20 Feb 22. Note that almost a year after Integrated Review (IR) was published back in March last year that the Royal Air Force website has yet to mention that the workhorse of its medium air lift capability – the remaining Lockheed Martin C130J – are shortly to be axed some 12 years earlier than originally planned. Not that that has stopped the MOD’s Defence Equipment Sales Organisation from listing them for sale.
With Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace and the immediate past Chief of Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter having apparently been determined to get rid of the remaining fleet of RAF C-130J aircraft by 2023, both MOD and Treasury seeing these as very saleable assets and with foreign air forces eager to acquire well maintained former RAF aircraft assets not to mention those with responsibility for budgets within the RAF looking to reduce costs, it is once again regrettable that we have in front of us yet another example of highly specialist capability that the UK needs being thrown out in the mistaken belief that the successor aircraft – the Airbus A400M ‘Atlas’ which is tasked to take over all remaining work undertaken by the C-130J fleet – is fully fit for purpose.
The Royal Air Force currently lists one remaining short-bodied C-130J C5 aircraft and 13 of the long-bodied C-130J-30 C4 variants amongst its assets. The aircraft are operated respectively by 47 and 24 Squadrons based at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.
For the record, in December 1994 the MOD ordered ten standard C-130J aircraft (it was the initial customer for the C130J variant) and 15 of the longer C-130J-30 with the first deliveries made in August 1998.The aircraft have been hard worked and the capability can only be described as having been brilliant. I have had the good fortune to fly on many RAF C-130’s including in Iraq and in the US, on a number of USAF C-130’s too. They are known as air force workhorses and not without good reason and with each having 4 of the extremely reliable Rolls-Royce Allison AE2000 turboprop engines, the C-130 Hercules which first flew as long ago as 1954 and is still in production today is recognised by many as being the most important and successful medium lift aircraft capability in the world.
The planned ‘Out of Service Date’ (OSD) history of RAF C-130J’s makes grim reading for those that believe in defence it should always be strategic need that is prioritised over politics and affordability. Within the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR 2010) it was rather surprisingly announced that C-130J would be retired from RAF service in 2022 – more than a decade earlier than had been originally intended. The reason was presumably because back then the thought process indicated the possibility that A400M, the first of which entered service with the RAF in 2014, would be fully operational and compliant on all mission requirements by 2022.
No one can blame the MOD for envisaging back in 2010 that the 22 A400M Atlas medium/heavy lift aircraft then on order from Airbus Defence would ultimately provide a more than adequate replacement. But this was a new aircraft development and brave though it was – foolish some people thought at the time – particularly the decision to create a specific ‘European’ engine partnership to develop a completely new engine rather than to have acquired one off the shelf from Pratt & Whitney as had been the original plan, suffice to say that development of the A400M has been a huge test of endurance for both Airbus as manufacturer, the partner governments of the programme and particularly for air force end users.
A small but interesting digression here: Remaining RAF C-130K aircraft which together with earlier versions of the Lockheed Martin Hercules aircraft had been in RAF service for more than four decades had all been disposed of by October 2013 – out of interest on this subject, I recall that the very last C-130K that was still on the RAF asset list was still undergoing maintenance and repairs at RAF Lyneham, the former base of all C-130 aircraft until the move to RAF Brize Norton in December 2012 when RAF Lyneham officially closed as an operational base. However, even when a military base such as Lyneham ceases to be operational, considerable work requires to be done before it can be handed over to new incumbents – in this case the Royal Electrical & Mechanical Engineers (REME). To cut a long story short, in order for the armed gate guards to be stood down, the one remaining C-130K was broken up on site at RAF Lyneham despite the aircraft already having flown one or more post maintenance test flights.
Back to the present and my understanding is that nine C-130J C5 aircraft have already been sold to foreign buyers (these include one to the US Navy and others to Bangladesh and Bahrain) meaning that in theory that 14 of the longer bodied C-130J type (one aircraft had been lost in service) are still on the RAF books although I suspect that the actual figure of serviceable aircraft is probably lower.
Of note on this issue is also that, due to heavy use on deployments abroad, the MOD had already begun a programme of Centre Wing Box (CWB) replacement on its remaining 14 C-130J’s via a contract with Lockheed Martin for OE equipment supply and fitting, modification and standard maintenance work being undertaken by Marshalls of Cambridge – the first of which was delivered back to the RAF in August 2020.
Replacing the CWE was designed to extend the life of C-130J in RAF service until 2035 and beyond – instead all it appears to have done is, assuming the ridiculous decision to withdraw the capability from service next year or earlier is carried out (note here that Defence Equipment Sales Organisation has already listed the C-130J’s as being for sale) – to potentially raise the price of the remaining aircraft to be sold. On that score, Janes Defence recently reported that the US Navy paid the MOD $29.9 million for the single C-130J C5 aircraft it acquired and which the respected journal suggested was half the original price of a new aircraft.
The C-130 is the workforce of more international air forces that any other in service and it will remain that way for many decades to come. Sadly however, not in the UK if the present Secretary of State for Defence and the MOD has its way.
You may well ask why it is that with air forces around the world still acquiring the latest version of C-130J aircraft that Britain is seeking to get rid of its remaining fleet – seemingly as fast as it can and at a time when with the situation of Ukraine having reach touch point, they are needed just as mush now as ever before.
For the record, no fewer than 22 C-130J aircraft were delivered to air forces around the world over last year alone and Lockheed Martin currently has a C-130J order backlog extending to 80 aircraft. Reliable and very efficient capability the C-130 family of aircraft certainly is and proven in-service capability for over 60 years.
But even if there was the slightest evidence that the decision to withdraw remaining RAF C-130J’s was based on a logical agreed strategy that was based on equipment capability needs, the question must also be asked as to whether A400M Atlas capability is fully fit for purpose?
The 2015 Strategic Defence Review had very sensibly revised the decision to withdraw C-130J capability by 2022 by extending this to and out of service date (OSD) of 2030. This was presumably done due to a variety of problems experienced in the early RAF A400M Atlas aircraft delivered and the sensible expectation that these issues would take much longer to resolve than originally anticipated.
Thus, I would contend that premature withdrawal of RAF C-130J assets on the basis of pure saleability and potential raising of cash has serious potential consequences that have not been properly considered by the powers. These may include whether A400M Atlas will be fully qualified/certified to perform all mission activities currently proposed or that are being undertaken by RAF C-130J’s and also the ability of the A400M to fully meet requirements of UK Special Forces. Then there are the pure economic arguments to throw into the equation when operating what is in the A400M a much larger aircraft capability that C-130J and when and if used for small cargo missions.
As previously mentioned, technical issues have beset the A400M development from the outset of which the most serious has been a requirement to rectify cracking issues on propeller gearbox fitted to each of the four TP400-D6 turboprop engines. An interim fix – commonly referred to as the Pack 1 ‘truncated plug solution’ was certified in July 2016. The permanent ‘Pack 2 retrofit solution consisted of a number of modifications aimed at reinforcing endurance and reliability issues.
France and Germany which along with the UK, Spain, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and Turkey which have received various numbers of Airbus A400M aircraft ordered chose to acquire additional Lockheed Martin built C-130J aircraft – France taking delivery of four KC-130J Super Hercules tanker/transport aircraft between 2017 and 2020 and Germany having received the first of six C-130J-30’s on order with Lockheed Martin. Last year the two countries formed a joint tanker/transport squadron.
It does seem rather odd that when the two largest Continental European NATO member air forces have been procuring more C-130J’s that Britain which had brought the advanced C-130J type into service back in the late 1990’s and which has and continues to provide superb capability, has decided to prematurely ditch them. As far as I am concerned, the decision is yet another crass example of completely ignoring proven capability requirement and need in favour of the potential of raising cash from the sale of crucial assets. Frankly, with A400M availability, reliability and maintenance issues the subject of so much discussion, it simply beggar’s belief to me that we would take such high risk by withdrawing C-130J assets prematurely.
Without doubt, the A400M Atlas working alongside the 8 Boeing C-17 Globemaster heavy-lift aircraft in the RAF fleet will eventually provide the vast majority of what the RAF needs. But there is a long way to go yet and much work to be done. Yes, A400M can carry a lot more than a C-130J, operate at higher altitudes and as far as I am aware, land and take off from short, unprepared and semi-prepared airstrips – just as the C-130J can do. But some talk of gaps in what A400M can and cannot do and unlike Germany and France which have been extremely open and transparent about A400M issues, the UK MOD prefers to bury heads in the sand and say nothing. Now, before another C-130J aircraft asset is sold, is the time for MOD realism and clarity.
(Below is some historic background to the A400M programme)
The A400M launch contract was signed on 27 May 2003 between Airbus Military (its shareholders comprise Airbus, EADS-CASA of Spain, TAI of Turkey and FLABEL of Belgium) and the European procurement agency OCCAR representing France, Germany, Spain, Turkey, Belgium, Luxemburg and the United Kingdom. The development of the aircraft takes place primarily in Toulouse and Madrid and at Airbus sites across Europe under the management of Airbus. This combines Airbus’ experience of managing large aircraft manufacturing programmes and the Spanish expertise in the construction of smaller military transport aircraft. The final assembly and the delivery centre for A400M is located at the Seville plant of EADS Military Transport Aircraft Division.
The powerplant for the A400M is being developed and manufactured by EuroProp International (EPI), a European joint venture company consisting of Industria de Turbopropulsores, MTU, Rolls-Royce and Snecma. The 4 high-speed turboprops are equipped with advanced fuel efficient 8-blade composite propellers, supplied by Ratier-Figeac. This unique powerplant combination will confer near jet speeds to the A400M, while improving on the excellent versatility of previous propeller-driven tactical transports, consuming some 20% less fuel throughout the life of the aircraft than equivalent turbofan designs.
The MoD’s Strategic Defence Review of 1998 underlined the vital need for enhancements to the UK’s airlift capabilities. The trend towards force projection operations, for which we may need to deploy very rapidly in order to be successful, place an increasing premium on transport or lift capabilities.”
The MoD’s principal response to satisfying this requirement was the commitment in 2003 to the procurement of 25 A400M aircraft. The support for A400M and the importance of the programme were reiterated in the Defence Industrial Strategy of 2005 in which was stated:
“A400M will be an extremely flexible aircraft that will provide tactical and strategic airlift capability to all three Services in peace and crisis and will become the mainstay of the UK’s tactical transport force. We agree with the MoD’s assessment of the A400M’s capabilities and are confident that it will be a very versatile aircraft able to simultaneously supplement the strategic role currently undertaken by C-17s and surpass the tactical capability provided by the current ageing fleet of C-130’s.
CHW (London – 20th February 2022)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785