January 14, 2013
Credit: Credit: Airbus Military
The U.K. faces capability gaps in tactical air transport and air-to-air refueling as it prepares to pull troops out of Afghanistan. Delays in the introduction of the Airbus Military A400M airlifter and A330 Voyager tankers purchased through the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) program as well as budgetary constraints have created “critical shortfalls in some capability areas,” according to the U.K. National Audit Office (NAO).
In its annual Major Projects report, which looks at the 16 largest procurements being undertaken by the British Defense Ministry, the NAO says both air transport programs along with the development and construction of the Queen Elizabeth II aircraft carriers are responsible for the biggest cost increases. The report states that expenses for FSTA rose by £257 million ($412 million) between 2011 and 2012, while those for the A400M program went up by £163 million during the same period. However, the NAO points out that these costs were caused by higher fuel prices and contributions to export levy facilities, respectively, over which the ministry has little control.
Delays in the two programs have forced the ministry to find expensive workarounds as it prepares to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan at the end of 2014. According to the NAO, £787 million has been spent on air transport and air-to-air refueling aircraft to support current operations and address capability gaps. The late arrival of the A400M has led to the life extensions of several increasingly elderly and maintenance-intensive Lockheed Martin C-130K Hercules models to meet tactical transport needs, while extra capacity will come from the purchase of two BAe 146-200 airliners now being converted for operations in Afghanistan in the coming months.
The NAO also states that there will be a one-third gap in tactical air transport starting in 2022 when the Lockheed Martin C-130J is retired. Strategic airlift provided by the Royal Air Force's fleet of eight Boeing C-17s will “essentially be able” to meet the requirements, the report says. The C-17 fleet was boosted in 2012 by the arrival of an eighth aircraft, and work is progressing on the possible addition of a ninth before the expected closure of the C-17 line in Long Beach, Calif.
Ongoing issues to clear A330 Voyagers for air-to-air refueling has forced the RAF to retain the Vickers VC10 fleet beyond its March 2013 retirement date until September at least, the NAO says, while the Lockheed Martin TriStar tanker/transport's retirement has been moved to March 2014 from July 2013 at a cost of £7 million. The Voyagers are expected to achieve full air-to-air refueling capability in May 2014.
But in an open letter to the NAO, Phill Blundell, CEO of AirTanker Ltd., which provides the Voyager tankers under the FSTA contract, says that although the report highlights that the program is on time and on schedule, the report “significantly distorts perception of its performance, especially against other programs where those same inflationary costs are not considered.”
Blundell's letter also states that “the suggestion made in the report that the [Defense Ministry] is extending the service life of its VC10 and TriStar fleets because of perceived risk of 'delays' in the FSTA program is disappointing given the report's acknowledgement that the program, in actuality, is very much on schedule.”