The Pros and 7 Cons of an RAF Voyager

Announced this week was the official naming ceremony of the RAF’s newest and largest aircraft, the Voyager

On the 15th of July the MoD wrote

The RAF’s largest ever aircraft has been officially named Voyager after being flown by an RAF pilot today at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford – its first public appearance.

Here one is, landing at the Royal International Air Tattoo

Replacing the RAF’s clapped out Tristars and VC10’s the Voyagers will form the Future Strategic Transport Aircraft, or FSTA programme.

Delivered as a 27 year £13 billion Private Finance Initiative from Air Tanker, it will provide a step change in capability, availability and reliability. Based on the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) ordered by Australia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates it must be understood that it is not simply having the aircraft on Hire Purchase, it’s a complete availability and service contract.

Despite the problems we should note that Air Tanker have competently and diligently met all their performance targets and programme objectives.

FSTA progress so far;

And in a sign of the dumbing down of the debate, Air Tanker kindly provide a fact sheet showing how one Voyager carries enough fuel for 400,00 cups of tea

Despite recent progress the FSTA programme has a long and none too stellar history, it’s an MoD procurement after all, surely you weren’t expecting anything other than a woeful story of delays and incompetence were you?

The National Audit Office report in March last year painted a damning picture and the Defence Select Committee waded in with another, neatly timed to coincide with the first flight of the aircraft.

It is worth quoting the reports summary;

In March 2008, the Ministry of Defence (the Department) signed a private finance initiative (PFI) contract with AirTanker Ltd, for the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) to provide air-to-air refuelling and passenger transport services. FSTA is based around 14 modified Airbus A330-200 MRTT and will replace the 24 Tristars and VC10s that form the RAF’s current fleet.

Under the contract, AirTanker owns the aircraft and will provide them to the Department when required. AirTanker will also provide the associated aircraft support, maintenance and infrastructure, making the scope of the deal broader than any other defence PFI contract to date. The value of the contract, worth £10.5 billion over 27 years, also makes it the largest signed.

PFI works best where activities and demand are predictable. This is clearly not the case for FSTA. For instance, it is simply astonishing that the Department did not decide until 2006 that FSTA should be able to fly into high threat environments such as Afghanistan. Yet the Department is inhibited from changing the specification because of the implications to the cost of the PFI. Just two years after the deal was signed, the forthcoming Strategic Defence and Security Review is likely to change the demand for the services AirTanker has been contracted to deliver. As the Committee’s previous work shows, dealing with changes on PFI deals is expensive and the Review may question whether this PFI deal is sensible or affordable. The fact that no other country has chosen to procure air-to-air refuelling and passenger transport using PFI type arrangements is further indication that PFI is not a suitable procurement route for such important military capabilities.

There are significant shortcomings in the Department’s procurement of FSTA and we do not believe the procurement was value for money. The shortcomings include:

Assuming that PFI would be the right solution from the outset without a sound evaluation of alternative options;

Running only a limited competition;

Never developing a realistic fallback if the PFI solution proved unworkable;

Failing to have a clear understanding of the full costs of running its current aircraft fleets and failing to secure visibility of sub-contractor cost data, meaning the Department was unable either to compare costs with the price being offered by AirTanker or determine whether the PFI option was good value for money;

Not fixing the requirements until late into the process so that the negotiations themselves took over nine years to complete, more than double the expected four years. This delay in turn led to a considerable cost increase against initial estimates;

Not having the right skills and experience in place and failing to provide firm leadership until the later stages of the procurement to effectively manage the procurement, and

Not making timely decisions on fitting the necessary protection equipment to enable the aircraft to fly into high threat environments like Afghanistan, a task that the Tristar may have to continue doing until 2016.

In order to obtain best value going forward, the Department must retain contract expertise and ensure that staff make decisions regarding FSTA in the full knowledge of the financial implications. Without this action, the risk is that extra demands will be placed on AirTanker which result in additional, and unnecessary, payments being made by the Department.

In the measured tones of official publications this is pretty damning stuff.

Quite clearly it is yet another MoD/Military weapons grade cock up.

But we say this with the benefit of hindsight, if we had purchased them outright something else would have had to be delayed or omitted from the equipment plan. The PFIarrangement means that pretty much everything is included for about £400 million per year, more details here.

The delays have resulted in a woefully inadequate air transport capability, highlighted above, which has had serious impact on the Iraq and Afghanistan air bridge and as usual, we have had to rely on the herculean efforts of the existing aircraft maintainers and capabilities of the air movements teams to keep even a basic level of service in support of operations. We spend millions on training personnel so they can do a good job but then saddle them with antique equipment that is fundamentally unfit for service.

PFI’s are a fundamentally poor way of procuring capabilities that are unpredictable and involve risk because the cost of that risk is always transferred back to the customer and interestingly, one of the funding partners for Air Tanker is the Royal Bank of Scotland. We will therefore be borrowing money off ourselves because we can’t afford it!

A few of comments from members of the current government are interesting.

Vince Cable MP said of PFI’s

The whole thing has become terribly opaque and dishonest and it’s a way of hiding obligations. PFI has now largely broken down and we are in the ludicrous situation where the government is having to provide the funds for the private finance initiative

Philip Hammond, Conservative Treasury spokesman, said

If you take the private finance out of PFI, you haven’t got much left . . . if you transfer the financial risk back to the public sector, then that has to be reflected in the structure of the contracts. The public sector cannot simply step in and lend the money to itself, taking more risk so that the PFI structure can be maintained while leaving the private sector with the high returns these projects can bring. That seems to us fairly ridiculous.

Liam Fox MP, Secretary of State for Defence, commenting on the NAO report said;

This NAO report exposes one of the most absurd procurement decisions taken by this Labour Government.

First, they failed to examine alternative ways of funding the requirement for air-to-air tankers / transport aircraft. The extraordinarily convoluted PFI process means the programme is five years late, leaving the RAF dependent on 40 year old Tri-Stars and VC-10s which have provided our troops with an unreliable service.

Secondly, because the contract was shrouded in secrecy, it is only now that we learn that the planes will not even be fitted with defensive aids to enable them to fly into war zones.

As troop carriers they will be of no more use than hiring British Airways or Easyjet planes, but twice as expensive. Meanwhile, the NAO confirms it will be years – and millions more pounds of taxpayers’ money – to bring the planes up to the standard necessary to replace the Tri-Stars on routes to war zones like Afghanistan.

This FSTA programme sums up the utter incompetence of Labour’s management of defence procurement

Politicians must be used a diet of their own words but we must not the good doctor failed to back his words up with deeds.

So it being obvious what the Conservative Secretary of State for Defence and the Liberal Democrat Business Minister think of PFI’s have they had the CEO of AirTanker into Whitehall for an interview without coffee, what do you think?

Business as usual it would seem, so let’s not have any more lectures from our current crop of ‘grown ups’ about PFI’s or lecturing the previous incumbents about the financial good sense shall we.

Because of the need to ‘get the small print right’ in the agreement every minor change in requirement needed yet more costly and time consuming legal/commercial reviews and the time to get the funding consortium sorted have all added to the considerable delays and costs. The delay means we have had to spend a lot of money on the VC10’s and Tristars, additional maintenance and equipment. Money that we can ill afford to spend and is essentially, wasted. The older aircraft are much less fuel efficient as well.

It is conceivable that the delay costs, additional spend on fuel, charters and maintenance could have paid for new aircraft outright.

We tend to fixate on the aircraft number, divide that number by the contract value and proceed to the spitting coffee/ruining keyboard stage but it is not a lease deal for a number of aircraft, it’s a service delivery contract, the number of aircraft is dictated by the requirement, it is important, when slagging off the FSTA PFI that we understand it is not just for aircraft.

The whole PFI concept is based on stable demand, where this is impossible, this variability has to be expensively written into a hideously complex contract during which both parties will have agreed to break points, usage levels and risk. Costs are therefore predicated on looking into a crystal ball and taking what at best are educated guesses. Will the RAF be able to sell on some of its AAR capacity to other nations, will the passenger charter market allow Air Tanker to make maximum use of the aircraft, will we need more than can be provided by the aircraft, who knows.

If we cannot predict the next 27 years, how about looking back?

What has happened to the RAF aircraft fleet, air combat, technology and the geo political landscape since the conflict in the Falklands, it is roughly the same time period. Coming back from the Falklands could we have predicted the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, the reduction in aircraft, technology or the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet we are being asked to predict what demand for AAR and AT for the next couple and a half decades?

Now all these issues might be worth swallowing if the services were getting a tangible improvement and a decent set of capabilities.

You hopeless optimistics you, you didn’t really think that would be the case did you?

Come on, Really!

Because of the nature of the PFI contract, where AirTanker can use some of the aircraft for non MoD charters there had to be compromises which means minimal modification to the base platform, or they had to be made as civilian as possible to both facilitate this reuse and of course keep costs down to a minimum.

What are the cons?

CON NUMBER 1 – Self Refuelling

There will be no airborne refuelling receptacles fitted, which means the aircraft will not be able to take on fuel themselves whist airborne. One might think that this would not be needed because of the aircrafts extreme range and fuel capacity but this is not the case. Many missions have demonstrated the value of being able to take on fuel. Every other sensible operator of airborne refuelling aircraft ensure they can take on fuel themselves. The Royal Australian Air Force use the same A330 as the FSTA aircraft will but they have of course decided on this capability, unencumbered as they are by the shackles of a complex quasi commercial contract.

Here is a video of what we will not be getting

These receptacles are standard fit on the A330 MRTT and it is called the Universal Aerial Refuelling Receptacle Slipway Installation (UARRSI), the MoD have ensured it will be removed from the design.

The Air Tanker website states

Deployment (trail) mission capability. Can deploy four fighter aircraft up to 2800nm from base, whilst carrying up to 15 tonnes of additional payload.

Taking these figures we can draw a simple radius on a map, say for Brize Norton to Ascension or Ascension to Mount Pleasant

Anyone see a problem?

Of course, things are more complicated than drawing a line on a map and the obvious answer to this problem would simply be to deploy fewer aircraft and take the extra fuel for itself but it is features like being able to take on fuel for itself that really extend the value of airborne refuelling aircraft.

With zero cargo, the A330 MRTT website quotes a deployment range with 4 Eurofighters, as 3,600nm which would allow it to cover the distance between between Ascension and Mount Pleasant but not quite the distance between Brize Norton and Ascension.

With personnel and stores to the value of 30 tonnes (about 300 personnel) the aircraft can cover 4,500nm which puts Mount Pleasant within a very easy 2 hops but if it were possible to refuel mid air then this would be equally comfortable in one.

CON NUMBER 2 – Boom Refuelling

Although the VC10’s and Tristar’s don’t have a boom the other A330 refuelling aircraft do, it’s a system that allows the aircraft to refuel those fitted with a receptacle rather than probe. In UK service there is only 2 such aircraft, the C17 and E3*, although when the RC-135 Rivet Joint purchase is finished that will be another. It also limits our usefulness in coalition operations, especially with the US, and combined with Number 1 will reduce flexibility and utility in the AAR role.

RAAF A330 MRTT Refuelling Boom
RAAF A330 MRTT Refuelling Boom

Here is a video of something else we won’t be getting

Boom refuelling is much easier for a large aircraft in the receiving mode although it is not impossible for them to use a drogue.

The boom system is called Airbus Military Aerial Refuelling Boom System (ARBS) and despite the recent problems will no doubt be fully proven and matured in due course.

*we should note that the E3 also has a probe.

We could always ask those nice Americans to do it for us

CON NUMBER 3 – Limited High Capacity Refuelling

Not all of the aircraft will be fitted for the high capacity AAR role, only 5 will be fitted with a Cobham 805E Fuselage Refuelling Unit (FRU) to provide flexibility and high rate offload for large aircraft like the C17 or RC135 (see above). The two large aircraft in RAF service which will be able to take maximum advantage from the FRU’s are the A400 and E3

This system also allows different fuel types to be carried and the variation in equipment fit across the small fleet will result in a loss of flexibility as having aircraft in the right place with the right equipment becomes that much more difficult with a non-homogeneous equipment fit.

The sensible thing, funnily enough that other operators do, is to have a single interchangeable fleet. 

CON NUMBER 4 – Self Defence Systems

No self defence system or flight deck armour was originally specified, in the early 90’s when the programme was initiated these might have been a reasonable things to leave off but for operations today, it is simply unthinkable for an aircraft to fly in hazardous airspace without a full suite of protection systems. It has been stated that all aircraft will be fitted with suitable defence systems but the impact of this on the contract and the aircraft’s desirability to the lease market is unknown. DAS are some of the most restricted systems in existence, closely guarded and seldom discussed. Quite how they might be removed so the aircraft could be used for the civilian lease market and refitted without complex engineering and recertification processes is again, unknown. If only the core aircraft are fitted with DAS then not only does it make a mockery of that statement but the ones used for surge operations would need to fitted at short notice. Not having sufficient DAS equipped aircraft might result in inefficient hub and spoke arrangements where the FSTA aircraft fly into a benign location with personnel transferring to tactical transport for the flight forward.

In some ways it is perhaps a good thing because had they been specified in the original contract they would have been fitted and probably immediately removed due to obsolescence when the aircraft entered service. At least this way the RAF will get the latest DAS but how this is being funded is uncertain.

It is easy to be seduced by the bungling MoD line on this issue but I suspect that it was not omitted at all, but deleted due to commercial and cost issues. It is an interesting excuse; ‘how could we predict we would be flying into high threat environments’ is often heard but whilst hiding behind the convenience of not being able to predict the future we are quite happy to enter into a 27 year contract.

CON NUMBER 5 – Cargo Handling

The RAF Voyager aircraft will not have a large freight door on the main deck, nor a cargo floor. The KC-45 that EADS proposed for the recent US tanker competition had a boom, in flight refuelling receptacle and a full cargo door/floor, for about £120m each. Not having suitable cargo handling capabilities on the main deck will limit it to light stores on small pallets and personnel, the lower deck will be able to handle LD3 containers and 463L’s but because upper deck access is limited by a small door the overall cargo capacity will be extremely limited even if the seats could be removed.

Here is yet another video of something we will not be getting

This lack of cargo carrying flexibility is arguably the most significant omission from the FSTA contract, have a look here for an image of a Tristar cargo setup. If we can have this type of common sense flexibility on a 30 year old aircraft why is it why cannot have the same on our shiny new toys?

The A330 MRTT comes in two basic flavours, the passenger + fuel version or the cargo + passenger + fuel version.

The first is the cheapest and inevitably the option we have selected because of the need to both keep costs down and make them attractive to the civilian charter market (depending on which of the aircraft we are talking about)

To understand how this is a ludicrous decision we need to understand the difference between the two versions

The A330 MRTT has the traditional wide body 2 deck layout of the A330.

The lower deck on both versions is the same; it can carry a combination of military 463L pallets and civilian LD3 and LD6 containers, typically 8x 463L, 1x LD6 and 1x LD3 or 25x LD3 as the diagrams below.

A330 MRTT 04 Lower deck
A330 MRTT Lower deck

A330 MRTT 06 lower deck

A330 MRTT Lower Deck pallet configuration
A330 MRTT Lower Deck pallet configuration

The difference between the two versions is the upper deck.

In the passenger + fuel version there is no cargo door and the seats are semi permanently installed, capacity depending on the seat size/pitch is between 270 and 291. A crew rest compartment may also be fitted for extended mission times but given that we decided not to bother with the ability to take on fuel from another aircraft this has not been taken either, a simple palletised version can be quickly purchased if needed

An aeromedical evacuation setup can also be fitted but it is not known if this will be the simple stretcher configuration or the high dependency palletised systems as used on the C17.

A330 MRTT Upper Deck seating
A330 MRTT Upper Deck seating configuration – two class
A330 MRTT Upper Deck seating configuration
A330 MRTT Upper Deck seating configuration – single class

This is the version the RAF will be getting, absolutely minimal modification from a civilian A330 passenger jet.

A330 MRTT Upper Deck seating
A330 MRTT Upper Deck seating

In the cargo configuration, the upper deck is configured for pallets and containers rather than personnel, as per the image below, no windows and cargo rollers.

A330 MRTT Upper Deck cargo version
A330 MRTT Upper Deck cargo version

This is not to say personnel cannot be accommodated in the cargo version because palletised seats are freely available in a range of colours!

Using palletised seats (as  the image below) a total of 252 personnel can be accommodated, less than the dedicated version but not by much.

Instead of seats, the upper deck could also carry a whopping 26x 463L pallets.

As we all know by now, palletised systems might deliver slightly less capacity but infinitely increased flexibility, a mixed configuration could be 136 palletised seats and 5x 463L pallets on the upper deck plus 25 LD3 on the lower deck for example.

A330 MRTT Upper Deck seating configuration using palletised seats
A330 MRTT Upper Deck seating configuration using palletised seats
A330 MRTT Upper Deck cargo version showing pallets
A330 MRTT Upper Deck cargo version showing pallets
A330 MRTT Upper Deck cargo version showing pallets and seating
A330 MRTT Upper Deck cargo version showing pallets and seating

It is not certain if the RAF aircraft will be able to accommodate the palletised intensive care facilities used so successfully by the C17 and in service with the UK. If it is the case that these systems will not be able to be used on FSTA then we will have to keep using the C17 for high dependency aeromedical evacuation instead of the Voyager, injecting yet more inefficiency into the system as a whole. There is no doubt about the suitability of the C17 for this role with such a small fleet and a high demand one wonders of it is the most efficient.

C17 Flying Hospital
C17 Flying Hospital

The cargo door opening is 2.56m high and 3.58m wide so some smaller vehicles like Land Rovers or Ocelot could be accommodated on the upper deck if they could be angled in.

A330 MRTT Cargo Door
A330 MRTT Cargo Door

Compare the number of pallets routinely going into Afghanistan (about 40 per day) with a solution that can carry 8 (the RAF A330 ) or 32 (the cargo A330) and it should be obvious which one will be the more useful. Before anyone shouts up I know I have not included the LD3 capacity in the RAF versions figures but when flying cargo and personnel the RAF’s FSTA aircraft will be hauling a paltry 8 463L pallets and significant quantities of fresh air and empty seats, seats that will be burning fuel.

The cargo version can be easily modified to suit the mission at hand and it is this flexibility, carrying the exact mix of passengers, 463L and LD3’s required, means that utilisation rates would be significantly increased, less flights being made with sub optimal loading, less flights overall and dramatically improved efficiency.

At this point it is worth noting that the FSTA is designated as an air to air refuelling and passenger transport capability with air transport of cargo being a secondary role, somewhat unfairly criticising it for something it was not designed for, but whilst this statement might have been fine at the project outset it certainly is not now. Expeditionary operations, even at a Brigade level will require significant air transportation of cargo, even if the preferable option of sea transport is available. Deploying, building up more concentrated forces and withdraw will equally require capacity that may not be available in the civilian market.

It is ridiculous to not have selected the cargo version.

With the changes in force levels as per the SDSR, the RAF would arguably need less refuelling capacity and more air transport.

FSTA delivers the inverse of this.

CON NUMBER 6 – Uncertainty of Demand

Without seeing the exact nature of the agreement for the second batch of aircraft, how much they cost when being used or not being used for example, it is difficult to speculate on whether the number of provided aircraft is too high or too low. We should also remember that we are contracting for a service, not necessarily a number of aircraft but this exposes the fundamental inflexibility of long term PFI’s, a difficulty in coping with variation in demand IF that demand is lower than the contracted baseline.

The baseline requirement is for 9 aircraft, an option for the 10th in permanent RAF service and the rest will be available on a surge basis to the RAF or used for revenue generation.

With a conventional purchase, if demand drops, the aircraft can be placed in extended readiness at low cost or used to even out airframe hours. This might not suit the MoD’s accounting systems but the operational and long term financial benefits are clear.

CON NUMBER 7 – Exclusivity

It has been reported that the terms of the agreement prevent the RAF from using any other aircraft or service provider for the air refuelling role which sounds eminently reasonable in a commercial context but of course flies in the face of operational necessity.

Because the A400 has been designed from the outset to offer airborne refuelling, using it in a mixed cargo/AAR role would be a relatively simple affair, all the plumbing is there, expensive modification not needed. Beyond training and the relatively low cost refuelling assemblies we could extract maximum value out of the A400 in three scenarios;

The first is for the Falkland Islands, to provide refuelling cover for the Typhoon flight, supporting long flights from Ascension Island or diverts in the case of bad weather, the RAF maintain a single VC10 at Mount Pleasant. Joining the VC10 is a C130 used for tactical transport and some maritime patrol tasks. When the A400 comes into service it would be able to cover both these roles with a single aircraft type, a significant cost reduction and capability improvement. As it stands now, the Falklands will require both an FSTA A330 AND an A400. Multiply that additional cost by a decade or so and it should become clear just how expensive and restrictive this contract condition is.

The second scenario is helicopter refuelling, special forces missions often require long range helicopter flights, instead of using multiple helicopters whose effective mission load would have been dramatically reduced because of a high fuel load, an A400 could fly a similar low level tactical flight profile, refuelling the helicopter/s whilst also providing airdrop facilities for vehicles and heavier stores. It is not likely that the A330 will be able to fly low and slow enough to refuel helicopters and low enough to be survivable or maintain surprise. This is a capability we currently have to rely on allies for but given our global reach, should be able to do this on sovereign missions and it would be available at minimal cost.

Finally, blending a tactical transport and AAR mission would be extremely cost effective in a number of situations and the flexibility to refuel fast jets should it be needed is also an added bonus.

Having an A400 AAR capability would allow the RAF to maximise the investment in these aircraft, improve capabilities and significantly enhance operational cost efficiency.

Although RAF Chinook helicopters are not routinely fitted with AAR probes there is no doubt they could be, the A400’s flight envelope will allow it to go low and slow enough to refuel helicopters. A typical special forces mission might include a long range helicopter insertion using a couple of Chinooks and an A400 for refuelling mission and air dropping vehicles, stores or additional personnel.

It might be a bit Tom Clancy but with a relatively small cost this would be a new and effective capability for the UK and would also allow us to better support other nations.


The MoD has traded affordability for value for money, penny wise pound foolish as it seems so often to be.

Whatever the pros of FSTA, and there are many, I suspect it will ultimately be very poor value for money and will fail to deliver the capability that we actually need, with too much air refuelling for a fast jet fleet we longer have and not enough air transport of sufficient flexibility for future sustained expeditionary operations.

The A330MRTT with Rolls Royce engines is absolutely the right aircraft but in trying to scrimp and save we have knobbled the fleet, they will be inflexible, inappropriate and overly expensive.

Seems like a depressing pattern repeating itself.

Still, at least those nice chaps at Air Tanker have allowed the RAF to use its shiny new hangar at Brize Norton for C130 maintenance, awfully good of them.

Oh, hang on a minute, there is a contract involved.

You didn’t think they offered it at no cost did you!

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July 18, 2011 4:25 am

Just one amendment I’d make:

“Whatever the pros of *insert pretty much any MoD run project here*, and there are many, I suspect it will ultimately be very poor value for money and will fail to deliver the capability that we actually need”

Aussie Johnno
Aussie Johnno
July 18, 2011 5:18 am

I stumbled on your website some time ago, but this is the first time I have made a comment.
I got out of the Australian DOD a few years back, but prior to that I spend over a decade on Australian Army/RAAF outsourcing programs. In that time I went from Catering and on-base services to stores depots to various maintenance/training tasks.
The rule on outsourcing is that if you can tie onto an existing industry capability you can, over a DOD/military/Public Service solution, save a good deal of money. The companies just run a tighter operation. But if a company has to build a solution to meet your requirements it is much more likely to be a bad deal, particularly if there is a high capital cost involved. Here the RAAF has toyed with leasing/PFI but this hasn’t gone beyond leasing of the VIP fleet 737’s and Challengers and a few King Air’s used for navigator training and light transport. In each case the economics of lease were not compelling and the leases went ahead for other reasons. The possibility of leasing/PFI is still part of the workup of many acquisition projects here because it is still politically popular, but most of the time the numbers simply don’t add up.
The FSTA project, as something to watch from professional interest, has been simply amazing. I can only assume that a lot of people in the contracting process had guns at their heads.

Just for the record:
1.Granting exclusivity to an outsourcing company in any form should be a firing squad offence. You are tying the hands of your MOD contract managers as regard quality of service. You can have all the liquidated damages/performance clauses you like but the two most effective ways of holding an outsourcing company’s nose to the grindstone is through the monthly payment (withholding some or all) and through your right to go somewhere else.

2.It is hard enough to share plant items like vehicles, maintenance equipment, paintshops between military and commercial use. The idea that A330’s could be seemlessly swung between civilian lease and operational use as a refueller is beyond belief. In practical terms the RAF is going to end up with 7 tankers.

Final comment, the RAAF has started to take its MRTT’s into service but they are still a work in progress. At the moment, only probe and drogue refuelling is cleared for use. The boom is a real worry. What basically happened was that the F16 moved beyond the boom’s envelope and the tip broke off. The boom should have safed itself but a combination of operator overcontrol and underdeveloped software meant that it swung up and hit the airframe and lost one of its control fins. The boom then went out of control and the boom itself broke away at the weak link at the airframe.
The true fix is a combination of revised software and an increase in operating envelope in terms of tip movement. The concern here is that with ESAD’s losing out on the US tanker deal only the software fix will get implementated. Never happen?

July 18, 2011 10:22 am

It isn’t just the aircraft it is the odder aspects of the contract that I don’t get. How can the MoD sign a contract that permits no other AAR anywhere?
I know the buddy-buddy refuelling has been done to death elsewhere and I am not interest in the whys and wherefores of that evolution. More that exclusivity of the contract, of it being allowed to impinge on other potential operations. IF (and again I am just saying this an example nothing more before somebody turns into a CVF rant) F35 flies off CVF and we loose one because of fuel, and these things do happen, we right off an aircraft that cost about a fifth (+/-) of a year’s FSTA payment. Hardly value for money. It is a good thing there isn’t an operational requirement for the Chinooks to be fitted out for AAR.

(PS: Please don’t seize on this because I mentioned CVF. Can we give it a rest please?)

July 18, 2011 11:21 am

Can one of our learned flyers tell me is there a need for a tanker to support QRA? I can’t see why but that is not saying much.

I like A400m more and more. But I am still tempted to post the link to the Wikipedia page on the Belfast……..

Phil Darley
July 18, 2011 11:39 am

TD got it in one… A truly fcuking awful situation. We must get out if this contract. There are no Pros are there?

PS was at Fairford on Friday when it arrived. It gave me no pleasure knowing all it’s deficiencies and the massive, massive costs involved ,

Absolutely depressing situation

July 18, 2011 1:33 pm


From what I’ve read yes at least 1 tanker is on qra tasking as these missions can last around 6 hrs. So out of r 9 a/c with maintenance qra Falklands and training your prob down to 4 a/c for all other tasking

July 18, 2011 1:55 pm


The requirement for a tanker to follow-on a QRA scramble is that its not known how long the fighters will be airbourne for. For the huge area of responsibility we have, its almost as vital as the interceptors!

If, for example, a Tu-160 is being shadowed by a pair of Typhoons from (for now) Leuchars, and makes a move to fly around scotland and northwards and remains in our NATO area, it may mean that this pair will have to shadow the target until fighters from Iceland/Norway can take over. If a tanker hasn’t scrambled and shadows the fighters, so they can refuel/topup their tanks, then the chances of the time it takes for a tanker to be called out and reach an area where the interceptors can refuel but not loose the target are pretty slim, leaving a hole in our air defence sector – embarassing and a certain note the crew of the target will take for next time if they want to go about undetected.

lol I am not involved in such ops, but thats my understanding; basically to ensure 100% cover, and cover for any problems that may occur, like bad weather/diverting/long shadowing of the target.

Take away that tanker, and we’d be able to shadow them off our soverign airspace yes, but only a small part of the UK’s chunk of airspace its responsible for over the north sea/north atlantic… aka a big gap for anyone to fool around in.

A VC-10 is usually relegated to the role, for being pretty quick…this was even when the longer legged Tornado F3 were in service.
Not to mentiona theres usually 1 or so of our E3’s airbourne too, its a big core part of the RAF, and has more involved than the shiney typhoons.

Interesting post TD, reposting a lot from your previous forray into the dark world of FSTA – fecking short of tankers again :/

I do think though that from the outset these were for tanking and passengers only; not so hot on cargo…but I agree, wrong varient and too short a numbers!

With the A400 AAR, sounds lovely,
Remember, the Chinook HC3’s were fitted for air-to-air refueling, even have the clasps on them for the probe. As they were intially for our own Special forces… wouldn’t take much to revert them back – then again ‘didn’t take much’ to downgrade them.
Then there is the Merlin HC3s with the ‘for show only’ probes.

I think we cant really bash this until we see how it performs in service, there were grumbles when other types entered service a while back, including when I was on J hercs (The US in particular wasn’t interested at first until we had a go!).
But this contract is strange isn’t it?!

paul g
July 18, 2011 2:41 pm

still on the brightside (have to one really, today is avery bad for UK defence news) I wonder if the US were watching our FLYING new tanker, especially in light of the announcement that their 2nd bid costings were so low there’s going to be investigation into it and it’s not even built yet!!
Yes a bit clutching at straws i know but i refer to my first line, come 2020 we’ll be able to fit everyone in a cessna!

paul g
July 18, 2011 2:45 pm

cut and paste bit long but explains the recent “event” regarding boeing’s bid

July 14/11: Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sends a letter to the Pentagon that calls Boeing’s KC-X EMD bid “completely unacceptable”. His issue is that any increases between KC-X’s EMD target cost (revealed as $3.9 billion), and the $4.9 billion ceiling cost are split between Boeing (40%) and the USAF (60%). The net result is that Boeing’s lowball bid costs taxpayers an extra $600 million beyond their bid, and Boeing itself $700 million. Even that reported bid price still leaves Boeing lower than Airbus’ overall price, however, which was $2 billion higher for the combined EMD phase and subsequent production of 13 initial jets.

On the other hand, the practice of lowballing bids in order to secure contracts, then raising the real costs afterward, is correctly seen as toxic. The result is grave difficulty in budget planning, as other programs are sacrificed or compromised in order to pay for widespread overcharges.

In fairness to Boeing, it’s worth going back to the original contract bids. Reports right after the February 2011 award had EADS Airbus bidding $3.5 billion for the EMD phase, while Boeing had bid $4.4 billion for the EMD phase alone. That means the USAF knew about $500 million beyond its target costs from the outset, for an aircraft that had not been fielded or tested yet, and involved more development work than EADS’ offering. That means added risk of future increases, – but the swiftness of the cost revisions strongly suggests that they were known beforehand. Actual costs for Boeing’s EMD phase are currently $5.2 billion, and the amount of the cost breach tends to lower confidence in Boeing’s ability to meet the contract schedule, a point that was also raised by Airbus after the award. The question is whether Sen. McCain’s opposition will have any effect at this point in time. That may seem unlikely, but then, it also seemed unlikely when he opposed the original KC-767 lease deal post-9/11. McCain releas

July 18, 2011 6:11 pm

Um. Couldn’t we just move the Falklands up the map an inch or two?????????

@ Mike

Thanks. So at least two (three? four?) of these tankers will have to sit ready to go here in the UK just for QRA? And the E3s too!!!! So with the Falklands, say one out in Cyprus. And one in bits, sorry maintenance, there ain’t much slack.

How are the C17s refuelled for their trek to and from A-stan?

And doesn’t being in the same sky as the fighters make tanker a bit vulnerable?


July 18, 2011 7:02 pm


Theres always one, at least one…but most likely…just one! It launches from Brize for either North or South jaunts… and keeps a fair distance away from the action…unlike the Russians who tanker up whilst being watched by NATO fighters…

Of course the bad guys would never dare cause both north and south to scramble at the same time! lol

I do think a second is kept on 30min standby, in case…but with fewer actual tankers than now, I dont see that being mentioned in the contract.

Indeed, not much slack at all, what there is, most likely is gone or being used elsewhere…

I think the C17 can manage a one way trip to A-stn with no need to tanker up, but ours usually call in to Cyprus.

July 18, 2011 7:04 pm


Imagine moving 8 jets to the states for the big exercises that will prob require 2 tankers so stretched is an understatement 9 is just not enough. Kind of reforces the need for our FJ to have as long a range as possible. Don’t think our c17s refuel in the air if there heading to afghan.

Lord Jim
Lord Jim
July 18, 2011 8:51 pm

Why on earth didn’t the fact that there is a large market for civilian air freight have any impact in the contract. The platforms are going to be a ball and chain around the RAF’s neck for decades. Given how things are so bad at the moment surely adding one more thing to the pile by banging out of this PFI will hardly make a difference short term but have huge benefits long term.

Could we use the threat of scrapping the PFI to modify things so that later platforms have AAR recepticals and Cargo doors and floors with provision for DAS?

Could we change the programme so the RAF owns the Platforms but Ait Tanker get a Power by the hour contract for the life of the platform?

John Hartley
John Hartley
July 18, 2011 9:54 pm

I have been ranting against this PFI, in magazines, newspapers & websites, since before 9/11.
There have been many chances to replace VC-10s since the Kuwait liberation in 1991.
We could have got the ex Saudia Tristar 200 fleet for peanuts.
Then Singapore airlines put its A340-300 fleet up for sale.
We should have got the 4 ex BWIA Tristar 500 for peanuts.
After 9/11 various airlines put their fleets of MD-11 & B767.
Using RAAF A330 as a guide, we could have bought 14 for the RAF,(to the same high standard, but with RR engines) for around £2 billion. Operating costs are around 3 times the capital. Add a billion for financing. Thats about £9 billion.
We need 20 tankers.
Say 14 new A330 plus 6 Tristars kept in reserve for light duties.
The extra cost of this PFI is taking money from the much wanted 8th C-17 & the missing 3 A400M.
I suspect Gordon Brown & the Treasury, just saw airliners & did not realise the extra kit needed for military use.
When I flew to the Canaries on an A300-600, I was told that charter flights are so tight on cost, that they just break even on the ticket. They only make a profit if you buy an alcoholic drink.
So how a charter airline can carry armour,DAS, air refuelling gear & still make a profit, is beyond me. We will probably end up subsidising charter flights.
I like the A330. If we were getting RR powered RAAF standard planes , I would be happy. Instead we are paying a 5 star price for a 2 star equipped aircraft.

July 18, 2011 10:15 pm

@ Mark and Mike

As you know I am navy all the way. But you know what this FSTA business p*sses me off more than some of the cock-ups on the dark blue side of the business. If it makes no sense to me with my cursory knowledge of aircraft how the hell did it get past the MoD? There is no point in us talking about independent expeditionary land based air vs carrier because we can’t do the former with 9 of these things. So we buy lots of StormShadow. But we won’t really have the airframes to deploy them en mass. And yet the navy will be short of stuff to get the job done in its place. Oh lummy! What a fudge…..

Surely this sensible thing to do would have to bought into the US programme? Economies of scale I believe it is called. What are they getting 175 tankers for $30billion or something stupid?

Paul R
Paul R
July 18, 2011 10:32 pm

Well when discussing Airbus and Boeing, its a pain in the bum to understand costs, because the financing of the companies are complex, look at the world trade organization spat(s) between both companies.

July 18, 2011 10:34 pm


I hear what your saying and were replacing around 40 hoses in the sky with 18 weather it’s pay by the hour or availabilty ect that’s the reality. I mentioned over and over in the carrier debate about this countries lack of future aar capability and how this would need addressing if carrier air is dumped. And if we go for cheaper shorter ranged jets this problem gets worse. We can’t have it all ways. Why these jets were not bought of the manufacture using there financing offers I do not know. Just for a moment think about the crews. This is a very popular a/c and those that fly and maintain them for the airlines are like gold dust and are well paid retention is going to be very difficult also.
Storm shadow is a cheap and capable system that will be on typhoon and f35

July 18, 2011 10:45 pm

@ Mark

Is there a minimum commission for RAF pilots? I mean it costs up to £10million to train an FJ pilot surely HMG protects that investment?

What happens if we loose one for some reason?

It’s just not good is it?

John Hartley
John Hartley
July 18, 2011 11:14 pm

We need a really good (jewish) lawyer to find a loophole & get us out of this disastrous contract. Hopefully sending all involved to prison for a very long time.

July 18, 2011 11:20 pm


“I mean it costs up to £10million to train an FJ pilot surely HMG protects that investment?”

HMG didn’t care about that when they canned Nimrod and especially the Harrier :/
Especially regarding RN FAA pilots…

If the RAF proper had its way, we’d not have this contract… its the bean counters and other types in the maze of the MoD that came up with it.

I think no-one else with an Air arm of Navy or Air-Force that have a lease/PFI on its tankers… non-combat zone transports yes, but tanking? What next?! PFI’ing the FJ?! I mean, its left our allies scratching their heads!

Ah well, we’ll have to see how this goes…I’m hoping it turns out to be a mess and then the armed forces can take full control and tell the private companies to jog on… ah well :/

An interesting note to pick up on Marks’ comment; what about Naval aar? I mean, back in ye olde days the Navys’ Buccaneers could buddy refuel… without that, the F-35C’s unrefueled combat range will be interesting…as without; our range wont equate to that of the French or US who also buddy refuel. I cant see the F-35 being fitted for that role :/

July 18, 2011 11:37 pm

@ Mike

As I said above FAA AAR carrier based evolutions shouldn’t have come into the purview of the FSTA contract. So, so stoopid it hurts.

@ Mark re StormShadow

What I was driving at was that options in the future for using the weapon en-masse from a land based air are curtailed because we will have so few tankers. Assuming that in the next 20 years we move to a Anglo-French model. Who knows what war we will fight next? More than a 4 ship strike package maybe needed. And next time “they” might being shooting back too so….

July 19, 2011 12:31 am

So, in all seriousness, why did not the Coalition step in and say “This Labour PFI is bollocks, this government is not honouring it”???

Because they have no bollocks, surely national security trumps commercial concerns every time ! Screw the Air Tanker shareholders, whatabout the tax payers – cancel this travesty now :-(

July 19, 2011 2:46 am

Is there any legal impediment to stop the government from null and voiding the contract ? Get the Solicitor General to earn his pay for a change…..

July 19, 2011 2:47 am

Is there any legal impediment to stop the government from null and voiding the contract ? Get the Solicitor General to earn his pay for a change…..

Actually looking at the ‘shareholder’ in Air Tanker they can all be told to put up or shut up if they want to continue to bid for UK defence related contracts !!

July 19, 2011 5:22 am

@ Jed

There have been no successful legal challenges against any PFI to date. I remember reading somewhere that there was a law, either European or International, that permitted governments to challenge the terms of contracts that were considered prohibitively one sided, but bugger me if I cant find it now. I stumbled across it once when I was looking at PFI’s in detail but it appears to have mysteriously disappeared from the interwebs.

@ X

Sorry mate, but I think you were kinda taking the piss with:

— “Please don’t seize on this because I mentioned CVF. Can we give it a rest please?”

Followed later by:

— “There is no point in us talking about independent expeditionary land based air vs carrier because we can’t do the former with 9 of these things”

You’re right in that this shouldn’t descend into yet another CVF debate, but that includes you as well.

Phil Darley
July 19, 2011 11:57 am

There must be a way out of this god awful contract. I would guess even Air tanker would want out, especially if they got money now for an outright buy of, say 10-12 fully spec’d MRTTs rather than the drip feed over 27 years.

Surely, the government, can say, look, the country is skint, this deal is NOT in the public interest, however, you will still get the business, just an outright buy + maintenenace NOT the crazy PFI, which I cannot see working at all. As has already been stated, who will want to lease them unless the costs are being subsidised by the PFI, which must be against some EU rile on competition. Well, there’s a first, me looking to the EU to save our bacon!

July 19, 2011 12:08 pm

What to stop airtanker leasing them to another military for a cheaper price than they charge us? Not as though eu airforces are coming down with tankers. Or to an airline which then sells the service to the mod for say flying troops to Falklands that would be ironic. This really is the worst contract ever signed

July 19, 2011 6:25 pm

@ Chris B


John Hartley
John Hartley
July 19, 2011 6:53 pm

Chris B
There is the 1977 Unfair Contracts Act. It is aimed at rogue landlords, but it sets a precedent & many have argued it should be amended to include PFI, Bankers payoffs & one sided energy contracts. However our three main parties are either corrupt or lazy, as they refuse to do this.

July 19, 2011 8:02 pm

@ John

I was thinking about that one (it’s due to be replaced by a new law this year) but the scope probably wouldn’t be enough to bring in PFI I think.

As many a great thinker and philosopher has said; “We be F**ked”

July 19, 2011 10:36 pm

On one of the CVF-bang-threads, I wished for a FSTA-thread. Now reading the complete record I’m simply speechless.

Very well put, TD!

John Hartley
John Hartley
July 20, 2011 7:41 pm

I had to leave the Airtanker website, as I was getting so angry, I feared I was going to have a heart attack.
Telling the boards of the five companies we will bring back 98% taxation just for them, might make them open to renegotiation.

July 24, 2011 7:01 am

It always stuns me how so many contracts are signed for big ticket items, for very small orders. And then do they save money by buying off the shelf? No they have to have them just their way costing millions and millions extra. That the UK is buying A400 that can do tanking and not just increase that order by 14 is stunning. I bet for the money you could have gotten 20 of the A400. It makes no sense to me.

March 14, 2012 12:28 pm

Can anyone tell me why its not yet in service ? is there any truth in the rumour that it has cracks in the wings, and when may we expect to see one take off ?

May 24, 2012 1:44 pm

The original article raises some valid points. However, the idea of flying direct from the UK to MPA is just not on the books – its far too long to expect some poor Fighter Jock to be strapped to his seat. Indeed, since the retirement of the Victor, the most limiting case for deployments is not driven by Tanker capacity, but rather how long you can reasonably expect FJ Johny to be sat in his seat and/or how long the FJ engine oil lasts. Don’t always believe the claimed figures either – the fuel consumption on a FJ goes up quite a bit once they start hanging weapons on it – not a huge amount, but enough to make a big difference on an 8 hour flight – it can also mean a reduction in cruise altitude to – which will increase flight time and fuel burn for the whole formation. Fuel on-load rate can also be important – a slow rate means long refuel brackets and can sometime require the Route of flight to be bent away from the optimum route, so that diversion airfields remain viable.

The DAS issues are probably driven by US Mil restrictions – but they are essential, even in Third World conflicts.
It is unbelievable that the RAF stuck with a center line hose instead of going for a Boom. There is no obvious need for sticking with this system, and pretty silly having to fund the development of a new centerline hose for just 6 ac. Worse still, the 330 Tanker will not be able to receive fuel – in war fighting scenarios, consolidation of fuel (ie Tankers going off Task transfer all their spare fuel to ac remaining on Station) is, and always has been standard AAR proceedure. Because it has a centerline hose, it won’t be able to transfer to a coalition Tanker either (as these have all very sensibly gone for the Boom).
The issue of not having a pallatised floor on the upper deck is probably driven by the need to be commercially competetive in the civil freight/Charter market. The strenghened floor in the TriStar adds about 10 Tonnes to the ac’s basic weight, and there are less seats in the freighter version. Though in the TriStar much of this is due to the fact that all the baggage has to go on the main deck too, as all the underfloor is full of Fuel Tanks. In addition, re-role from freight to seat config is not very quick, and there is the added complication of making sure the imbedded pax oxygen systems on the pallets are functional. A further complication is that getting freight up to the main deck requires specialised High Loaders, which are normally only available at major airports that operate wide bodied freighters. Not mentioned, but also important are AirStairs. The AirBus lit says they are available as a bolt on extra – they should have had one fitted as standard. One of the big drawbacks of RAF Tankers in recent conflicts is their lack of any built in crew access ladders – which led to a fleet of Hercs shifting the ac steps around every time they moved Base …. Which leads very much onto the A400 – I think this would always have been the best option for the Military – though I would have preferred to see a jet version ala IL76, and with an upper pax area like the Belfast.
The cons for this jet are that the ac would have to have a centerline hose rather than a Boom. Another disadvantage is it lack of speed when reacting to a QRA scramble or having to run away bravely when the bad guys chase you.
The Pro’s are that for deployments it could land at Fighter bases, load all their support equipment and staff, without the need for specialised handling equipment. At enroute staging airfields it also wins out over the airliner body because ac servicing equipment can be rolled down the ramp – including of course big items that wouldn’t fit in the 330 hold. It could as has already been pointed out, refuel nasty ungodly rotary wing ac, and its better field performance means it could operate from smaller and less strong runways. If we ever do get a Maritime Air capability again, it would make an excellent MPA platform too.

J Wickham
J Wickham
June 16, 2012 1:11 pm

CON nr. 8 – size. I was at Mount Pleasant Airfield when the hangar was built and I wondered why it was such a tight fit for a Tristar, bearing in mind that aircraft usually get bigger. Why didn’t the planners build in some allowance for bigger aircraft? Maintenance will have to be outside in windy, cold, squally conditions.

See a photo of a Tristar inside the hangar at MPA here:

June 18, 2012 12:17 am

I’ve known about this PFI contract for years. It makes me so angry. Largely a GB political achievement, but the current Government is also doing it right now.

The London Underground was another daft contract. I think it will probably be cheaper to renegotiate. Unfortunately until the British Parliament gets the sort of oversight afforded to the US oversight committees there is little that will happen to stop this.

Did you know that the accounts for the EU haven’t been signed off for eighteen odd years? That’s because they can’t be said to be true and fair. Ummm we can’t even sort out that.