The aircraft’s arrival at RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, marks the end of the UK’s order from Airbus, the original equipment manufacturer.
The 22 Atlas aircraft have replaced the C-130J; the UK MoD listed its legacy fleet for sale in October 2022. The withdrawal of the 14-strong C-130J fleet will be a blow to the service’s airlift capability, although the induction of the larger Atlas will offset the loss.
The four-engine turboprop aircraft can deliver 37 tonnes of cargo over 2,000 nautical miles at speed. Its short field performance enables it to operate from short unprepared as well as semi-prepared strips, all achievable whilst using night vision goggles.
A rocky path to procurement
The MoD faced challenges in the procurement process, which the National Audit Office (NAO) outlined in a report published in November last year. The report detailed concerns that the MoD could not afford to induct more than 22 units.
“An option to purchase additional A400M aircraft was assessed as unaffordable. Air Command is developing an affordable choice to improve A400M availability.”
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When the UK listed the C-130J fleet for sale at the end of last year, it was amid serious economic decline in the country. Defence equipment sales would offer a way to cut sustainment costs while also generating some funds that could be returned to the ministry for use elsewhere.
As the RAF lacks the intended number of units it sought, the NAO’s assertion tells us that we can expect future contracting work to enhance the capabilities of the RAF’s new fleet.
What does the Atlas bring to the table?
Besides deploying troops and equipment between theatres, the aircraft has been used to support humanitarian missions. Most recently the aircraft evacuated British nationals from war-torn Sudan.
Since entering RAF service in 2014, the Atlas has performed relief operations in the Caribbean and contributed to the military response to COVID, transporting patients, equipment and vaccines. It played a pivotal role in the evacuation of personnel from Afghanistan and Sudan and has provided support to UK Defence operations around the globe, including the Middle East, Falkland Islands, and Mali.