Compared to the direction laid out for tactical combat aircraft, the Defence Command Paper has more details for the Royal Air Force’s larger aerial assets. Unfortunately, very little of it is good news for them.
The RAF will be retiring its 14 C-130Js by 2023, a full 14 years before its originally stated retirement date, with the A400M Atlas taking its place for tactical airlift and special forces insertions. While the Command Paper says that the Atlas fleet will “increase its capacity and capability”, earlier rumors of the C-130J retirement had been criticized due to the potential loss of the Super Hercules’ capabilities that the A400M has yet to match, in particular agility and ability to take off and land on rough airstrip. The UK’s special forces elements are said to be especially fond of the C-130J’s capabilities.
Marshall Aerospace and Defense Group, the support provider of the C-130J fleet, has warned that the move to retire them early may result in the loss of British jobs, with Chief Executive Officer Gary Moynehan saying that while “we will do everything we can to protect as many jobs as possible but unfortunately we also have to be realistic at a time when the aviation industry is already under enormous pressure.” However, the company is confident that a successful resale of the cargo aircraft will maximize economic returns, and hopefully minimize job losses.
The retirement date of the RAF’s three remaining E-3D Sentry AEW1 airborne early warning and control aircraft has been brought forward as well. They will be retired this year, instead of being retired by December 2022 according to the 2019 Equipment Plan. The purchase of Wedgetail AEW1s to replace the Sentries has also been shrunk, with three Wedgetails to be purchased instead of the five planned in 2019, making them a one-to-one replacement. However, the schedule for their delivery remains unchanged, with the first Wedgetail to be delivered in 2023, further increasing the period in which the RAF will have to do without AEW&C coverage.
Also to be retired are four BAe 146 aircraft operated by No. 32 (The Royal) Squadron. Two of these are configured as short-haul VIP transport aircraft for the Royal Family and other senior government officials, while the other two are tactical cargo transporters. While replacements for the aircraft have been previously said to be under consideration, the Command Paper does not indicate if the replacements will materialize before the retirement of the four aircraft in 2022.