By around 2020, the U.K. will have almost completely renewed its air transport and refueling fleet.

The Lockheed Martin C-130J Hercules will be gone, apart from a handful for Special Forces support, following the much older C-130K, which is already on its way out. The Vickers VC10 (a hand-me-down from the old state-run British Airways), which has been qualified as “venerable” for close to a decade, made its last ceremonial fly-by around the U.K. on Sept. 20. Another British Airways castoff, the Lockheed TriStar, survives in a state of disrepair, only as long as is necessary to transport troops in and out of Afghanistan.

Today, the only new aircraft in the Royal Air Force transport service is the Boeing C-17, the last of which was delivered in mid-2012. But the 14 Airbus A330 Voyager tanker-transports should all be in place by the end of the decade, and 21 of the planned 22 Airbus Military A400Ms will have been delivered by 2018. But alongside the step-change in capabilities comes an equally demanding behavioral and organizational change: how to support the influx of these contemporary aircraft.

This is a new challenge for a service that, until now, has been struggling to keep ancient airframes flying long after everyone else in the world retired them. Out-of-service dates (OSD) for the TriStar and VC10 were repeatedly pushed to the right to support operations, first in Afghanistan and then in Libya. Both have needed life extensions and upgrades to keep flying. The TriStar cost close to £15 million ($24 million) for eight sets of new cockpit equipment, to allow the aircraft to meet updated international navigation standards, while the VC10 fleet has required an increasing level of cannibalization.

The decreasing supply of parts for these aircraft meant that support costs have been high and rising. The annual maintenance cost of the VC10, under the Javelin integrated support contract, came in at more than $3.5 million per year and continued to rise as the OSD date slipped. TriStar support costs are not as readily calculable, as most recent support has been undertaken on a hand-to-mouth basis.

Life extensions have reached frightening levels. A six-month life extension of 7-8 C-130Ks—delivered in the late 1960s—was expected to cost £16 million. A similar move for the TriStar fleet—an eight-month life extension for seven aircraft—is likely to cost £7-9 million.

These aircraft have reached an age where support no longer requires careful management; it involves creating some spare parts from scratch. The RAF had long supported its TriStars with parts harvested from old airline-operated aircraft retired to desert storage in the U.S., but by 2010-11, those hulks started to run out of usable parts. This affected the ability of the RAF to operate the TriStar as part of the vital airbridge to Afghanistan, resulting in long waiting times for deploying or returning troops.

The arrival of the C-17 Globemaster III has made the RAF's air transport fleet more robust. Having repeatedly exceeded their contracted flying hours when the aircraft were leased from Boeing, the six original C-17s were acquired outright into the RAF core in 2008 when the lease ended. A seventh and eighth C-17 were bought to provide far greater assurance that the airbridge could be maintained, even when other C-17s were taken off-line for maintenance.

The U.K. has supported its C-17s from the start as part of the Globemaster Integrated Sustainment Partnership (GISP), which Boeing calls “the virtual global fleet.” This sees the RAF's aircraft being maintained as part of the larger, worldwide C-17 pool, with costs being spread between the 240-plus aircraft. The most recent reported costs of the support of the fleet are £25-35 million annually (depending on flying hours and the number of aircraft off-line for deep maintenance) to keep all eight aircraft fully maintained.

It is worth noting that while the RAF relies on the GISP link to depots in the U.S., the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force have set up in-country support facilities for more work to be done closer to their C-17 fleets.

But the newest aircraft, the A300 and the A400M, will see another set of changes in support, and corresponding changes to the air transport hub at RAF Brize Norton in Wiltshire.

“We are in the process of looking at interim infrastructure for Brize Norton” for the A400M, says Richard Thompson, chief executive at Airbus Military U.K. “A three-bay hangar is the Airbus solution for September 2016 support of A400M. We are designing the hangar to fit the A330 Voyager and the C-17, but it is primarily for the A400M. One bay will handle line maintenance, and two bays depth support—but we can swing all of these between the two. There is pressure on the current Brize Norton base hangar. so we look to share the A400M-dedicated one with the C-17. We said 'let's not just scale it for the A400M, but for other aircraft, too'.”

Six A330 Voyagers are in RAF service today, managed by the AirTanker consortium, jointly owned by EADS, Rolls-Royce, Thales, Babcock and Cobham. The size of the contract—£12 billion over 27 years—has been criticized. But it is an inclusive deal that covers the aircraft, the required infrastructure, manpower, support, maintenance and almost everything concerned with the aircraft over their contracted lives. The core cost is a monthly management fee, which is assessed against performance. The contract can be topped up when key performance indicators (KPIs) are achieved and vice versa.

As Thompson says, “the A330 Voyager is, in effect, a commercial aircraft painted gray,” with very few differences from the aircraft that come off the production line at Toulouse. As such, it is possible to make some form of comparison with commercial aircraft. Airbus's figures suggest that the cost per flying hour is around $40,000 in fuel alone. Taking £12 billion ($19 billion), and dividing by 14 aircraft over 27 years, the per-aircraft annual cost is $50 million. That equates to a very simplified annual flying rate of 1,200 hr. per aircraft, although when support, infrastructure, personnel and other costs are taken into account, it is probably closer to 800 hr. per year.

This is entirely consistent with the flying rate of the Tristar and VC10 tankers that the A330 is replacing, although the support costs are substantially lower because the aircraft is more fuel-efficient and younger, with more modern systems.

The A330 has led the way in some support concepts for the RAF. Foremost, all support is on-base, both forward and depth. These terms refer to the U.K.'s concept of simplified, efficient and effective air systems support, but depth maintenance is sometimes undertaken at a different location than the aircraft's home base. The A330 approach means there will be mixed teams of military and civilian personnel at all times. “There are some RAF personnel at forward, and some at depth,” Thompson explains. “And some of the military will come under civilian control in their positions, and vice versa—this is an area of great culture change.”

Because the A330 is, fundamentally, a commercial aircraft, the support practices are based on the commercial world. “This is not a C-130K,” Thompson says. But support is “complicated” by the fact the final responsibility for safety rests with the Defense Ministry's Military Airworthiness Authority. The MAA consequently has to become more aware and attuned to commercial standards.

But it is the A400M which might present some of the biggest challenges, according to Thompson. With the A400M, the RAF is one of the leading customers for a completely new airlifter—something that has not happened in the U.K. for 50 years. Another new aspect of the A400M is that it was developed by a civilian-aircraft design team to largely civilian standards, but it is in all sense a military aircraft.

“Everything that governs A400M support is governed by the Military Part 145 regulations,” Thompson says. Military Part 145 is the uniformed version of the European Aviation Safety Agency Part 145 rules, which govern the maintenance of commercial aircraft. “The RAF is having to learn about the issue of Military Part 145,” Thompson says. “This is very different from what they did on older aircraft.”

A400M support in the U.K. is expected to be under contract soon, but will be a work in progress. “We go to Main Gate [U.K. contract approval] for A400M support at the end of the year. Long-lead items will be ordered—ground support equipment, long-lead spares and so on,” Thompson explains. “This is the interim in-service support (ISS) solution. This ISS is a stop-gap, and after two years, there will be a mid-term ISS. Ultimately, we are planning for a completely joint support solution for A400M with France, which will replace the Friss [France In-Service Support] arrangement.”

The initial and mid-term arrangements will provide time to learn about the aircraft, Thompson says. “We will use the first two years to look at aircraft performance, so we can get firm data on mean time between failure and other areas, and use that data to put everything on a secure footing. And once we are there, we will see risk transfer onto the contractor.”

“There will be a single top-level KPI in the contract: mission success,” Thompson says. Defining that KPI will be a challenge. “The KPI is a combination of a lot of different items: aircraft, fuel, the crew. Everything connected to the aircraft availability over a defined period of time, the correct configuration and then the success of systems in flight are included and calculated to make up that to-level KPI.”

The A400M is emulating the A330 Voyager in that there will be a single center for all support. There will be on-base facilities, but with a warehouse off-base for spares. Work will be performed with a mixed support team of Airbus Military civilians and uniformed personnel, and in different parts of the support structure, military will work under civilian command, and vice versa. “The biggest single change for the RAF is having to operate aircraft with fundamentally civilian pedigrees,” Thompson concludes.