RAF Heavy Lift

A400M Future Large Aircraft

A guest post from Chris.B

Lately, there has been a lot of talk about various transport helicopters for the RAF and other discussions regarding supporting x number of men at y distance on operations of various sizes. Now during a moment of boredom during a long day, I did a bit of perusing around and saw some rather interesting numbers, which prompted the thought of taking a moment just to have a quick look at the future of the RAF’s heavy lift. If nothing else it’ll give us something new to discuss/argue over and bridge the gap to some of the bosses’ upcoming articles.

So, the current state of air force heavy-lift comprises 8 TriStars, 9 VC-10’s, around 30 C-130 Hercules and 8 C-17 Globemaster III’s.  The TriStars and VC-10’s are on their way out soon, to be replaced by the Airbus A330-MRTT (known as ‘Voyager’ in UK service) as these aircraft start to come into service. The Hercules will also gradually be replaced by the Airbus A400M (to be known as ‘Atlas’ in UK service, purportedly), starting with the 7 ‘K’ models (presumably the RAF Falcons parachute display team will have to find some other mode of deployment). That will leave the RAF with a four platform system until the slightly newer C-130J’s also left service, which will bring us down to three platforms.

The question though is whether the A400M is the right aircraft for the job?

The main problem as I see it is that the A400M is neither here nor there. Its payload carrying capacity is barely more than that of the C-130J, yet it settles in at comfortably close to double the price per unit! Compared to the C-17 the A400M is only about 70-75% of the price but has less than half the carrying capacity out to a range of about 2500 nautical miles (30 tons for the A400M vs nearly 70 tons for the C-17).

To me, that seems very odd and neatly wraps up the growing problem that I’m having with anything military being described as ‘Medium’.  Medium in this case appears to mean overpriced for the small jobs and grossly underperforming on the big ones. So what are the alternatives?

The simplest and probably cheapest option, in the long run, is to purchase more Hercules aircraft of the C-130J variant for the ‘tactical’ role and more C-17 for the ‘Strategic’ role. This keeps the number of types down to three when the Voyager is factored in and should meet UK needs admirably. A key component of this is the fact that both these aircraft are already in service as opposed to the A400M, and thus we already have training and support arrangements in place. It’s also considerably less risky as we’re dealing with platforms we know a lot about, compared to the continual problems that have been incurred with the A400M.

There is another option that keeps the number of types down to three (Hercules, Globemaster, Voyager) but is slightly more off the wall. That option is to increase slightly the number of Hercules to cover the ‘tactical’ side, while buying more Voyager aircraft in the ‘strategic’ role (but separate from the current Voyager PFI).  The reasoning is fairly simple; for about the same price as a Globemaster, the Voyager offers quite a significant leap in certain areas, albeit with some caveats.

For clarity, the current mark of Voyager (KC2 and KC3) being brought into service under the PFI Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) program is a version of the Airbus A330 which is something of a compromise. It has the ability to carry probe and drogue refuelling pods under both wings (KC2), under the fuselage and both wings (KC3) and keeps the split lower cargo deck, but the top deck is fitted out with permanent seating. The purpose of this is primarily to benefit the Air Tanker Consortium who are handling the FSTA deal, as it allows them to use aircraft that are not immediately needed by the RAF as charters to the private sector. This understandably limits the cargo-carrying capacity of the aircraft when in RAF service.

My proposal here is to buy additional A330’s aside from (and as far as bloody possible from) the PFI deal. Let’s call them Voyager KC4. These would be of the full cargo variant, and preferably with the full tanker conversion that Australia got, that permits refuelling of boom/receptacle aircraft such as the Globemaster and the Sentry AEW&C. This version of the A330 retains the dual cargo bay on the lower deck but also has a complete upper cargo deck free for palletised cargo, which can include palletised seating if needed.

The reason I think this might be an idea worth considering is twofold; firstly it would greatly expand the UK’s tanker fleet, something which is always in high demand from the US and other allies in coalition operations (along with “them”). As TD himself has said on many occasions, we need to think about what we can bring to alliances and tanking aircraft are always reported as being high on the US list of ‘wants’ from us. Secondly, the performance of the full freighter version of the A330 is simply staggering. It can carry the same maximum payload as the Globemaster (around 70 tons), but take that load almost 50% further, out to around 3,200 nautical miles, which gets you from Brize Norton to Afghanistan with no stops. Alternatively, you can take 65 tons from Brize Norton to somewhere like Ascension Island or Kenya, again, with no stops.

Now I did say there were some caveats and here they are. Firstly, the A330 can only take palletised loads, lacking as it does a rear loading ramp. That means no tanks, no armoured vehicles, no disassembled helicopters. Those loads would have to be handled by the C-17’s unless someone can come up with a rather inventive workaround. While unfortunate, I don’t think that’s a deal-breaker, as it’s uncertain how often we would actually need that capability in such an urgent demand that the C-17’s couldn’t handle it. Predominantly we would expect such vehicle lifts to be done by sea.

The second caveat is that the A330 is a civilian aircraft, with low wings and high landing gear. That somewhat restricts it to more prepared airfields, as the low hanging engines are more vulnerable to the ingestion of foreign debris and the high undercarriage is not especially suited to rough terrain. Any mishap on a rough field would like to end very, very badly. Again though, I’m not sure as this would be considered a deal-breaker. Landings on unprepared surfaces are not something we routinely ask even our C-17’s to perform, and while the low hanging engines cause issues on rough strips they also make routine maintenance considerably easier.

Now there is actually an additional advantage for my proposed Voyager KC4, but I didn’t want to include it in the earlier section because it’s more of a paper advantage for now. Essentially, as we move forward modern air forces are turning more and more to commercial platforms to provide the basis of certain large aircraft roles such as Maritime Patrol, Airborne Early Warning and Control, and various ISTAR roles.

A good example of this is the Boeing 737, which serves as the base platform both for Australia’s new ‘Wedgetail’ Airborne Early Warning & Control aircraft (fitted with a large AESA search radar) and also for the US Navy’s planned purchase of over 100 P-8 Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (yes, the US Navy will operate almost as many MPA as we have fighters!). The main advantages of this setup are the low maintenance and running costs of civilian-based aircraft, and their very high endurance on task.

With the end of the UK’s Sentry AEW&C service life insight, and the imminent retirement of the Sentinel ISTAR platform (used both in Afghanistan and Libya), as well as the current complete lack of any MPA, there is a future for developing the A330 to cover a number of additional roles and thus further reducing the number of aircraft types in service.

And now the fun part. Discuss!

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