Britain has joined other countries in expressing interest in acquiring one of the final C-17s being produced. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
DUBAI — Britain has added its name to the list of countries vying to get their hands on the last of the Boeing C-17 Globemaster IIIs being produced in Long Beach, Calif., ahead of its closure, according to Defence Ministry sources.
The case for buying what would be the Royal Air Force’s ninth C-17 are set to be discussed by UK defense acquisition approval chiefs in the next few days, they said.
The UK has acquired the first eight in a piecemeal fashion since the first four aircraft became operational in 2001 under a lease arrangement.
The upcoming closure of the C-17 assembly line has forced the UK’s hand on deciding whether to buy, as a number of nations are scrambling to purchase machines as white tails and not yet assigned to customers.
Until now, most of the nations with extra C-17s on their shopping list were reckoned to be in the Arabian Gulf region.
A purchase by the British would bring the Royal Air Force close to the 10 C-17s it originally said it needed for its airlift requirements.
Boeing didn’t deny the story, but said in a statement, “our customers prefer to make announcements regarding additional orders on their own time table.” The MoD did not respond to requests for comment.
The cash for the British purchase could come from defense budget underspend. At least one previous C-17 purchase has been funded that way.
The addition of a C-17 would boost Air Force airlift assets following the withdrawal from service last month of its C-130K special forces fleet, meaning some of the remaining C-130J aircraft will have to step in to bridge the capability gap. The UK will receive the first of 22 Airbus A400M airlifters next year.
The C-17 fleet has been stretched by the air bridge demands of Afghanistan and elsewhere. This year, two aircraft were diverted from Britain’s withdrawal effort in Afghanistan to provide assistance to French forces deploying to Mali; last week one of the aircraft was in the Philippines delivering aid to victims of the typhoon.
The British decision on whether to vie for another airlifter comes as Boeing executives hint that the eleventh hour demand for airframes may not be entirely met.
“I’m concerned about which customer is going to get left out in the cold,” Paul Oliver, Boeing Defense Middle East and Africa regional vice president for business development, said at a briefing on the eve of the Dubai Airshow.
Boeing officials in September said that C-17 production would end in 2015. US Air Force production finished this year.
The remaining aircraft are all for international customers. The company is building 13 of the 22 remaining planes on its own dime in anticipation of orders coming through.
The 13 aircraft are “earmarked for three customers,” Oliver said. Some of those aircraft are “being protected for a customer in the [Middle East].”
Boeing officials would not say which countries want the aircraft. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are all said to be interested.
Since Boeing announced it would close the line, existing customers have expressed interest in additional aircraft, Oliver said. That is in addition to the 13 that are earmarked.
Dennis Muilenburg, the president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said a final decision has been made to close the line and dismissed a proposal to buy back the US Air Force’s oldest 20 C-17s in exchange for 20 new, deeply discounted aircraft.
“It’s a firm decision,” he said during a discussion with reporters at the Dubai Airshow. “In this environment, those are the kind of decisions we have to make.”