The Mail on Sunday recently published an odd article about the Voyager aircraft fleet, after what they called an “investigation” despite the information being public knowledge for a decade.

The outrage is in bullet point form is:

  • MoD’s deal with manufacturers AirTanker allows the commercial group to make millions more by renting up to four of the unused aircraft to holiday firms

Why isn’t this a problem? Well, 14 Voyagers are in the UK’s fleet, nine are in the RAF’s ‘core’ fleet and the other five are considered ‘surge’ aircraft and are often leased to airlines when not required generating revenue and staying active rather than sitting idle.

The insightful and reliable defence commentary blog Thin Pinstriped Line covered this in great detail, the author writes:

“Firstly, there is a lack of understanding about how this deal is structured. This is not at its heart about purchasing aircraft. It is about purchasing a service – how the contractor provides that service is less important than ensuring that the contractually enforceable service is provided. In simple terms, it doesn’t matter if the contractor decided that the solution was 10 airplanes or 100 – they are the ones deciding how to provide the service they’ve agreed to deliver. How they do it is a matter for the company.

This means that for the requirements placed on them by the RAF, then at present they need nine aircraft to do this, but know that they may be required to provide an extra five, often at very short notice.  This is no different to how the RAF would have operated these aircraft had it bought them outright, as any purchase would have had to consider everything from normal daily operations through to supporting airstrikes in the Middle East. The key difference though is that the RAF (and by extension the taxpayer) has to pay the cost of buying enough planes upfront and then through the life to keep meeting these targets. This was why there was a combined Tristar/VC10 force of nearly 30 aircraft, as it took that many to meet similar levels of availability, reliability and delivery as the current force of 14 A330.

When these aircraft weren’t in use, they were effectively ‘dead weight’ – they had been paid for by the taxpayer, but there was no way of getting a return on that investment. If there was no tasking for them, then they say at Brize Norton waiting for a role – deprecating in value, costing a fortune in maintenance and eating into scare defence budget funds to remain serviceable and airworthy. By contrast the Airtanker fleet only provides aircraft to meet the daily needs of the RAF which only pays for the service that it gets and uses.

The remaining five aircraft are free to be used in revenue earning operations partly because the RAF doesn’t need them right now (but may need them at very short notice), and partly because if they are leased out to Thomas Cook Airlines, then this is revenue coming in which reduces the overall cost of the bill to the taxpayer. In other words, these aircraft scandalously on hire to Thomas Cook are actively saving the taxpayer an awful lot of money, for no loss of military capability. If they’d been in service RAF aircraft then they’d have been paid for, but not have a means of recouping the cost.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said:

“Voyagers are playing a key role in protecting British airspace and the fight against Daesh, and whilst our core fleet is doing the job we need it to, we can call in the extra aircraft at short notice if we need them to help us defend the nation.

When we’re not using them, it makes sense to have them performing other roles as that reduces our costs and means they can be ready for operations quicker than if they were held in storage. This is a cost-effective deal that is delivering an outstanding service for the RAF and has met all major project milestones on time and to budget.”

22 COMMENTS

  1. This is what you get when you get journalists who know nothing about contracts, finance, business or the specialist subject area that they’re writing about concocting an outrage through a failure to understand something, or even more worrying doing it deliberately on the fairly safe assumption that most of their readership won’t dig into it and uncover the true facts for themselves. Then you get some malevolent editor putting a massively misleading headline on the article, to the extent in this case of it verging on libel had it been about a person, and there becomes a serious danger of an uninformed readership taking it at face value. At least the writeup on the scandal of how much the MoD paid for the main guns for the first batch of T26, each one of which is apparently “the size of a toothbrush”, had a comedy element to it but this Voyager “story” really is plumbing new depths in terms of a bad story trying to whip up public anger.

    If this stuff ever gets traction the danger is that the public start actively thinking that the defence budget should be cut if, according to all the misleading or outright false stories that they read in the Mail and elsewhere, it is being wasted so badly.

    • I hate to admit it, but this is what Trump would call fake news.

      The Voyager contract also mitigates the amount of servicings the RAF have to carry out and the amount of downtime this entails. This basically means that the RAF do not have to carry out any depth servicing on the aircraft as this is provided by the contractor. The contract stipulates that at any one time there will be nine aircraft available for either tanking, freight or passenger transport with another five aircraft available just in case.
      The servicings will be staggered to ensure that no two aircraft are at the start of their depth maintenance cycles thus maintaining the contract. You basically have to think of the contract like hiring a car through Europcar etc you buy the service not the car!

    • Julian-
      “If this stuff ever gets traction the danger is that the public start actively thinking that the defence budget should be cut if, according to all the misleading or outright false stories that they read in the Mail and elsewhere, it is being wasted so badly.”

      Hence the reason I posted this in another thread yesterday. I believe what you say here to be absolutely correct.

  2. This is not news it was always understood that the surplus A330s would be leased out.

    In peacetime the UK does not need 14 A330 aircraft available so it does seem a good idea to lease these aircraft out.

    This would mean the cost of the contract between Air Tanker and the MOD is lower than it would otherwise have been.

    Regards PFI contracts, the real value or cost is in the detail of the contract.

  3. Lord Dannatt didn’t help matters by commenting

    In the same way, Lord West has always got something useless to say

    • (Chris H) Jason Old Son – try reading the article before commenting. It reduces the risk of making yourself look less well informed.

      In its 100th year the RAF are actually one of the better performing forces. they have a range of new aircraft and are retiring old ones. The RAF is probably the best equipped Air Force in Europe – Not that that would be too difficult

  4. Many thanks for an interesting and enlightening article. I wonder if we could do the same with Chieftain tanks 🙂

  5. As is often the case with the Daily Fail and The Fail on Sunday, if there’s no influx of immigrants, or stories about vaccines killing children or bacon causing cancer, dig up some old story about the MoD, recycle it, and wait for the furious comments to come in. If they wanted to report on Voyager, a better story would be the fact that a large proportion of the RAF’s new equipment can’t be refuelled from them because they are boom only.

      • (Chris H) Philip – ‘A large proportion’? Thou dost jest… Of the hundreds that are capable of AAR we have 3 x RC-135 Rivet Joint and 8 x C-17 Globemaster aircraft that require boom refuelling. Both have huge range anyway so refuelling is not an issue.

        So 11 out of hundreds…….

    • No point going on about this Phillip. There is no endorsed RAF requirement for boom/UARRSI AAR for the RAF. Therefore no budget. Therefore no programme. Studies have been done but no more than that. Hopefully it will change in future.

    • The Daily mail long since stopped being in the business of journalism and fact checking stories. It’s revenue stream comes from its web site and click traffic driving advertising impressions. Nothing drives that more then the continuous posting of sensationalism and cut and paste stories cribbed from all over the internet. I would not be surprised to learn that their “journalists” are remunerated not by a monthly wage but by the number of clicks their stories generate.

      • Thank you Mike.

        Interesting correlation between this and a similar case at a major U.S. defense contractor I was with. I was responsible for procurement and contracting for one of our programs (among several) where our firm provided essentially a squadron of Learjets on both coasts to provided threat training to USN units on demand 24 hours a day. A certain number by contract had to be available at all times or we would be penalized financially.

        Obviously had very high priority and difficult for me to ensure they had AOG delivery of parts since they were very early Lear models, were down frequently, and the components were often very difficult to find – especially with the tracing paperwork and certs that the government contract required. Don’t miss that little show a bit…

        Cheers!

  6. Not sure what the issue is. It makes perfect sense to lease out the “surge” aircraft. The one thing planes hate is sitting on the ground, they deteriorate much faster standing still than flying. If you parked a voyager up for a few years I bet getting it airworthy again would be silly expensive. The airframe time isn’t that relevant, these are as I understand it commercial airframes and so are designed for decades of constant use.

  7. I have been critical of this PFI for over a decade.
    Politicians/Senior officials, just thought they were dealing with airliners. Most airlines lease their planes as that is most tax efficient. The idea of renting out spare aircraft looked attractive, but is it?
    When I used to take a cheap winter break in the Canaries, I flew on a Monarch A300. I found out that the tour operator only paid the charter airline enough to cover basic costs. They only made a profit if the passenger paid for a drink/duty free/scratchcards. No wonder they were pushing those sales hard. So how can a charter airline on a tight budget carry the extra weight of the military refuelling kit? By taking most of it off. It is a myth to think they could instantly return to RAF service. So the taxpayer paid to have this kit fitted, then paid to have it removed & will then have to pay to get it fitted again, if the RAF needs them.
    RAF Voyagers are poorly equipped in comparison to RAAF A330MRTT, yet the Australians paid far less per aircraft.
    We are paying a high price for an air refuelling service, yet lack boom refuelling for P-8, F-35A, etc. We also cannot air refuel helicopters.
    There have been many critical reports on this PFI over the years.
    Let us not make this expensive mistake again.

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