Delays hit air transport for armed forces

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The armed forces are facing “critical shortfalls” in air transport and air-to-air refuelling capabilities because of delays in delivering new aircraft, the Whitehall spending watchdog warned yesterday.

The Ministry of Defence has already spent £787m trying to plug the gap caused by the delays to the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) and A400M transport aircraft programmes, the National Audit Office (NAO) disclosed.

It said that officials were now looking at the possibility of extending the life of its elderly VC10s – which were supposed to be retired from service in March – by “a few months” in order to eke out as much refuelling capacity as possible. Once the VC10s have gone, the RAF will be forced to rely on another ageing aircraft – the Tristar, which goes out of service next year – to meet its air-to-air refuelling requirement until the FSTA is ready to take over.

Although the first of 14 FSTAs has now entered service, fuel leaks and fuelling basket “instability” have meant it has had to be restricted to transport duties until technical problems are resolved.

Meanwhile delays to the A400M – which is due to enter service in March 2015, six years later than planned – have meant the MoD had to acquire two additional C-17 strategic transport aircraft and two BAe 146s, for transport and communications, to ease the pressure on the RAF’s transport fleet.

Overall, the NAO said there would be some “critical gaps” in air-to-air refuelling and tactical air transport until 2017.