Pallets East!

There have been a couple of quite interesting Parliamentary questions recently.

The first was tabled by Angus Robertson of the SNP, enquiring about moving supplies to Afghanistan by air and the difference between the RAF and chartered civilian aircraft.

Angus Robertson (Moray, Scottish National Party) To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what estimate he has made of the (a) number of pallets, (b) tonnage of supplies and (c) number of flights to Afghanistan taken by (i) RAF transport and (ii) leased transport aircraft in each of the last six years.

Peter Luff (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Defence Equipment, Support and Technology), Defence; Mid Worcestershire, Conservative) The Ministry of Defence (MOD) does not lease aircraft, ie rent them to be flown by MOD pilots, but rather charters with private companies to fly on the MOD’s behalf. The number of pallets, weight of supplies (in tonnes) and number of flights taken by RAF and civilian chartered aircraft to Afghanistan over the last six calendar years are as follows:

RAF Aircraft Civilian Leased Aircraft
Number of pallets Weight of supplies (in tonnes) Number of flights Number of pallets Weight of supplies (in tonnes) Number of flights
2005 890 2579 144 0 0 0
2006 2368 6572 394 1652 3792 116
2007 3268 7550 513 3258 8678 234
2008 3072 6709 538 4113 8817 266
2009 3654 8225 619 4756 10675 461
2010 2792 6971 533 3756 9568 443

Digging those figures a little more deeply

  • The last 5 years have seen the RAF averaging just under 14 tonnes and 6 pallets per flight with civilian charters, 30 and 13 respectively.
  • The split between the RAF and civilian charters is roughly 50:50
  • Both the number of pallets per flight and tonnes per flight have on average declined year on year for both

It is very difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions, the RAF has a more people focussed mission as only aircraft fitted with DAS can carry personnel, outsize cargo might not weigh much and not be palletised or the RAF is concentrating on tactical delivery in a hub and spoke arrangement in theatre.

There are always hundreds of tales behind the numbers.

Perhaps one thing that is obvious is that the RAF is unable to cope with the demands being placed on it. In terms of weight carried, the RAF has less than 50% of its required lift capacity. Years of under investment in the transport fleet and delays in the FSTA programme means we can not sustain a relatively modest (in personnel terms) operation without resorting civilian operators.

Maybe a second answer from the house might actually throw some light on our actual strategic transport capability from our friend Angus again;

Angus Robertson (Moray, Scottish National Party) To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what the availability rate was of each TriStar aircraft in each of the last 12 months.

Nick Harvey (Minister of State (Armed Forces), Defence; North Devon, Liberal Democrat) The available information is shown in the following table. The figures represent the average number of airframes from each TriStar variant available in the forward fleet during each month of 2010. The forward fleet comprises aircraft which are serviceable and those which are short-term unserviceable.

C2 KC1 K1
January 2 2.9 2
February 1.9 2.5 0
March 1.9 2.9 0.5
April 2 3.3 1
May 1 3.8 0.7
June 1 3.8 0.9
July 0.8 3.9 1
August 1 4 1
September 1 4 1
October 1 4 0
November 1.4 2.8 0.7
December 1.6 2.3 1

The figures look woeful but again, it’s worth looking behind them. We only have a total fleet of 9 aircraft split between the 3 types.

  • c2, 3 of, is passenger only. Monthly availability rates between 27% and 67%
  • K1, 2 of, passenger and refuelling (no cargo door). Monthly availability rates between 0% and 50%
  • KC1, 4 of, mixed passenger, cargo and refuelling. Monthly availability rates between 58% and 100%

The fluctuations in availability rates could be caused by a myriad of factors but despite the herculean efforts of the maintainers (which never seem to be recognised or rewarded) it is plane (sorry) that it just isn’t good enough and the very fact that we have allowed ourselves to be in a position of having to use such ancient aircraft tells us all we need to know about the MoD and RAF.

463L HCU6 Pallet
463L HCU6 Pallet

The Future Strategic Transport Aircraft programme is nipping along nicely but if ever there was an eagerly awaited capability it is this.

By the way, I know we don’t use wooden pallets as per the picture on the front page, have a read here for further details or airborne logistics.

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January 14, 2011 3:49 pm

Perhaps one thing that is obvious is that the RAF is unable to cope with the demands being placed on it. In terms of weight carried, the RAF has less than 50% of its required lift capacity. Years of under investment in the transport fleet and delays in the FSTA programme means we can not sustain a relatively modest (in personnel terms) operation without resorting civilian operators.

Is this a problem, though? The alternative would be buying the RAF lots more airlifters which would then go unused most of the time. Herrick isn’t relatively modest, it is probably the biggest sustained airlift demand the RAF is likely to face – a large commitment (we’re not planning to sustain anything over brigade-size operations for long periods in the future) a long way away that has to be supplied, to a large extent, by air (because it’s landlocked and doesn’t have safe road routes in).
Therefore, if RAF had enough airlift to handle Herrick, it would have too much for any other operation. Better to have a smaller fleet and hire civilian airlift when needed.
You wouldn’t argue that the Navy was undersupplied with troopships because it had to take Canberra to the Falklands – if the navy had enough grey-painted ships to carry two brigades, they’d be completely idle 99% of the time and a terrible waste of money.

January 14, 2011 4:46 pm


I am with a, but my comment is about the hub-and-spoke:

Isn’t it the only way to run this, for several reasons
– normally a “trans-shipment” would be a bad thing, as in civvy logistics, labour & time (opportunity cost of money) intensive, but
— there are only so many “secure” airports in A-stan that you can charter “civvy” aircraft for (rather than rent the airframes and put a military crew in, then HMG self-insures); this delivers the capacity boost and avoids the, in the l-t, idle fleet (ie. huge expense for nothing, not saying that chartering is for free, but is for a real need)
— you don’t wear out the intra-theatre tactical lift out by making them work the longer runs
— the above is the real problem regardless, 37% of the mainstay for the “spoke” operation, the Herc fleet, is K rather than J
— while we are studying when the airframe fatigue will set in, actually the hours have caught up with the study and wing replacements needed will tax the capacity of that part of the lift severely

VC-10s had to be pressed into passenger service, with a special safety permit granted
– so the availability of the Tristars looks respectable, all credit to them

Finally, I don’t normally bring in politicians except for Strategy/ threat assessment/ budget discussions, but we would already have the replacement fleet flying, had not a certain French president said “no, no, the engine must be from Europe”
– there were suitable engines off the shelf, but no
– the development was started from scratch!

January 14, 2011 4:53 pm

In size terms it is modest though, about 10% of Army strength and light in terms of armour as well.

True, but according to the defence review, that’s the most troops we’re ever going to have overseas on a single operation for a sustained period. So in terms of the expected future range of RAF airlift needs, it’s right up at the top. We might send a bigger contingent overseas for a hot war, say – something like Telic 1 – but they won’t be there for a long period.

I entirely agree with your point that the current airlift fleet, as demonstrated by those availability rates, is knackered and needs replacing. A civi airline would regard itself as having serious problems if availability dropped below 80% and it doesn’t look like the RAF ever gets that high.
And, as you say, there’s the DAS constraint. Even if hub-and-spoke is more efficient (and going from first principles it probably isn’t), it would be good to know that we were doing it through choice rather than through necessity. The retro charm of flying in an aircraft that went out of airline use a decade before you were born wears off fairly soon into the trip.
So, yes, no argument that the RAF needs much newer airlifters; I am just not so sure they need many more.

January 14, 2011 5:05 pm

So a Royal Fleet Auxiliary aircraft division I added to another post could be rather attractive. With a fleet of transport aircraft, that when not being used by the RAF could bid for other work. A bit like present RO-RO ferries in the RFA.

January 14, 2011 5:49 pm

Another point is that (warning: back-of-envelope calculation ahead) based on those rates, if you just did a one-for-one replacement of the RAF’s airlift fleet with modern airliners, you’d effectively almost double the size of the fleet, because you’d have much better availability. The fleet averages 5.5 airframes available out of 9. Modern airlines would manage, say, 7.5 or 8.

So, given that half the haulage is currently being done by civi contractors, it looks like the RAF could in fact support most of the Afghan operation fine by itself with no increase in fleet size.

January 14, 2011 7:39 pm

@ A

The Navy never really moved soldiers about the globe. “Trooping” has always nearly been done in civilian vessels or on the inland waterways in what could be best described as “army vessels.” Prior to the retreat from East of Suez (and the introduction of long haul aeroplane journeys about the same time) several British shipping companies had a nice little earner moving the army about the globe. Even my beloved Round Table Class landing ships started their careers in the traditional white livery of a troop ship managed by a civilian company before they were moved to the RFA.

John Hartley
John Hartley
January 14, 2011 9:44 pm

I never understood why we did not buy the 4 ex BWIA Tristar 500. They would have been cheap. A fleet of 13 instead of 9 means less strain per airframe. Much cheaper than keeping VC10 flying.
The A330-200 is a great replacement, but the Airtanker PFI seems a very expensive way of bringing it into service.
I think 14 is too few. 14 new for high end missions, need to be backed by 6 second hand for low risk/surge missions.
Second hand A330 are coming on the market (Emirates/Qatar, etc).
The airlift review also wanted an 8th C-17.

January 14, 2011 9:59 pm

Hi John Hartley,

Have you noted the order for C-17s from the Gulf that will make them a bigger operator than the RAF…

Charge for the base, charge for the lift, charge for the services, charge for the fuel?

January 14, 2011 10:38 pm

JH said “The airlift review also wanted an 8th C-17.”

Which would still put us two behind India. I suppose 8 would be realistic I would like to see 12…….

January 15, 2011 2:10 am

The 8th C17 is still being debated about for the time being, though time is running out as Boeing slows down production.

It’d be interesting to see how much the C17 fleet is doing, I saw the first one ‘leased’ at Brize, peeps there tell me they work pretty hard so it is a bit unfair to look at only the Tristar too much without looking at how they fit into the overal scene with other assests we have, especially since the airframes are more used for personel transport – still, they are infamous about serviceability rates, and I have a freind in marshals aerospace who has worked on the ‘limited avionics’ upgrade on the initial Tristar and many unpleasent surprises were exposed on the airframe, such that as soon as its redelivered its going straight into another hangar for servicing!

The VC-10’s sterling service is at an end, strictly only tankering now till the bitter end, and when they do…a bigger gap will emerge despite how good the A330MRTT is.
FSTA – F*****g Short of Tankers Again!

January 15, 2011 9:47 am

C17 production has been quite a saga in itself.

@ Mike

How are they maintenance per hour in the air? In average “working week” how many are ready for the off?

January 15, 2011 10:27 am

RE “still put us two behind India”
– we talk about the airbridge to A-stan
– India is not going to be flying them between the continents, they have two mountain “fronts” with China and the only way to shift the mountain-specialised troops between those two is by air

How much was it again, per year, that we are sending there in aid?

January 15, 2011 11:14 am

“A bit like present RO-RO ferries in the RFA”

The RFA does not operate any RORO ferries. You are thinking of the Strategic ROROs operated on PFI contract for the MOD by Foreland Shipping, formerly AWSR. FSTA is similar but AIUI RAF aircrew will operate the aircraft on RAF missions. The ROROs are operated entirely by a civilian commercial contractor, much like the chartered commercial aircraft mentioned in the OP but on a very, very long term charter contract.

Brian Black
Brian Black
January 15, 2011 11:59 am

While a large lift over capacity wouldn’t make good sense, as mentioned in earlier comments; there is no reason (other than financial) why aircraft should be standing idle between major deployments.

In particular, the African Union, and UN in Africa regularly face the problem of having insufficient logistic support for their operations.

AU and UN operations on the continent rapidly gain political support, and pledges of manpower from African states and further afield; but then often face a sluggish start, or reduction of scope as the effect of a lack of logistic support (across air, sea and land) begins to bite.

If we want to avoid war and instability in Africa (and elsewhere), then giving real, pratctical support for the UN and other international organizations is essential.

paul g
January 15, 2011 1:22 pm

there’s your answer buy transport aircraft in varying sizes, (i’ve seen hercs been used to ferry 11 people from base to another, not that far away, but road move not possible). You “sell” this idea to the treasury/politicians by telling them the aircraft can be used for UN/humanitarian uses I’m sure that even if there was a fee charged to the (now increased budget) international aid dept it would be a lot cheaper than chartering as private companies have to work on a profit margin.
with things like tunisia,floods, earthquakes etc etc I can’t see them being idle for too great a time

January 15, 2011 2:24 pm

The calculation:
‘The last 5 years have seen the RAF averaging just under 6 tonnes and 14 pallets per flight with civilian charters, 13 and 30 respectively.’

seems to be wrong (probably just switched tonnes and pallets),

I work out
5.84 pallets per flight and 13.87 tonnes per flight for RAF
11.6 pallets per flight and 27.3 tonnes per flight for Civil
over the years 2006-2010 inclusive.

All Politicians are the same
All Politicians are the same
January 15, 2011 3:34 pm

Before we get too carried away maintaining a permanent transport fleet big enough to support an Afghanistan type op would mean that it would lie unused for long periods. the US have a large transport command but make use of as many charter aircraft as we do. A trip to the International side of Kuwait airport or Alli Al salem further up country reveals a lot of Omni Air Internationa passenger charters and various company 747 cargo haulers being used.

January 15, 2011 7:05 pm

“FSTA will be crewed by a mix of civilians and sponsored reserves. When on operations the crew will in effect be RAF, its very much like the operators of the army’s heavy equipment transporters”

Not correct. See:

Specifically: “Under the terms of the Contract, the RAF will retain full operational control over the aircraft and their deployment, with military missions flown by RAF crews.”

Also: “When fully operational, the FSTA programme will employ over 500 personnel at RAF Brize Norton. Just over half will be seconded from the RAF while the remainder will be AirTanker employees including Sponsored Reservists.”

The flight crew will actually be regular RAF, as will some of the support crew.

Sponsored reservists are effectively civilians in all but the most technical sense that they receive military ID cards and perhaps certain elements of training. The Strategic ROROs for example are not armed and are not fitted with any military equipment (e.g. tactical comms) AFAIK. It’s a legal dodge so that the MOD can get a warm fuzzy using civilians in warzones without them being “illegal combatants”. Assuming that the other side respects the Geneva Conventions.

Gareth Jones
Gareth Jones
January 15, 2011 7:18 pm

I think the comparisons between RFA and RAF transports is interesting, particularly baring in mind the discussion over the RFA in the Navy series of posts. would increasing the overall size and the number of different transports increase the RAF’s roles/capabilities not only in “wartime”, but peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, COIN, etc. As well as performing usual support functions such as tanker, ISR, etc, they might have a more front line role in low-threat environments varying from “bomber” to transporting isolated shepards and their herds to market. Like the RFA, asking the DIFD to pay for them would be reasonable because most of the time, as mentioned above, the Armed Forces won’t need them. Instead loan them out(cost of fuel, pay maybe..) to UN, regional organisations, NGO’s, etc. Useful experience and supports our global image/strategy, assuming we have one.

Phil Darley
January 15, 2011 7:19 pm

Don’t start me on the FSTA. This contract is nothing short of a disaster. It’s hellishly expensive, the aircraft have been completely compromised to make them more attractive for civvy use…. No cargo doors or floor, no in flight refuelling for the tanker itself, no boom to enable the RAF to refuel our C17, no DAS for all the fleet and only 8 guaranteed for the RAF the other 6 are an even lower spec and basically meant for permanent leasing to the civilian market!!!

A total fcuking disgrace!!!!!!!!

January 15, 2011 10:29 pm

Hi PD,

I didn’t know the detail, makes me wonder because both tactical and strategic lift are going down in numbers and M400 is the salvation (?) by straddling both.

FSTA is not the only contract for double digit number of years duration where the main purpose seemed to be to massage our debt numbers. In fact those sizeable sums are now protected areas – more generally speaking, I am not saying that we wouldn’t need the tankers. That will make finding any meaningful cuts double painful within the other categories.

January 15, 2011 10:39 pm

@ ArmChairCivvy

I don’t really care where the Indians fly their C17s. They still seem to be able to find the money for more of them than we do. You might like to know that Indian is a big contributor to UN peace keeping forces. So guess what? Sometimes they leave Indian and have to take all manner of equipment with them.

@ Anixtu

The Point class are, well, very well appointed. I find it interesting that their available speed is up on the average RFA vessel. I don’t know whether this is because “they” got something right for once or because commercial realities dictated a higher speed.

Phil Darley
January 15, 2011 10:40 pm

ACC the killer blow I forgot to mention was the FSTA contract also stipulates that this sill be the sole source fir RAF tankering. So no c130 or A400Ms fitted with AAR pods and able to supplement the A330s or provide AAR for helo’s !!!

January 15, 2011 11:18 pm

@ TD

Yes I know that. But it is a bit like when one of our privatised utility companies buys a van fleet. During the working week the vans will be loaded to brim with all manner of heavy equipment. But to save unit cost and oddly fuel the company will invariably buy the smallest engine they can. Consequently the van is put under strain, meaning more wear and tear, more fuel, and a shorter life.

In shipping off the shelf designs just like cars have options. But unlike a car the buyer has a bit of leeway on the design. The MoD could have gone with a smaller engine (if any ship engine can be called small.) But a 15kt (18kt top) ship in today’s shipping commercial world is slow. But the Points have a nice speed of 21kts (and a good range too.)

So yes I know the Points are a commercial design. It obvious that the MoD didn’t fiddle. What I was idly speculating was that because the MoD thought a good speed was a good idea? Or whether the leasing out was a driver? Or did anybody at the MoD wonder about it?

When it comes to ships after their dimensions the engines and design speed is what I look at next.

One apologies for yet another of my odd foibles. :) ;)

January 16, 2011 10:26 am

“I find it interesting that their available speed is up on the average RFA vessel. I don’t know whether this is because “they” got something right for once or because commercial realities dictated a higher speed.”

The typical purpose-built RFA exceeds 20 knots – Fort (I & II), Wave and Rover classes. The Bays are a little slower but that matches the rest of the amphibious fleet. The slower RFAs – Argus, Diligence, Leafs – are all conversions from commercial ships dating from the late 70s/early 80s.

Just look at a Wave class tanker for the impact of speed. A typical commercial tanker of that size probably does somewhere around 15 to 17 knots, is blunt fore and aft, and the machinery and accommodation accounts for around 1/8th to 1/10th of the length. The Waves have fine lines fore and aft and the machinery/accommodation/flight structures account for 2/5ths of the length. The bow another 1//5th and the actual oil tanks only the remaining 2/5ths.

John Hartley
John Hartley
January 16, 2011 10:30 am

We need a cost benefit analysis on whether the MoD/Treasury way of keeping knackered VC10 flying backed up with costly charters, should have been substituted for the extra C-17 (the 8th) + second hand airliners from bankrupted airlines (most likely B767).
I suspect the MoD/Treasury way was the worst solution at greatest cost.

Phil Darley
January 16, 2011 12:36 pm

@JH I think tge biggest problem us how the cost are actually calculated!!! In my career as a project manager I always found that they accountants took a really obscure view of how costs were determined. Just one simple example to illustrate the point: the bean counters thought that cheaper costs from an external company were better than slightly higher costs from one of our internal depts or companies.

To me that’s money going to a competitor when it could be being spent within our company???

The same thing will contractors versus salaried staff. It it’s off the balance sheet it was considered good even though tge contractors cost a fortune, we employed for years and thus had the sane rights as a full time employee!!!

January 16, 2011 1:41 pm

@ Anixtu

I realised once I posted that I think more amphibious or trooping (moving green kit!) and had completely forgot about the Forts etc.

January 17, 2011 9:39 pm

TangoSix’s latest blog post.

January 18, 2011 5:32 am

Hello X,

thank you for the mention,I think this may have been the post you were referring to:

These figures are very interesting.

In 2010 there were 533 Royal Air Force and 443 civilian flights to Afghanistan.

A total of 976 flights for the year and an average of less than 2.7 flights a day,1.46 by the Royal Air Force and 1.19 daily civilian flights.

Very few aircraft would be required to maintain such a small number of flights.

A round trip to Afghanistan is about 7,000 miles,it should be possible for an A330 to do that return flight in a day.

Assuming 80% availability for the new A330 we would require 3.41 aircraft to generate that many daily sorties.

In the real World it would be more than that,maybe 4 or 5 aircraft,but the planned fleet of 9 A330s in full time service seems to be far more than is required to cover both civilian and military flights to Afghanistan.

It would require 1.83 aircraft to generate the 533 sorties the Royal Air Force flew in 2010,again assuming each flight takes a day and 80% of the fleet is available each day.
In the real World we might need 2 or 3 A330s for that.

Again the 9 A330s which will be in service with 5 more “on call” looks very generous.

In 2010 the civilian aircraft averaged 8.48 pallets per flight while the Royal Air Force averaged 5.24 pallets per flight.
The average for civilian and military was 6.7 pallets per flight.

The obvious point here is that far fewer flights,and hence aircraft,would be required if the Royal Air Force put as many pallets on each flight as the civilian carriers do.

The capacity of the A330 MRTT has been given as:

“The lower deck cargo compartment can hold six 88in x 108in Nato standard pallets plus two LD3 containers.The civil cargo load could be 28 LD3 containers or eight 96in×125in pallets plus two LD3 containers.”

The upper deck caries 290 passengers on each trip in addition to this cargo.

Yet again,the planned A330 fleet appears to be far larger than is required to meet the requirement for pallet movements.

In weight terms the Royal Air Force flew 13.08 tonnes per flight on average while the civilians moved an average of 22.1 tonnes per flight.

Yet again we must point out that fewer aircraft would be required if the Royal Air Force carried as much weight per flight as the civilians do.

The civilians flew an average of 26.4 tonnes per day in 2010 and the Royal Air Force averaged 19.1 tonnes per day.
Total average was 45.31 tonnes per day in 2010.

Nevertheless,with each A330 able to carry up to 44 tonnes of cargo per flight,the future fleet appears to have significant over capacity in tonnage terms also.

In summary,an admittedly rough analysis of these numbers seems to suggest that the entire requirements for moving pallets/tonnes and people to Afghanistan can be met with a very small fleet of A330s.
At least 4 would be required but it is difficult to see the need for more than 6,let alone the 9 which will be in full time service or the additional 5 which will be leased out.


January 18, 2011 5:42 am


there is a lot more detail on cargo capacity at the Airbust A330 MRTT site:


January 18, 2011 8:08 am


TD’s good points all stand, but this calculation “At least 4 would be required but it is difficult to see the need for more than 6,let alone the 9 which will be in full time service or the additional 5 which will be leased out.”
– is interesting as there was a discussion with the French, for them to replace the old KC-135s by also using part of this capacity
– price was a sticking point, but the above points to 3-5 being available as for cargo you can substitute something else, but (in the future) not for AAR

January 18, 2011 10:25 am

What I want to know is how much stuff goes overland to British forces in a year. Is there a NATO pool of common stores? Or is there is a mix?

I am not questioning the need for an air bridge. I appreciate that some cargo is better shipped that way.

(Though I would like to know who decided to move all those Minimis by land………..)

John Hartley
John Hartley
January 19, 2011 10:39 pm

You may only need 4 A330 if you are only moving pallets to Afghanistan, but what about trooping flights, medical repatriation, tanking + the Falklands airbridge & flights to Canadian/American training grounds?
Factor that in & 9 is not enough. Add in natural disasters + wars we can agree on such as the Falklands/Desert Storm , then double that seems reasonable.
The RAF needs at least 10 A330 to full RAAF standards, then 9-10 2nd hand “surge” flown by reservists when needed, Tristar or B767/A330(ex airline).