It hasn't been in the papers much since the summer, but did you know that the Russian air force has been around the North Sea a hell of a lot lately? Between October and December, I'm aware of at least five visits to the UK or Norwegian ADIZ (Air Defence Identification Zone). Not just that, but the aircraft involved have included not just the usual Tu-95 Bear-D reconnaissance planes but also Tu-160 strategic bombers, known as "Alissa" (White Swan) in Russia and Blackjack to NATO.
It's an old and somewhat sick tradition that NORAD issues a press release about tracking Santa Claus on Christmas night, but this Christmas the RAF Northern QRA was out and it certainly wasn't Santa they were after, but a group of Blackjacks. They have also been spreading the irritation around; in October, the first Blackjack flight came down the North Sea further than ever before, being successively watched by the Norwegians, the RAF, the Danes and eventually Dutch F-16s as the aircraft headed for the northwestern tip of Holland before turning back, being escorted back up the North Sea by the same RAF QRA flight. It is assumed that this was meant to impress the North Atlantic Council, which met in Holland the same day.
On Christmas night, they ran into Danish airspace and then turned back, then being intercepted by the RAF. (You can see an intercept from the Bear here.)
Most of the RAF sorties also involve a quick-reaction alert VC10 tanker, provided by 101 Squadron at RAF Brize Norton. As well as being extremely noisy, this points up yet another procurement fiasco, one that is timed to go off any minute now. The contracts between the Ministry of Defence and the AirTanker consortium to provide the RAF's new Airbus A330 tanker/transport planes have been delayed for many months; the last known data was December 2007, which we can safely conclude is "no longer operative".
But the real shocker in here is that the procurement process for the tankers has been going on since 1996. Back then the RAF was offered 24 converted A310s, which could have been delivered very speedily as the Airbus rework line at Finkenwerder in Germany was soon to start delivering identical aircraft for Germany and Canada - it would have been a matter of adding 24 to the production run. However, the scheme was held up by a hunt for ways of getting the cost off the books; this was the mid-90s heyday of Sir Steve "Railtrack" Robson's fancy public financing, after all.
So the eventual outcome, years later, is that the RAF is meant to get 14 A330s, or rather, the right to have a percentage of the 14 available at any time and the rest with a notice period. The aircraft are to be owned by the private sector partners, who are meant to be able to charter them out to the holiday business when not required. Of course, it's ridiculous; who would sign a contract giving the government the right to grab your assets at any time and take them into combat? Would the aircraft be on the civilian or military register? What about insurance - would the partners be able to treat them as civil aircraft? Who will insure the partners against the RAF losing them? Who will insure the RAF against the partners losing them? Who will fly them - civilians? RAF personnel? Eventually they decided that the crews would be reservists, but this obviously hasn't reassured the partners.
And the kicker? Well, if the deal falls through, the government is vaguely thinking of running the VC10s on to 2020, at which point they will be 60 years old. They are already half the age of the squadron that operates them and older than most of the crews. There is, however, an ugly rumour that the airframes won't take it; several other aircraft built by Vickers in the 1950s and 60s were retired early due to fatigue cracking.