May’s edition of Air Forces Monthly contains an article called ‘It’s Official – The RAF Really is Depleted’ about the availability of RAF aircraft. The article was based around a question from Dr Liam Fox MP to the Secretary of State for Defence about how many RAF aircraft of each type were (a) in service, (b) in the forward fleet and (c) fit for purpose – here is a link to the Hansard entry.
The article highlights the low availability of the C-130K and J fleet and carries on to discuss the availability of other types operated by the RAF with a strong focus on the Typhoon fleet (along with a Typhoon photo that has had its engines removed for spares).
AFM continues on with figures it had obtained from a Freedom of Information request showing that six Typhoons have been cannibalised for spares. For clarification that is six total, not six at the same time.
The content of the article is correct but the title is misleading and it doesn’t really explain the process or the reasoning so I thought I would write a bit more about it.
Cannibalizing aircraft is far from new, it dates back to at least the Second World War and is practiced by all the worlds air forces. The practice is so common the term ‘Christmas tree’ or ‘hangar queen’ has been coined to describe the donor aircraft. Nor is it limited to squadron aircraft either, in what is likely to be a first the F-35 production line was cannibalized for spares to keep the F-35 development aircraft flying.
The MOD’s policy on cannibalization states “Cannibalization is only to be used when all other supply options have been investigated and found unable to meet operational or contractual imperatives” and lays out the following criteria to be met before an airframe can be cannibalized:
The level of cannibalization is also restricted so an airframe isn’t excessively stripped and that the rebuild of the aircraft is within the ability of the station / ship / unit.
But why are we taking apart complete and serviceable aircraft to keep other airframes flying?
Modern aircraft are complex machines requiring unique parts produced to a very high standard. Because of this lead times on parts can be extensive. When an aircraft is still in production, such as the Typhoon, the supplier of the aircraft components will be contracted to deliver the parts on a production schedule to the aircraft manufacture and in turn the aircraft manufacturer will be contracted with an air force to supply the finished aircraft by an agreed date. These contracts will have penalties associated with failing to meet these dates and so the parts supply to the production line is prioritised, thus making any lead times even longer.
Taking a number of parts from a donar aircraft to keep a number of other aicraft flying until replacement parts can be sourced is a good way of resolving the problem in the short term.
So why don’t we have more parts in store?
The answer to this question is cost effectiveness. It wouldn’t be financially viable to hold a spare of every single component in any sort of volume. As of Feburary 2009, the RAF had ordered 35,000 lines of spares for the Typhoon fleet. Surprisingly, given that the RAF has the largest Typhoon fleet, this is the lowest figure of the four partner nations operating the Typhoon (50,000 for Germany, 45,000 for Italy and 37,000 for Spain).
Is this stopping pilots from flying?
Not at all! In fact, the RAF Typhoons fly twice as many hours a month per airframe than the Typhoons operated by Germany, Italy or Spain.
Does all this mean we are going to have Typhoons that will never be in service?
No, all the Typhoons will see service. Each airframe is expected to fly 6000 hours minimum in its projected 25 year life and the airframes will be rotated around to keep an even number of hours on each aircraft.
ZH810 / BI is a good example. After it performed a controlled crash landing at RAF Coningsby due to a failure on its landing gear in January 2006 it didn’t fly again until late 2008. This period of almost three years of not flying meant it would have somewhere in the region of 700 to 1000 less hours than other Trance 1 T1 Typhoons. To even the hours out you will see ZH810 / BI being used for a lot of the 29(R) Sqn sorties with three sorties a day not being unusual.
If we are rotating airframes in and out of service will we have enough of them?
Assuming the MoD doesn’t purchase any Typhoon Tranche 3B aircraft as it has announced then the total allocation for Typhoons is 160 but that figure includes the one lost in a crash at China Lake and the development aircraft that are no longer flying; reducing the figure to 155.
The numbers will break down something like this: five front line Typhoon squadrons with 15 aircraft each, 4 aircraft out in the Falklands, 4 assigned to 17(R) Sqn for OEU and 20 aircraft assigned to 29(R) Sqn for OCU. Giving us a total of 103 aircraft needed in the forward fleet.
This leaves us with 52 aircraft in reserve that will either be in storage, under going deep maintenance, being upgraded or being used for spares.
As you can see from the figures the rotation of aircraft and have a reserve was built into the purchase.
160 Typhoons? But didn’t we plan to buy 232 of them, surely that must change things?
Yes, it has but not in terms of the split between the reserve and the forward fleet. When the plan was to purchase 232 it was envisioned to have seven front line squadrons rather than five.