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RAF Brize Norton -Doing Today – Planning For Tomorrow By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.

With a station Motto ‘Transire Confidenter’ (Move with confidence) and a mission “to generate Rapid Global Mobility that DETERS Conflict, DEFENDS the UK, DEFEATS the country’s enemies, ASSISTS in Times of crisis, RAF Brize Norton carries a huge responsibility to ensure that the UK military is well served by the Royal Air Force.

A recent visit to RAF Brize Norton in order to update myself on mission capability, operation, infrastructure, left me in little doubt not only as to the efficiency of the base and the excellence of mission capability available, but also of how this vast and hugely important RAF base has changed since I had last visited the base. Having previously seen the huge infrastructure development that supports Voyager and more recently, the new A400M training facilities that are operated in a joint venture between Thales Training and Simulation and Airbus Military, it has been extremely useful to spend time at the base looking at other facets and of plans to implement Programme Gateway. I am extremely grateful to RAF Brize Norton Station Commander, Group Captain Timothy Jones and to Air Vice-Marshal Gavin Parker AOC2 Group for facilitating my visit last month and to Sqn Ldr C R Doneth-Hillier for his excellent work in support.

Air mobility along with all aspects of air transport and air-to-air refuelling are important aspects of air power and of what the Royal Air Force provides to our armed forces and to our allies and they must never be taken for granted. Remembering too that there is little point in fighting an enemy that you cannot see, that is why through constant investment the UK continues to be a leading force in ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) capability and why it is important also that we continue to invest in space. But air power is nothing unless it has strong logistics capability and as if to back this up some will I am sure recall the observational warning made by Lt. Gen. Frederick Franks, US Army Vll Corps Commander, Operation Desert Storm a few years ago when he said “Forget logistics, you lose”.

The ability to provide logistics support is the raison d’etre for RAF Brize Norton existence and of what it does and if I may say, despite constant pressures on resource, does so well. Whether we are talking of the required capability and expertise developed by the various Air Mobility sections that operate from RAF Brize Norton, the air-to-air tanker refuelling and transport squadrons that are also based there and that are responsible for ensuring that UK troops, support personnel, material and assets required to be deployed are despatched quickly, efficiently and importantly, fully supported over strategic long distances that they are required to travel, ignore logistics is tantamount to disabling military effect.

Over the many years of writing on aspects of defence and in supporting the military, I have oft quoted wise words that emanated from Sun Tzu, a Chinese general, military strategist and philosopher who lived in the 6th century and from whom much has been learned over the centuries that followed by those that serve both military and state. Of the need for strong logistics we may observe that Sun Tzu said “the line between disorder and order lies in logistics”. Those words surely remain as true today as when they were first said.

RAF Brize Norton is not only the largest of all Royal Air Force bases but from my perspective, it is the essentially most important and indeed, the busiest that I have ever visited here in the UK. In respect of the support that it provides assisting deployment of members of our armed forces and sometimes those of our allies, the work done by all of its personnel is vital.

Operating 24 hours x 7 x 365 days a year, RAF Brize Norton is responsible for handling the vast majority of deployment logistics including transport for all military personnel travelling into or out of theatre, medical evacuation and for transporting other military personnel deployed abroad on training, transport of equipment capability and all aspects of air mobility requirements. RAF Brize Norton is also home to the RAF fleet of Voyager air-to-air tanker refuelling aircraft and since the closure of RAF Lyneham four years ago, its work has been further extended with the addition of the C-130J air mobility fleet joining that of the C-17 Globemaster and Airbus A400M fleets for which it is also the home base.

RAF Brize Norton is also home to the Airborne Delivery Wing which, amongst other things, is responsible for schooling military parachute training at the highest level found within the UK military. This along with the C-130J fleet provides considerable support to Special Forces.

Although I have made several recent visits to RAF Brize Norton to look private sector investment in support of the AirTanker operation it is now almost five years since I had spent two days flying with 101 Squadron on what was then the RAF’s VC-10 air-to-air tanker refuelling capability in order that I could better understand air-to-air refuelling role from the tanker capability end as opposed to that of the ‘receiver’ aircraft which I had some years previously also had the pleasure of doing. Without doubt, much has changed during the since I spent time on base in 2012 and suffice to say that in respect of infrastructure and efficiency of operation, RAF Brize Norton is a very different base today than it was back then.

With around 5,800 service personnel on-base together with in excess of 1,200 contractors and 300 civil servants, RAF Brize Norton which is located near to the town of Witney, Oxfordshire is home to the RAF’s Strategic and Tactical Air Transport (AT) operations together with, as already mentioned, those of the air-to-air tanker refueling (AAR) activities, air mobility including medium and heavy-lift capability plus a number of ‘lodger’ and reserve units. In respect of operational infrastructure, RAF Brize Norton may be described today as being a modern, highly invested and efficient base that has excellent all round facilities. That one may also find shortages and other issues that require investment is certainly not to be ignored but in these aspects, RAF Brize Norton is probably no different from other RAF or military bases in the UK. I will not dwell on these matters here – suffice to say here that we as a nation need to better understand the value of defence and of what our military are expected to do for us and that we need to address issues that have for too long been ignored and particularly that of retention.

RAF Brize Norton has been the recipient of considerable investment over the past ten years much of which has come through benefits of Private Finance Initiatives such as AirTanker and investment by the Consortium and other partners in full base infrastructure requirements, maintenance and training support operation. More recently, RAF Brize Norton has been the recipient of an additional £410 million investment in the A400M programme and that will see Airbus Defence & Space provide in-service support in a massive new complex that at the time of my recent visit was almost complete and that will sustain 200 jobs. Already on-site, are two A400M flight simulators and a cargo-hold trainer.

Affordability is a vital aspect of defence today and in respect of how RAF Brize Norton will need to embrace change and operate in the future a major change management programme is now underway. Programme Gateway has its origins from a private sector report conducted by a large international firm of Consulting Accountants and that culminated with the appointment of a GATEWAY Programme Delivery Team Partner. My understanding of the ongoing project intention is as follows:

Programme Gateway

Following the relocation of the C-130 Hercules Force from the base at RAF Lyneham to that of RAF Brize Norton in 2012, as part of Project CATARA, Programme FUTURE BRIZE, as the project was originally known in terms of concept, sought to address the broader issues surrounding the collocation of the Air Mobility Force at RAF Brize Norton. Granted a broader, transformational, remit in 2013, it was renamed Programme GATEWAY.

Initiated in July 2014 as being a three-year programme to develop an Enhanced Operating Model (EOM) for RAF Brize Norton, the joint development team put in place to move the programme forward comprises of a mix of Royal Air Force and Civil Service staff and a private sector Programme Development Partner (PDP). Eryl Smith is the Programme Director and heading Programme Gateway as Delivery manager for the Royal Air Force is Group Capt. John Curnow. Together, this team offers a wealth of knowledge and experience in both the existing operational task, and good practice from a range of areas in public and private sectors.

The final scope of Programme Gateway will be determined by the full range of options that are chosen for development. My initial assessment of the programme had been one of gearing up the supply chain in order to reduce pressure on RAF Brize Norton when the tempo picks up. This remains true. It is also of course, equally about creation of innovative thinking that looks at the various small, medium and large scale component parts and of how the base delivers all of its many and various outputs. Given its importance and rapid expansion in recent years, there can be little doubt that RAF Brize Norton needs to embrace change in how it delivers its outputs. Programme Gateway is designed to achieve that.

At the heart of Programme Gateway is transforming RAF Brize Norton, this being the UK’s primary Air Mobility base, to deliver an optimised, effective and efficient Rapid Global Air Mobility Force that can fully support the UK future Air Mobility (AM) needs.

Transformation will be achieved through improving effectiveness and efficiency through the introduction of an Enhanced Operating Model (EOM) together with optimising effective and efficient use of the fleet in support of future UK Air Mobility requirements, optimising cross-fleet support arrangements, better balancing of activity between MOD and contractor service provision to deliver a Whole Force Solution together with rationalisation of infrastructure requirements to support operations and defining and implementing an Enhanced Operating Model (EOM) that enhances performance whilst minimising operating costs.

Programme Gateway options are many and varied and include Airport, Airline, Cargo, Airside Engineering and Logistics service elements of what is regarded as being the future RAF Brize Norton Operating model. Change is intended to be inclusive and sustainable embracing as it will technical scope of all services required, infrastructure, commercial and procurement issues (route to market, contract model etc) continue to embrace MOD/RAF regulation and policy including personnel and so on.

Clearly success of Programme Gateway depends on significant industry engagement and in respect of the Airport, a number of bi-laterals to gauge industry appetite and encourage new thinking for future solutions are already in place. I understand that various evaluation processes are already underway.

In respect of the Airline tasking, collaboration with AirTanker in order to deliver increased output, extensive engagement with industry on SDC (Service Delivery Centre) pilot and full solution, increasing outsourcing of non-core operations and further exploring of training ambitions.

Initial airport benefits are expected to include continuity of contractor provisioned services, release MOD regular and CS liability, and reduce whole life costs through enhanced efficiencies and economies of scale.

In the course of its construction, Programme Gateway has identified and developed opportunities right across the base enterprise. Split between DE&S, Air and TLB (Top Level Budgets), apart from initial and future airport considerations and requirements envisaged opportunities could include Voyager tasking and refinancing, rebalancing line and base maintenance, engine support centre, live v synthetic training rebalance, A400M contract support, world-wide fuel contract, fuel efficiency programme, base delivery of fuel and other structural airfield comparisons and requirements, tasking and dispatch solutions, governance, enterprise station and FHQ organisation and enterprise management board.

Not surprisingly, because the success of Programme Gateway requires a committed base of private sector suppliers, considerable interest has been shown. These have included Airport operators, Ground support service providers, logistics providers including both demand management and distribution.

Achievable benefit assumptions of Programme Gateway include substantial reductions in military and civil service personnel, increased utilisation of assets and increasing available hours by improving tasking and despatch processes, an envisaged 8% saving in fuel consumption, 25% reduction of engine rejections fixed on-base and on-wing, £145 million reduction in charter costs together with various other re-organisation, refinancing, enterprise and capability enhancements.

Clearly, Programme Gateway will take several years to fully implement. I have to say that I am impressed with the intention and of what I have so far seen of the plan but I readily accept that implementation will not be easy throughout. Even so, Programme Gateway represents a bold ambition that as constructively, disrupted and challenged the status quo of operation and delivery of outputs. The status quo is best characterised by suggesting that although RAF Brize Norton is operationally very successful it is, in respect of adapting to change management, organisationally immature. The base does what is asked of it time and time again and yet operationally it is as a structure undoubtedly complex and its process of operation lengthy and costly. Indeed, it seems that there has over the years been only a limited amount of cost awareness. In addition, it has been claimed that from an operational stance the base is data rich but information poor.

Although benefits will be spread over several years, in respect of outputs it can be said that Programme Gateway is already delivering. For instance, enhanced Voyager tasking, right sizing of support operations, fuel efficiency programme and revised training governance arrangements have already been implemented.


AirTanker is a consortium partnership made up of leading aerospace, defence and facilities management specialists, Babcock International, Cobham, Airbus Group, Rolls-Royce and Thales. The consortium was formed following the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme award for RAF Voyager by the MOD in 2008. The contract included supply of air-to-air refueling, air transport and aeromedical evacuation capability, plus associated service and infrastructure and the award covers a period that extends out to 2035.

AirTanker has responsibility for delivering, maintaining and supporting, the tasking of Voyager to provide a cutting-edge air-to-air refuelling (AAR) operational capability to the Royal Air Force. This includes provision of all training in support of its Voyager air transport, air-to-air refuelling and aeromedical evacuation roles. RAF personnel, sponsored reservists and civilians are trained together by role-type, sharing knowledge and drawing on civilian and military aviation best practice. Training is provided by AirTanker in collaboration with Thales Training and Simulation.

I have previously written on the extremely impressive Thales Academy and the work done in support of AirTanker. Babcock International are responsible for facilities management and systems support. The purpose built state-of-art facilities include classrooms, lecture theatres including part task SIM, Mission Systems Consul, air-to-air refuelling trainer and full motion simulator.

Air Tanker is responsible for ownership of operation and aircraft assets (14 aircraft) together with maintenance, support and training. Other than for inflationary increases linked to the Retail Price Index, costs of the 25-year FTSA programme award are fixed throughout the contract period. The nine aircraft are a modified variant of the highly successful Airbus A330-200 commercial aircraft and are piloted by Royal Air Force personnel. There are two Voyager aircraft types the K Mk 2 is a two-point tanker, equipped with 1FRL (Flight Refueling Ltd) Mk32B 900 pod under each wing and a K Mk 3 which is a three-point tanker with an additional centre line hose for larger ‘receiver’ aircraft.

Voyager assets can be used for air-to-air tanker refueling, troop or equipment transportation, VIP transport and when not required by the RAF, they can be leased to other users by AirTanker on the basis that should they be required by the RAF they will be quickly returned. My understanding is that two aircraft are currently leased out.

Voyager Force operated by No’s 10 and 101 Squadrons, each of which has approximately 30 Line Pilots, 14 Mission System Operators and 60 Cabin Crew. While not all 14 aircraft in the Voyager fleet carry the same capability, all either have or can be quickly fitted with two air-to-air refueling pods, military radios, Link 16 and Defensive Aids Suites. In transport configuration, Voyager can carry 291 passengers/troops. One Voyager aircraft has been fitted out for VIP status giving capacity to carry passengers in three classes and capacity of 158 passengers.

Used in VIP form, the aircraft is primarily intended for use by the Prime Minister and Senior Government Ministers and by members of the Royal Family. In cargo form, Voyager can carry up to 8 NATO or civil pallets and can also be used in aeromedical evacuation form in which it would be able to be quickly converted to carry 40 stretchers and associated medical equipment. Overall payload is 30 Tonnes (66,000lbs) equivalent to 291 Fully Equipped Troops over 5,400 nautical miles (10,000 kms). Carrying a 20 ton (44,000 lbs.) payload, this is equivalent to 200 evacuees.

Air Mobility

Air Mobility encompasses those operations that move and support personnel, materiel and assets at speed over strategic distances. It is key to maintaining global presence and a rapid response capability. RAF Brize Norton is the hub of UK military Air Mobility using three distinct aircraft types, 8 x Boeing C-17 Globemaster 111 aircraft operated by 99 Squadron, Airbus A400M Atlas aircraft of which approximately 15 of a total planned 22 aircraft have so far been delivered. From an operational aspect A400M aircraft are operated by LXX Squadron and final deliveries are anticipated in 2019. RAF Brize Norton is also home to the fleet currently in excess of 20 plus Lockheed Martin C-130J aircraft – these aircraft operated either by XXlV Squadron, 30 Squadron or 47 Squadron.

Capabilities in respect of C130J include facilitating requirements for civil and contested airspace, day and night low level, air-to-air refueling (receiving only), tactical landing zones and airdrop plus both low level and high altitude, static line or freefall parachuting of troops. The C130J can fly down to as low as 150 feet and is full day/night flight capable, can land on grass, clay, gravel, sand and ice and is full Night Vision Goggle capable.

C130J has Missile Warning System, large aircraft IR Counter Measure (LAIRCM), radar warning receiver, flight deck armour and is fitted with Explosive Suppressant Foam for fuel tank inerting. Proven in RAF service over many decades and brilliantly supported in respect of maintenance by Marshall Aviation Services the C130J capability is designed to develop, generate, deliver and sustain. My only concern is that with some of the shorter C130J variants signaled for withdrawal and potential third-party sale that given aspects of depth maintenance, scheduled and unscheduled forward maintenance, operations standby requirement, training, defensive tasking and other requirements, the Royal Air Force may find itself with insufficient C-130J capability for the highly specialist role for which it has been retained.

Boeing C-17 Globemaster lll

The C-17 Globemaster is the largest cargo/passenger heavy-lift aircraft in RAF service. The capability provides long-range strategic heavy-lift transport offering the ability to project and sustain an effective force close to a potential area of operations for combat, peacekeeping or humanitarian missions worldwide. RAF C-17 Globemaster capability is a declared part of the UK’s Joint Rapid Reaction Force.

Cargo is loaded on to the C-17 through a large rear door that can accommodate military vehicles and palletised cargo. It can carry almost all of the Army’s air-transportable, outsize combat equipment, from three Warrior armoured vehicles or 13 Land Rovers, to a Chinook helicopter or three Apache-sized helicopters. It carries all its own role-equipment and can fit centre-line seating, which increases the seating capacity from 54 side-wall seats to 102 seats. The aircraft can also be configured in the Aeromedical Evacuation role to carry a full stretcher fit. The C-17 needs little or no ground support equipment and if none is available it can perform a combat off-load where pallets are dropped from the aircraft ramp on to the taxiway or hard-standing. The aircraft is operated by two pilots and one loadmaster and can transport 45,360 kilograms of freight over 4,500 nautical miles whilst flying at heights in excess of 30,000 feet.

Airbus A400M Atlas

The A400M Atlas is capable of carrying a load of 25 tonnes over a range of 2000nmls at speeds comparable with pure-jet military transports. It is capable of operating either at low-level (down to 150ft agl) or at high-level altitudes to 40,000ft, and it is able to deploy troops and/or equipment between and within theatres of operation either by parachute (up to 108 paratroopers), or by landing on short, unprepared or semi-prepared strips. The aircraft was also designed to offer significant improvements in reliability, maintenance and operating costs.

The two-pilot flight deck crew will have the benefit of an integrated, digital avionics system in the cockpit and a fly-by-wire control system. Additional systems will provide a night-vision-compatible glass cockpit complete with two head-up displays supported by at least five multi-function displays that will allow state-of-the-art avionics developments to be incorporated to the flight-deck design, so greatly reducing crew workload.

Whilst it is well known that the A400M has had a difficult entry into operational services caused primarily by engine gearbox issues, both temporary and final solutions to the engine the problem have been found.

Lodger Units and Airborne Delivery Wing

The Airborne Delivery Wing representation at RAF Brize Norton consists of No 1 Parachute Training School, an operation that carries out parachute training for all three section of the UK armed forces as well as the Parachute Engineering Squadron and the RAF Falcons Parachute Display Team.

The RAF Reserves No 501 Logistics Support, No 2624 Regiment and No 4624 (County of Oxford) Movements (the largest squadron in the RAF Reserves) Squadrons provide support for a range of RAF activities, both at home and overseas.

RAF Brize Norton is also home to the Department of Community Mental Health and more recently, the Tactical Medical Wing and its associated RAF Reserve Sqn No 4626. The base provides administrative support for several other units including the Defence Movements School, which again, provides movements training for all three services.

No 47 Air Dispatch Squadron, Royal Logistics Corp, also operates from the Base – this being in support the Transport Support capability in conjunction with C-130 Hercules operations.

RAF Brize Norton is the home of the Joint Air Delivery Test & Evaluation Unit, which is an independent Tri-Service trials organization, commanded by an Army Lieutenant Colonel.

Royal Air Force Regiment 

The Royal Air Force Regiment now has a small compliment of personnel based at RAF Brize Norton. Force Protection is a vital component of air power and the RAF Regiment plays a vital role protecting RAF personnel and assets. In addition as mentioned above, Number 2624 Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force Regiment is part of No 4 Force Protection Wing. This provides a reserve of trained combat manpower available to support the RAF’s Force Protection element on operations worldwide is also base at RAF Brize Norton.

Not all aspects of RAF Brize Norton have been covered here but most have. This is a very powerful and extremely well run operation and one that is very deserving of the praise that it regularly receives. We must never take for granted the brilliant work that it does and the vital role that it plays with UK defence.

CHW (London – 9th May 2017)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon




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