Friday, October 28, 2011

Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft - Inside the Voyager world

Today, my focus goes on one of the big-ticket items in the defence budget, which also happen to be one of the most controversial: the 10.5 billion pounds, 27-years FSTA PFI contract for the provvision of Voyager air tankers to the RAF. To do so, I’ll use as always many sources, but mainly I will take the interesting data from the 2010 NAO’s report on FSTA. And I’ll try to see if the “FSTA is exclusive, we can only refuel our planes from them” argument is valid, or if it is a myth.

Why PFI?

The decision to go Private Financing Initiative for the future AAR/Air Transport fleet is as old as 1997, and stems from the necessity to start a timely replacement of already aging AAR platforms while having no budget available for it. In 2000, the MOD was expecting that, to acquire a new fleet of AAR assets, it would have to commit, for a period of at least four years, capital funding of 1 billion pound per year, equivalent to some 5% of the total procurement budget over the same period. In practice, a “save now, pay later” approach, apparently based on the assumption that “later” it would have been easier to find money.
The NAO is quite critical in regard to this approach, and it is generally thought that a more conventional acquisition would have cost less. But then again, the MOD was unable to spend one billion a year on a single procurement effort of this kind to acquire outright a new fleet, so it is difficult to really judge the wisdom of the decision. We are where we are.

Finalizing an agreement turned out being more complex than expected. It took nine years to reach contract signature, resulting in the in-service date of FSTA being delayed by 5 and a half years. The Project’s Team, in 2004, all but recommended cancelling the programme, but only in 2007 the MOD seriously considered to back out of the PFI way and select a different path. The “Plan B”, also based on A330, was expected to cost 9.9 billion pounds, being centered on used A330 airframes taken up for conversion, supplemented by four of the A400 Atlas cargo planes being acquired with demountable AAR kit. The option was soon abandoned, and industry was not involved in refining the concept, as the MOD feared to upset the market, on which it was negotiating, at the same time, the PFI deal.

The contract
Signed in March 2008, the contract with Air Tanker is a PFI of 27 years duration (24 of which of effective service following delivery), stretching to 2035. Air Tanker is to deliver the RAF a core fleet of 9 airplanes, with a further five accessible on request, and otherwise available to lease for external usage by commercial/military users. Of these nine planes, 7 will be fitted for, and only 5 will be fitted with, the Fuselage Refueling Point, especially suited for refueling large airplanes such as A400 and AWACS, apart from, of course, offering a third refueling point for fighter aircrafts. 

The MOD will pay the fleet depending on the usage it makes of it, with a minimum contracted amount of 9000 flying hours per year. 

This is what the FSTA contract delivers.

Cost per year planned is 450 million pounds. Of these, 390 millions are direct payments that the MOD will make to the AirTanker consortium: 80 millions are the costs of operating the service, with the remaining 310 millions covering financial aspects, profit for the consortium, capital costs, planes and infrastructure costs. The remaining 60 millions are the expected average cost of personnel and fuel. This gives, over the 27 years of contract, the expected cost of 12.3 billion pounds indicated by the Treasury, against MOD figures of 10.5 billions.

48 million pounds were expended between the start of the Assessment Phase and Contract Signature: 27 of these were spent on advisers (!), 10 for supporting the bidders and 11 on internal costs. The 10 million figure for “supporting the bidders” is a MOD funding destined to the losing bidder, meant to keep the two teams interested in the competition, and spur them on to make proposals, and possibly good ones. This was done because the proposals filed in in 2001 by Air Tanker and TSSC were both weak, leading to revised bids being made in 2003. TSSC was finally de-selected in 2004 as their proposal was 19% more expensive, and left the MOD with little freedom as they argued for an almost immediate (by 2005 at the latest) buy of a complete package of Boeing 767 platforms. The Air Tanker bid, however, was so commercially immature that, as already said, the programme was recommended for cancellation. In practice, one offer sucked, the other too. It was only after Air Tanker shouldered more of the risks that it was selected, in 2005. In the meanwhile, Air Tanker had managed to raise on the market some 2.5 billions of funding, which it needed to kick start its work.

Essentially, the PFI’s blessing is that the MOD has been paying only a few millions in advisers, legal advice, negotiations and other issues, but won’t be paying the FSTA service until this is in service. After that, it will pay considerably more annually than if it was using a traditionally owned fleet, but it will have avoided the huge up-front cost of acquiring the airframes, infrastructure and other activities, which are covered by the Air Tanker Limited consortium.

The mess of changing requirements

There were many changes in requirements, even pretty late during negotiations. The most evident problems stemmed by the MOD and RAF being unable to agree a basic core fleet requirement: the MOD reduced the planned fleet from 17 to 14 airplanes, with core fleet of nine, to achieve savings. The RAF contested that they expected, at this point, to need a core fleet of 10 planes. After long internal debate, the MOD subsequently tried to negotiate an option for a tenth machine in the core fleet, idea that was ultimately abandoned later on. 

Differently from Italy, Japan, Australia and US Air Forces (Italy, Japan and US use the Boeing 767, with Italy having acquired 4, only coming in service this year, after years of delays and technical issues. Australia chose the A330 MRTT in the cargo variant), the MOD decided they had no requirement for a “cargo optimized” airplane with cargo doors and reconfigurable decks. It is not clear which position the RAF assumed in this regard. The A330 for the RAF are in the “passenger” variant, and this limits quite massively a potential for cargo transport which would otherwise be massive: unfortunately, it represent a big loss of capability that could have been simply invaluable. Think Defence covered this aspect extensively in his article.

The current fleet: aging, less available and more expensive by the hour

The cost of the combined Tristar and VC10 fleets (9 [of which 3 passengers-only, 2 passengers-tanker, 4 passengers-cargo-tanker] and 15 [10 passengers, freight and tanker, and 5 tankers with limited passenger capability) in 2008-09 cost, according to the NAO, 327.2 million pounds. This cost has been on the raise due to the airframes getting older and more expensive to maintain and keep operational. In 2008, the average cost of a flying hour for the two types, has a cost in mainteinance of 6000 pounds. An increase of 35% compared to 2002 values. By 2015, projections indicated that the cost of the two fleets might have reached 500 million pounds cost per year. At the same time, their availability went down, causing a reduction of over 21% in flying hours compared to the early 2000s. In 2008/09 the two fleets delivered 84% of the expected usage level set by the MOD, with a reduction of 12% in availability for AAR ops and 8% reduction in availability for air transport compared to two years previously. Each aircraft reported an average drop in “fit for purpose” availability of some 23 days, for a total of a combined 550 days of unavailability, meaning two planes less for the year. In 2008/09, 29 missions were cancelled prior to starting because of unavailability of AAR assets fit for purpose, and a further 17 percent of the 486 yearly AAR flights were cancelled due to unserviceable aircrafts.  

Even so, it is to say the least alarming that the AirTanker service is going to cost, new, almost as much as the larger, combined fleets of Tristar and VC10 at the end of their service dates. To be fair, though, the NAO specifies that the direct comparison is not viable, as the VC10/Tristar cost does not include the sunk costs connected to the original acquisition of the airplanes, training and infrastructure. The total figure for VC10 and Tristar is certainly higher. It remains to be see if it is higher than FSTA’s own cost.  

Airbridge work

The crumbling availability of Tristar and VC10 has been one of the main causes of a constant increase in the practice of chartering civilian aircraft for transport of personnel towards and from Afghanistan. The Tristar fleet flies some 5 flights per week in support of Herrick, with a spare airframe kept on Brize Norton to provide back-up to the tasked fleet. 

The Voyager is the biggest plane the RAF ever operated in its history.

To provide an idea of what we are talking about, it is worth noting, from another NAO report, that between February 2007 and October 2008, some 613 airplanes were chartered for supporting operations in Afghanistan, at a cost of 125.9 million pounds. In the same period, 799 aircraft were chartered for Iraq, for 102.3 millions. Some 172 of these planes were large freighters (the huge An124 Condor cargo planes chartered from Ukraine companies to airlift heavy vehicles in Afghanistan, underlining the insufficiency of the C17 fleet and, to a degree, even of its performances), 293 were small freighters and 149 were for personnel transport. Both of these last two figures are relative to roles that, in theory, are, in total or in good part, a job for C130, Tristar and VC10, and in future A400 and FSTA.

And this is a single year!    

Currently, transport of personnel by civilian aircraft covers the route from and to the UK, to the closest-to-Afghanistan base available. Mainly, Cyprus, but other locations in the Middle East are used as well. Tristars and civilian aircrafts cover the first leg of the travel, then personnel moves onto C130 and C17 airplanes, which are fitted with adequate protection and electronic countermeasures, and they are flown into Afghanistan. This approach works, but at the same time ties down precious C130s and even more precious (and very expensive) C17 flying hours for non-efficient use of their capabilities.

The original FSTA requirement did not envisage the aircraft flying directly into high-threat environments such as Afghanistan. However, this requirement changed during the procurement phase and the Department’s 2006 Concept of Use document for FSTA established the need for the aircraft to be fitted with a range of platform protection measures, such as flight deck armour and vulnerable point protection, to fly into high-threat environments. There was no approved funding for this requirement at the time it was  introduced. The Department did not establish a formal requirement for all large aircraft to be fitted with the full Theatre Entry Standard equipment, including fuel tank inerting, until 2008.

The required platform protection measures were not transferable from other aircraft types and therefore required specifi c solutions to be developed for FSTA. The Department sensibly decided to continue negotiating the contract with AirTanker without altering its requirement, thus preventing delays to the negotiations. The platform protection modifications were the subject of a 2009 feasibility study costing the Department around £1.5 million, but are likely to require further research. The platform protection modifications to FSTA could cost several hundred million pounds, and the Department is reviewing the costs and technical requirements against other options.

To preserve the delivery schedule for FSTA, any modifications will be retro-fitted to the aircraft after they have been delivered, although this will take a number of years to complete. To compensate for the time this would take, the Department is addressing equipment obsolescence and performance issues to extend the life of the Tristar fleet, notably by replacing the flight management system and cockpit displays at a cost of £23.5 million. This work is proving more complex than anticipated and has meant that one aircraft has been unavailable for more than 18 months, rather than seven months as scheduled.

A330 Voyager KC3

The height of the demented decisions is reached when we read that the MOD has committed itself to pay AirTanker 8000 pounds for flight and 300 pounds per hour of chartering of third part planes. As we have seen, the MOD currently heavily uses chartered flights to support Afghanistan, used them in Iraq, and, more recently, used them again for Libya by bringing in and out personnel and materials. 175 million pounds a year have been expended in chartered flights between 2006-07 and 2008-09.

The FSTA contract includes a number of “exceptions” to this rule, and one has to hope that ADDITIONAL flights chartered over and above the FSTA planes flights are not subject to this penalties. I can accept that FSTA wants to ensure that its planes are the first choice for establishing an air bridge, and the new tankers will of course have this role by default, but since they won’t be enough to sustain large ops, it would be absolutely absurd to be unable to charter additional planes without paying penalties.

It is absolutely evident, that, being tied down as the MOD is to using FSTA airframes for all future airbridges, the fleet MUST be properly kitted with self-protection systems and measures, as the planes will have to be able to work in all environments, and not just in permissive ones. 

The commercial arrangements of the contract, including the feared Exclusivity clause.

The Myth of “exclusivity” of FSTA air refueling service

With alarming frequency, the internet reports the worries of people who think that fitting A400 Atlas or F35C with AAR pods is a breach of the FSTA contract. I’ve tried to find indications in this sense in the NAO report, and even on the Air Tanker website itself.

As of now, I can conclude that this is just an urban legend, probably stemming from wrong interpretation of the Exclusivity clause (see in the image from NAO report) which, as we have seen, does not apply to proprietary platforms (it talks specifically of “charter”) and it is far more likely to put the RAF in trouble regarding airbridge work, more than AAR. 

There is only one supplier of charter AAR platforms in the world which the RAF could contract, after all. This is Omega Aerial Refueling Services, Ins (OARS), founded in 2004 to provide AAR service to the US Navy from the Omega Air tankers fleet. This civilian company flies a fleet  of converted civilian air jets: their first air tanker, an ex-Pan Am Boeing B-707-300, was certified as a two-pods air tanker compliant to NATO norms in 2001. In 2006, they put into service a second tanker, another B707 (K707 after conversion) which had been, in its previous life, a Royal Saudi Air Force diplomatic transport. On the KC-707, Omega has 2 Sergeant Fletcher baskets on the aft centerline of the aircraft. Only one basket/hose assembly can be used at one time. The other basket acts as an immediate spare should it be needed due to malfunction or damage. Only one plane can refuel at any one time. One of the two K707 is a cargo plane with cargo door, and has no seats. The other can carry 5 to 8000 kg of cargo and/or 19 seats. However, In May 2011, one of the two K-707s was destroyed in a crash at Point Mugu, California and, ironically, the company ended up acquiring three ex-RAAF K707 air tankers to replace the lost airframe (by the end of this month, according to plans) and eventually expand its fleet later on with further conversions.
The RAAF is about to refuel its F18s from chartered K707 airplanes it previously owned!  

In 2007, their third plane, a former Japan Air Lines DC-10-40, was converted and certified as air tanker (KDC-10), with two pods under the wings, so it can refuel two planes at a time. This plane has 174 seats.
All three the Omega tankers can be expected to fly, on average, some 1200 hours a year. 

The managers of Omega are often ex-US Navy men and aviators, with most of the company's pilots being ex-USAF pilots. In the past seven years, Omega claims to have flown over 2,500 missions and 8,500 hours, while offloading over 90 million pounds of fuel and 23,000 plugs, with a stated 98 % Mission Completion Rate. 

In 2008, Omega completed its first global deployment by transporting a squadron of RAAF F/A-18s from RAAF Tindal, Australia, to Eielson AFB, Alaska for a USAF Red Flag exercise and back again.
Canadian Air Force CF-18s have also used Omega during past joint training and Omega is currently providing air to air refuelling (AAR) services to the Royal Australian Air Force as a bridging option, since the country gapped its air refueling fleet by retiring its 707 airframes, with the first A330/KC-30A replacement tanker expected to achieve full operational capability only in 2012.
In May 2008 OARS also supported the Royal Air Force, using an Omega K-707 and its KDC-10 to refuel GR4 Tornado from New England to Arizona. This is the only chartered AAR ops of the RAF i'm aware of. This kind of operation is now unlikely to be viable without breaching the Exclusivity clause of the FSTA contract, but it does not appear to be a serious issue.

Omega can service users other than US Marines and US Navy only by paying said service via US Government channels, as the company is under contract management by NAVAIR SYSCOM PMA-207.5. The tanker is funded for its flying hours to support US Navy and Marine Corps Aviation, not fuel use. Fuel purchases come from government-approved sources, using the same government credit card that military units use to pay for fuel; the costs are allocated and charged to the appropriate squadron, just as fuel from a USAF KC-135 would be. All flights are approved by the government’s Commercial Air Services Manager.

With just two planes left at the moment, not very capable, and very busy supporting US Navy and Marines training and RAAF work, Omega does not seem in the position of representing a likely source of contract breaches for the RAF.

More importantly, in the CVF report of the NAO, even when the document talks of the F35C “Buddy-Buddy” AAR option that the UK is studying, there is again no mention of any “risk” or “additional cost” due to measure being eventually in conflict with the FSTA contract. If there were, you can bet they would be listed and underlined extensively. 

It is safe to assume that there is no problem whatsoever with adopting Buddy-Buddy for the F35C and/or acquiring and using AAR kits for the A400 fleet.

FSTA tankers will also be able to continue delivering fuel to allied planes, as UK planes will continue to be free of refueling from allied air tankers. In the second case, however, a penalty clause exists: beyond certain parameters AirTanker will be entitled to compensation where the RAF takes on more fuel than it gives away.

What can the Voyager do  

The A330 Voyager in the RAF will have two “marks”:

A330 Voyager KC2: two AAR pods variant (7)

A330 Voyager KC3: three AAR pods variant (7 fitted for, 5 with)

Both variants will come with 291 seats for personnel transport, and capacity for 111 tons of transferable fuel. The A330 MRTT has the traditional wide body 2-deck layout of the A330. The lower deck on both versions is the same; it features a semi-automatic loading system and can carry a combination of military 463L pallets and civilian LD3 and LD6 containers, typically either 8x 463L, 1x LD6 and 1x LD3 or 25x LD3.

The A330 is the current kind of AAR refuelers: it is bigger and more capable than the Boeing 767, and carries more transferable fuel than all its competitors. Even in the A330-200F Cargo Variant, which was offered to the US Air Force and which is the variant with the re-configurable top deck with cargo door, weights 11000 pounds more and carries 12000 pounds less transferable fuel, the tanker remains unrivalled in the AAR role.

The A330 is capable of delivering:

-          Deployment: a Voyager can support a packet of four Typhoon fighters (for example) in a 5000 km (2800 naval miles) deployment travel, while also carrying 15.000 kg of payload. With zero passengers/payload, the distance increases to 3600 naval miles. 

T         Transport: with 30 tons of payload (including the 291 passengers) the range is 4500 naval miles. With sole passengers, range can increase to 6000 naval miles.

-          Towline missions: a Voyager can spend 4 hours and 30 minutes on station at 1850 kilometers from its base, refueling other planes from a reserve of 50 tons of fuel. In another scheme, with the distance reduced to 925 kilometers, the time on station is 5 hours, with 60 tons of fuel.

-          MEDEVAC: For medical evacuation, up to 40 NATO stretchers and 20 passenger seats for medical staff to monitor the patients can be installed in the forward cabin. In the aft cabin, there are up to 100 passenger seats.

-          Freighter: in cargo role, Voyager can carry a max of 43 tons.


And already, there’s been official speculation of using it as an ISR platform as well: "FSTA is much more than a tanker," says chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton. "It has the ability to stay airborne and provide a [communications] relay facility for much longer than our current aircraft types."

Welcome development, but you will pardon me if I express very serious doubts about the effective possibilities of this, in particular as long as the problem with the insufficient level of Electronic Countermeasures and self-protection features is not fixed.

The leap forwards in AAR performances is noticeable, and will deliver great improvements, easing operations greatly.

For example: in September 2009, the Typhoon went to the Falklands to relieve the Tornados F3 of 1435° Flight in the defence of the islands. The re-deployment was a quite massive operation

ZJ944, ZJ945, ZJ949, ZJ950 and ZK301 departed for the Falkland Islands on September 12th 2009. The deployment involved a total of ten support aircraft from four squadrons flying 280 hours supported by 95 personnel in addition to the fighters and their aircrews. 

In a two-stage operation the aircraft were trailed by tankers to Ascension Island, using the Canary Islands as a staging post. From Ascension, they were trailed again to the Falkland Islands without any outside assistance. The Typhoons were accompanied by a TriStar aircraft throughout, whereas the other air-to-air assets provided fuel at various stages before returning to Ascension; in all, each Typhoon was required to refuel seven times on route. 

The Falkland Islands-based VC10 was on hand to provide a final top-up of fuel if required and to enable the Typhoons to divert to the South American mainland had the weather deteriorated unexpectedly during the nine-and-a-half hour transit. 

In addition, Hercules and Nimrod aircraft provided Search and Rescue cover for the long sea transits, and were equipped with survival equipment and spare life rafts that could be dropped to any survivors in the water in the event of an incident that necessitated an ejection.

The extent of the support fleet required to ensure a successful mission included:

  • Two Tristar aircraft from 216 Squadron, RAF Brize Norton, which flew a total of 89 hrs and involved 26 personnel;
  • Four VC.10 aircraft from 101 Squadron, which flew some 87 hours and involved 28 personnel.
  • Three C.1/C.3 Hercules aircraft from 70 Squadron, which flew 90 hours and involved 21 personnel.
  • One Nimrod MR.2 from 120 Squadron, RAF Kinloss, which flew 14 hours and involved 20 personnel.

The Typhoons arrived at Mount Pleasant on September 16th 2009. ZJ945 subsequently returned to Coningsby, leaving ZJ944, ZJ949, ZJ950 and ZK301 down south: the four planes have now taken the traditional identities of Faith, Hope, Charity and Desperation. 

FSTA would reduce significantly the number of tankers necessary for such a long deployment. However, the Voyager is not magic, and is not an alternative to aircraft carriers for operations abroad: for all its capacity, not even Voyager is capable to support such a deployment: due to the distance between Ascension and the UK (some 4000 naval miles) and that between Ascension and the Falklands (around 3800), several tankers will still be required to cover the long legs of the two-stages transfer. 

The first Voyager in RAF colors. In the future, it'll be a common sight.

In terms of ground infrastructure in Brize Norton, on 31 March 2011 the FSTA hub was opened. It consists of a two-bay hangar, workshops, stores and three floors of office accommodation, which means that the Hub operates as a maintenance facility, flight operations centre and main headquarters for all military and civilian personnel working on the FSTA service.

on 20 June 2011 the Training center opened, and began preparing the second group of RAF Voyager engineers. A first group is under training since January 2011.    

On 11 July 2011, AirTanker and the RAF signed an agreement which allows the RAF to use one of the two bays of the FSTA hangar for mainteinance of its C130s, up to two at a time. The scope includes all storage, heating, overhead lighting, power, cleaning and air services.  Amenities for up to 25 maintenance personnel are also provided on site by AirTanker within the new facilities at RAF Brize Norton. The agreement is valid for 16 months, and will help the RAF managing the massive expansion in the number of planes and personnel based in Brize, since all the C130s of the RAF have been transferred to the base from RAF Lyneham.

The first two A330 have been converted in Getafe, Spain, and have since reached the UK, with the first touching down in Brize Norton on 8 August 2011. Trials of refueling, on the ground and in the air, are ongoing as the RAF prepares for the entry in service of the new plane. Meanwhile, the third plane has arrived in the UK for its conversion: Chobam will in fact convert the planes 3 to 14 in the UK. 

The first RAF squadron to use the Voyager will be 10 Sqn, whose formal reformation parade is planned for next year. The squadron was in fact disbanded the last time in 2005, leaving 101 Sqn as the sole RAF VC10 formation.  

Currently, the RAF air refuelling fleet is spread in two squadrons: 101 and 216, with the first using VC10 and the second flying the Tristars.


FSTA is far from perfect. The Voyager has no AAR probe, so it can refuel, but not be refueled. The number of three-points tankers is low, and only half of the fleet is built ready to get the fuselage refueling unit. The A330 airframe chosen, besides, is in the Passenger variant, while the cargo variant would have offered a lot more capability. And the programme is going to cost a lot, on many, many years into the future.

However, it is hard for me to be as critic as many are with FSTA. The Voyager is a superb platform, which will deliver much needed improvements to the RAF capability. It genuinely is world-class, and until France (eventually) buys 14 A330 itself (and they, funnily enough, aim for the A330-200F cargo variant, even if they are thinking about going PFI themselves) there will simply be nothing comparable to the FSTA fleet, outside of the US.

More importantly, I tend to be in difficulty when asked to condemn the PFI approach: it is true, over the 27 years of the programme, it will cost more than outright, classical acquisition. But the truth is that, simply, there was no money for buying the planes: we know how tight the budget is and has been in these years: how was the MOD supposed to find one billion a year per at least four years to acquire the planes?

The UK will pay more for FSTA, but will do so over 27 years, making the cost overall acceptable in yearly terms: we will pay more than we’d pay operating a proprietary fleet, but we will have effectively “skipped” the big capital cost of setting up said fleet. For doing things differently, the money would have had to be dug out of somewhere: either cutting existing capabilities, or biting away other procurement programmes. Delays, as years of Labour have taught us all, do not work well at all in defence procurement, as they push up the total cost in the long term, and only make the problem worse later on.

So it was either “cuts until we have the money”, or PFI, or “financial creativity”, which in Italy often has the shape of money coming to the defence programmes via Economic Development Ministry, as a stimulus to national industry. The UK does not use this kind of tricks to provide money for "spend now, save later" approaches, unfortunately, so arguably the PFI, even if not perfect, was the only way to go. It is not easy to imagine another way to provide a FSTA equivalent fleet and service in another arrangement with the financial reality we have to face.  

It is to be hoped that a joint agreement will be reached with France sometime soon for the utilization of the “spare” capacity of 5 FSTA airframes. Kind of abandoned the (unlikely) option of seeing said planes carrying civilians for some air company, the only real option for the RAF to keep costs down is selling hours to France, which needs them as it had to delay the acquisition of its own new tanker fleet for lack of budget, but is having troubles with rising costs and failing availability of its current, ancient KC135 tankers. Negotiations ongoing from at least last year have recently reportedly been sunk by the RAF/AirTanker deal offer being simply too expensive: it has been said that the cost was put at a prohibitive 40.000 pounds per hour, which makes even the old, expensive KC135 advantageous. But I suspect (and hope) that the story is not over yet. The RAF needs to sell, France needs to buy. An agreement should be reached at some point.

In the longer term, France is thinking about a Public-Private Partnership for its new air tanker fleet. Talks are being held on the basis of a lease and a traditional purchase, with the PPP approach thought to smooth the harsh impact of an upfront acquisition cost estimated at 2.4 billion euro no less, for 14 A330 airplanes at an unit cost of 175 million euro each, to which support, infrastructure and training must be added.

They won’t finalize any decision before 2013 at the earliest, however, with no new plane coming in before 2017 or later: this makes it evident that, especially with performances of the tanker fleet in Libya having been judged poor and lacking, they will need a stopgap measure.  


  1. Hi Gabriele,
    Thanks for a very comprehensive and informative post,it is the most unbiased report on the Airtanker consortium/PFI and the aircraft itself that I have come across to date.
    It has certainly given me a far better understanding of this controversial (in some areas) subject.

  2. Thanks to you, Michael, for reading on my blog. I'm glad to hear that you found this article useful and informative.

  3. Michael,

    Outstanding, extremely comprehensive analysis. Thank you. One additional dimension if I may.

    There was - and is - an alternative to the PFI approach that again would have entailed no up-front capital spend, would have provided exactly the same service, and would still have cost about one third FSTA cost: the commercial AAR service that Omega has provided since 2001 to the USN and internationally thro' bi-lateral FMS contracts’ (see UTube for latest Omega Tanker work with RAAF Super Hornets).

    The RAF trialled KDC-10 against Tornados in 2008 and reported "a resounding success"

    Omega's KDC-10s are 'old', but fully regulated and maintained (USAF is running same aircraft out to 2050). And they offload more fuel and carry more passengers and freight than Voyager. The NPV of Omega's fleet of DC-10s ready for conversion is a fraction of new A330 costs, hence no need for the bank involvement inevitable with PFI (FSTA bank charges over the 27 year programme is close to £4Bn).

    An Omega long-term lease would in fact have been an identical service to FSTA in just about every respect - military registered, military operated, contact clauses to guarantee availability for 27 years, etc. But the counter proposal considered under the SDSR review was rejected last October, basically because FSTA is just too far down the road. That decision is unlikely to change at this late stage - but the growing gap between VC-10/Tristar and Voyager availability may yet see Omega Tankers supporting the RAF on an interim basis.


  4. @Mike

    I made some additions to the article regarding Omega. However, the info i've been able to dig up from their site and elsewhere tells me a story a bit different. They only have one KDC-10 and one K707. One was lost to an accident in California last May, and they have bought old, retired ex-RAAF K707 to restore their fleet to 3 and keep 2 spare/growth airframes.

    The KDC-10 is different from the KC10 of the USAF, and carries less fuel. And it has 174 seats.
    The K707s are even worse.

    If you can link me to different sources and data, i'll be glad to check. But for what i've learned so far, Omega was and is unable to provide an FSTA equivalent service and fleet to the RAF.

  5. Gabby,

    Perhaps you might have linked to this article at TD

    It is much more up to date than the one you linked to, as of course, you know full well.

    Also, nice of you to credit one of the commenters over at TD with your awareness of Omega.


  6. I changed the link. The second article is undoubtedly better than the first, after all.

    But if you are trying to claim that this article is yours or that i had no right to go at it myself or whatever else, i'll say it clearly, just fuck the hell off.

  7. I heard the same about Omega as well, it was only secondhand and a rumour but they weren't all they were cracked up to be. They were found wanting in some areas.

  8. Indeed, i really don't see how they could have delivered FSTA.

    Perhaps they could have, but they would have to buy the same fleet that AirTanker is lining up, and use RAF crews.
    I don't think there would have been much difference in costs. And i don't know if they ever were actually interested in such a business, either.


Everybody can comment on this blog without needing a Blogger account. It is meant to keep the discussion free and open to everyone. Unfortunately, anonymous accounts keep the door open for spammers and trolls, so i'm forced to moderate comments and approve them before they appear. Apologies for the inconvenience.