WASHINGTON — The arduous airlift demands of the Afghanistan evacuation mission haven’t changed the U.K. Royal Air Force’s plans to retire its C-130s by 2023, its top officer said Aug. 27.
“This is the first large-scale operation that we’ve done with our A400s, and it’s demonstrated that this is an aircraft with real potential and enormous capacity,” said RAF Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston in an interview with Defense News. “It flies much higher and much faster and carries a greater payload than the C-130. So as every month goes by, my confidence in that decision increases.”
The RAF ultimately transported more than 15,000 people out of Kabul from Aug. 14 to Aug. 28, according to the U.K. ministry of defence.
Wigston — who visited the United States last week to attend the Space Symposium — spoke to Defense News on Friday evening, during the last hours of the United Kingdom’s presence in Afghanistan.
At that point, the Royal Air Force had evacuated about 8,500 Afghans, an estimated 4,500 U.K. passport or visa holders, and 1,500 people from other nations, Wigston said. About 500 to 1,000 others awaited the last RAF flights out of Kabul.
“We have stopped taking in new people for processing,” he said. “Over the next few hours, those 500 to 1,000 [people] remaining will be taken out. At that stage, our evacuation operation will have come to an end, and we will just focus on getting our people out safely.”
The RAF used about 15 aircraft during the evacuation mission, with half staged forward — transporting passengers from Kabul to other cities in the Middle East — and the other planes conducting flights from those cities to the United Kingdom, Wigston said.
Over the two-week period, aircraft spotters frequently documented British C-17s, A400s and C-130s moving in and out of the airspace at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
In March, the defence ministry announced as part of a command review it would retire the RAF’s remaining 14 C-130Js by 2023.
“Twenty-two A400Ms, alongside the C17s, will provide a more capable and flexible transport fleet,” U.K. defence secretary Ben Wallace said then.
Despite the C-130s offering additional airlift capacity, Wigston said there’s no need for the RAF to revisit its current retirement plans.
“It will be with a heavy heart that we retire the C-130 in two years’ time because it’s been an absolute workhorse, but I have absolute confidence in the A400 and what that aircraft is able to do going forward,” he said.
So far, Airbus has delivered 20 A400M Atlas aircraft to the RAF.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.