Alan Warnes meets the RAF Air Mobility Unit Chief of Staff – the man tasked with fulfilling all UK defence airlift requirements anywhere in the world.
A sign outside the main gate at RAF Brize Norton, near Witney in Oxfordshire, declares the base as the RAF’s gateway to the world.
It is home to the RAF’s Air Mobility Unit (AMU), which is responsible for meeting all the UK defence airlift requirements.
Fulfilling those needs are nine A330 Voyager multirole tanker transports (MRTTs), 24 C-130J Hercules, eight C-17 Globemasters, and 11 A400Ms (of 22 on order). They are flown by six operational squadrons and an operational conversion unit (OCU).
The AMU’s Chief of Staff, Group Captain Martin Cunningham, formerly a C-130 Hercules pilot explained: “Our operational tempo is relentless; the only time it goes quiet is Christmas, when the Army goes on leave, at which point we go heavy on training.”
Cunningham has a huge task. He has to ensure everything is planned and resourced, as well as looking after all the operational elements when squadrons are away from base.
Not surprisingly, he has a large ops office with 48 personnel – although it’s usually no more than 30 at any one time. They are tasked with organising the entire airlift and air-to-air (AAR) refuelling needs, with Operation Shader, the UK’s contribution to fighting Daesh, taking up a lot of their time.
Personnel ensure all the appropriate assets are in place to carry out day-to-day work, and other tasks such as diplomatic clearances.
Using the AMU’s assets is straightforward. “Bids from the UK Defence arena go to defence supply chain operations and movements (DSCOM) to move [personnel or equipment] by land, sea, air, rail, contract or post. They are a multi-modal logistics hub,” explained Cunningham, before adding: “They don’t own anything but we provide our input, advising them what we have available. It could be four Voyagers and four C-17As that day, and they build the programme for strategic ops.”
Over the last three years, the RAF’s airlift fleet has been radically transformed. Cunningham said: “The RAF has gone from a legacy fleet with legacy procedures and ops to a very modern fleet of aircraft, which are incredibly serviceable.
“We have a patchwork quilt of capabilities and there are some platforms that have niche capabilities, but we try to knit their capabilities together – maybe with a slight overlap.”
There were once 26 VC-10s and six Tristars in the fleet. They have been replaced by just nine A-330MRTT Voyagers in a unique private finance initiative (PFI) agreement with AirTanker. They are used by 10 and 101 Squadrons for both AAR and air transportation. The latter can operate with a mix of more than 200 passengers plus cargo in the hold.
The contract, signed on March 28, 2008, led to the RAF acquiring 14 A330 Voyager MRTTs. Five are reserve aircraft and, as such, AirTanker leases them to the airline industry as passenger aircraft.
Of the nine RAF jets, one is civilian-registered and used for the Falklands air bridge, operated by an AirTanker crew that’s not allowed to fly into non-permissive environments (conflict areas).
Personnel have had to be quickly re-educated in the way they work the new A330s and A400Ms. They’re expensive aircraft and the RAF is ensuring every pound counts.
Cunningham said: “It’s not just about capability, but affordability too. It’s making sure what we’ve got really works and we’ve increased the Voyager crews by four to ‘sweat’ the asset more.
“With one covering the Falklands air bridge, it leaves us with eight in the core fleet. So, on a daily basis, we have six, gusting seven, of which we have four deployed. It leaves us with just two to three aircraft to deliver the defence exercise programme.”
A Voyager crew for an AAR mission includes a pilot, co-pilot and mission systems operator (MSO) looking after the air refuelling aspect of the sortie, whereas an air transport (AT) mission calls for a flight deck of two – there’s no MSO requirement – and a cabin of eight. This can be covered by military stewards or civilians from AirTanker.
Productivity on the Voyager Force’s utility flights has increased by 20% since the outset of ops. “In terms of numbers, we initially flew on average 1,250 hours a month. Now we’re flying 1,500 hours a month,” said Cunningham.
“That increase is due to the operational demand in Cyprus and the increase in the defence exercise programmes. The Army isn’t deployed en masse at the moment [as it used to be in Afghanistan], so they tend to exercise in places like Kenya, Canada and Belize on a regular basis.”
The RAF has 22 A400M Atlas C1s on order, and took delivery of the first at Brize Norton on November 17, 2014. Eleven have been delivered so far, all going to LXX Squadron, which formally stood up on July 23, 2015 as the first operational unit with the type.
Its current commanding officer is Wing Commander Simon Boyle, said: “The Atlas is principally a tactical airlifter. Its capabilities will be developed over the next eight years as it assumes many of the roles currently performed by the C-130J.”
In September 2015, the squadron began air transport tasking with a small cadre of trained aircrew. The Atlas will take time to mature but Boyle is proud of what has been achieved so far by his unit, together with colleagues from the OCU – XXIV Squadron, and 206(R) Squadron the Atlas test and evaluation team.
“We’ve covered more than 120 different destinations now. We’ve flown through five continents and taken the aircraft on defence tasking around the globe as we continue to assess and develop its use as an air mobility platform.”
Cunningham said the A400M would prove itself: “While the C-130 covers a whole myriad of tactical roles, the A400M will eventually only cover the lower echelons of that, but it aspires to go into the high end of strategic capabilities.”
The final milestones for A400M will be in 2021/22, when it reaches the full spectrum of tactical capability, which the RAF is developing now.
Cunningham explained: “We might have got the clearance release to service for the aircraft but now we have to train the crews, devise the training course, deliver and clear it, and then accrue the experience in training we’ve given them before committing them to ops.”
By late December, the RAF’s A400M fleet had flown more than 4,000 hours.
If you want to reach out at range and speed, the C-17 is the answer – it’s the most capable of all the RAF’s transport aircraft. No 99 Squadron operates the fleet of eight on long-haul strategic flights, although the RAF could look to expand the type’s tactical roles for more options in the future and to get the most out of each one.
“We might look to expand its use in parachuting as we reconstitute the parachute capability in UK defence post-Herrick, but it wouldn’t be a priority,” said Cunningham.
The RAF generally only has six available because one is usually in a major depth maintenance programme and another in a local depth programme.
To declare four task-lines you need six aircraft, because more often than not one is returning from a task but another will need loading around eight hours before.
“We support the French Government with C-17s on a monthly basis in Africa [for Operation Barkhane] on a bilateral agreement between the RAF and French Air Force,” added Cunningham.
The C-130J was the RAF’s unsung hero of Afghanistan and the workhorse of the transport fleet.
Tasked as a wing, the C-130Js work is divided up between 30 and 47 Squadrons, although the latter fulfils unique capabilities, such as special forces support.
The baseline work – tactical flying, dirt strips, parachute drops, search and rescue equipment and maritime recce – is shared between the two.
One of the 25 aircraft has been lost so far. It was damaged during a night landing in Maysan Province, Iraq, on February 12, 2007. Safety concerns over recovery saw the aircraft blown up.
The C-130s have participated in major humanitarian aid tasks since Operation Herrick ended in Afghanistan in 2014. In April 2015, one aircraft and two crews supported United Nations work in South Sudan for a month. The aircraft, in UN markings, and the crews, wearing UN berets, were based in Entebbe, Uganda, flying out to Juba and Malakai.
The same month, C-130Js deployed for four weeks to Nepal in the wake of the devastating earthquake, flying around 100 sorties from Kathmandu. Then, four months later, C-130Js dropped aid over Iraq’s Mount Sinjar for Yezidi people just 36 hours after getting the call.
Both squadrons have had aircraft based in Akrotiri for Operation Shader since then, while a single Hercules is detached to the Middle East, on a rotational basis, supporting UK personnel in the region.
A C-130 has also been based in the Falklands since 1982. Today it provides maritime search and rescue support for the based Typhoon FGR4s.
There are about 50 crews – with two pilots per crew – and many more air loadmasters on the C-130J wing. Five or six C-130Js are usually on permanent detachment, while others can be positioned around the globe, supporting exercise programmes.
When 30 Squadron transfers to A400M later this year, 47 Squadron will continue flying the C-130 until 2035. All the engineers are now with the unit and, alongside the pilots, they make it the largest squadron in the RAF with just less than 400 personnel.”
“We work in a fast-paced operational tempo,” said Cunningham. “Supporting the UK Defence’s air transport needs, whether tactical or strategic, is tough business and it’s never boring!”