air refuelling and passenger air transport capability that is so necessary in this era of expeditionary operations. Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy – Chief of the Air Staff
There is no doubting that it is the right aircraft and when in service will provide a vital capability lift but the deal has been plagued by problems and delays. Other nations, for Example Australia, UAE and Saudi Arabia, just got on with the business of buying the same type of aircraft. Theirs are more or less in service now and we have only just finished sorting out the finance.
The aircraft specification is also missing a few vital bits like the ability to be refuelled in the air itself, a large cargo door and no refuelling boom for aircraft like the C17 and E3 AWACS. As usual, we manage to miss out on a few vital components in order to reduce costs but the net result is a serious reduction in operational flexibility and a likely increase in costs in other areas.
It will be interesting to see actual versus planned utilisation and how much AirTanker will be able to lease to other air forces or the civilian charter market. Almost everyone remains sceptical on this one.
Interestingly, it has been reported that the lead finance provider for the consortium was HBOS with Lloyds TSB, the same HBOS and Lloyds TSB the UK taxpayer more or less owns. So that would be the taxpayer providing funding to a bank so they can lend to a private company at commercial rates to enable them to lease back to the taxpayer the equipment that we can’t afford to buy!
The in full-service date is 2016 for air refuelling although the air transport capability will be in service sooner, a mere 17 years after the requirement was issued, a stunning performance from the MoD and Government as usual.
Despite the serious issues, it’s good news they are on their way but whichever way you paint this, it is a crazy way to pay for strategically vital equipment.