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Britain to Scrap HERCULES Fleet?

Apparent Integrated Review Decision Causing Concern

Although hard news is difficult to come by amid rumours, leaks and counter-briefings, it seemed over the weekend that the British government’s Integrated Review has determined to retire the RAF’s fleet of C-130J airlifters in favour of the A400M.

All 14 of the SUPER HERCULES currently in inventory are to be retired, press reports have alleged. The aircraft has established an enviable global reputation for being flexible, adaptable and agile and, indeed, just two years ago, British defence chiefs were quoted as saying the aircraft would be kept in service until 2035, and that “no other aircraft” could fulfil the roles the aircraft was regularly asked to undertake. On the other hand, retiring them now means Treasury will not have to find significant funding for the upgrades needed to achieve that life extension. The decision, therefore, would appear to be a financial one rather than an operationally-inspired one.

There is evidence that a very powerful pro-HERCULES lobby, including operational commanders and senior defence officials, has already been set in motion, with an immediately visible result (MON understands) that the Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, Tobias Ellwood, has written to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace expressing “grave concerns” at the decision.

Concerns have been expressed in recent years as to the ability of the larger A400M to adequately perform the missions currently undertaken by the C-130Js. Although a thoroughly tested airframe, the A400M does not have the critical mass of operational experience nor, according to one operator queried by MON on Saturday, the level of regard the HERCULES has generated. “Quite simply, we don’t trust it as much as the Herk,” he declared.

At risk are British jobs in maintenance and in the aircraft’s supply chain. Worthy of note is the fact that nations still buying new C-130Js include France – a leading protagonist of the A400M. Also at risk is the current level of commonality and interoperability with allies that will be lost in some operational scenarios – though, admittedly, not all.

The Integrated Review is a necessary discipline and the MoD needs regularly to be held to account over the manner in which taxpayer funds are best used. But a decision – albeit a difficult one – to perform radical surgery on the body of capability already shaken by the cumulative effects of the pandemic, manpower and training issues, ‘mission creep’ and indecisive, glacially slow capability acquisition programmes is, to say the least, a risky one. But the people making the decisions – who have little experience (or, one is tempted to say, knowledge) of the vagaries of defence policies – must have taken that into account.

Mustn’t they?

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