Flying Filling Stations

This is an article published in our June/July 2016 Issue.

Boeing KC-46A
Japan has become the first export customer for the Boeing KC-46A when it was selected to replace the Japan Air Self-Defence Force B-767J MRTTs which will retire from 2020. (JASDF)

Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (OIR), the ongoing US-led military operation against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) insurgent group which has occupied significant parts of both countries, has highlighted the lack of air-to-air refuelling capabilities among the participants.

OIR commenced in June 2014 and has been supported by several European and Allied nations. The operations have again highlighted the lack of air refuelling capabilities as only 60 percent of the European receiver nations participating in the air strikes currently own Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) assets, namely Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Europe is able to field around 40 tanker aircraft of ten different types, which when compared with the US resources of over 550 tankers of three types, is a clear indication of the challenges Europe faces in this field.

Germany is one of the few European receiver nations currently owning AAR assets; a fleet of four Airbus A310-304 MRTT aircraft are operated by the German Air Force. (Airbus)

The European Defence Agency (EDA), an agency of the European Union which works to foster defence collaboration, is attempting to address this problem by proposing a number of cost-effective solutions for AAR that need to be considered, in order to help European nations meet their requirements. The Air Transport, Air-to-Air Refuelling Exchange of Services (ATARES), which allows participating nations to trade in equivalent Lockheed Martin C-130 turboprop airlifter family flying hours has been effective in helping to pool and share AAR across the continent. However, a commercial mechanism is needed that allows nations to buy, and not just trade, spare capacity from a European or NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) pool of tankers.

European Efforts

The EDA recognizes that here is a need for better, and more collective, AAR training to harmonize standards and share expertise. Collective training could facilitate familiarity with other NATO fleets and the annual European AAR Training (EART) exercise, the overall objective of which is to address the lack of interoperability among European tanker crews and to develop knowledge in AAR planning and tasking through a dedicated exercise, is a good step in this respect. A European training centre could also help nations without AAR expertise to develop a baseline capability and/or provide earlier entry into service for those nations wishing to buy new tankers as the training could be done in advance of aircraft delivery. The UK has fully embraced synthetic training and could provide training as a service to European nations operating similar platforms.

There should be better co ordination and consolidation of multinational initiatives in AAR to provide a single, transparent structure with minimum bureaucracy. This may be achieved by combining the European Air Transport Command (EATC) established in 2010 which includes Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain. Its role is to enhance the combined operations capabilities of the participating nations, and to improve the effectiveness and efficiency in conducting air transport, refuelling and aeromedical evacuation. Meanwhile, the Movement Coordination Centre Europe (MCCE), which includes 27 European nations, plus Canada, is headquartered at Eindhoven, and is led by the Netherlands. The MCCE’s role is to provide cost saving alternatives for its members by utilizing air assets owned or leased by the national militaries of its members or supported agencies. The aim of the MCCE was to reach an initial operating capability (IOC) by 2020. The EDA expected that the pooled acquisition would result in important synergies in terms of initial overall investment, interoperability as well as through life costs. However, following European financial instability, defence budgets were slashed and many of the signatories withdrew from the project, leaving only the Netherlands, Norway and Poland as of today. Although Norway is not a member of the EU, it regularly participates in EDA projects such as the AAR programme. “Norway is actively engaged in European as well as regional defence cooperation. This is not only of benefit for Europe but also for the Norwegian armed forces and defence industry. Today’s discussions concentrated on future projects. At the Agency, we see Norway’s strong support to the Agency’s air-to-air refuelling programme as well as to our research and technology initiatives with a focus on maritime capabilities and to counter chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats,” said Jorge Domecq, the chief executive of the EDA.

In November 2014, a Cooperation Agreement was signed between the NATO Support Organisation and the Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en Matière d’Armement (OCCAR/Joint Organisation for Armament Cooperation), the EU body tasked with managing joint European defence procurement initiatives. This launched the acquisition phase of a NATO MRTT Fleet (Multi-Role Tanker Transport Fleet/MMF) under the lead of the Netherlands. The agreement covers the management of the acquisition phase of the MMF project and sets the framework and conditions under which OCCAR will manage the acquisition phase of the aircraft on behalf of NATO.

The three nations (Netherlands, Norway and Poland) plan to formally launch their project in July at the forthcoming NATO Summit in Warsaw, to be followed by a contract signature at the end of July with Airbus to initially purchase three A330-200 MRTT aircraft. If more countries join the group, additional aircraft may be acquired. The MMF will be based in Eindhoven and operate in a similar way to NATO’s Boeing C-17A Globemaster-III turbofan freighter Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) based at Pápa in Hungary with a fleet of three C-17As for which flying hours are made available to Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Romania and Slovenia, together with Partnership for Peace members Finland and Sweden.


One of the original signatories to the EDA MMF agreement, France, placed an order in December 2015 with Airbus for eight additional A330-200 MRTTs for the Armée de l’Air (French Air Force). The aircraft constitute the second tranche of a multi-year contract for a total of twelve A330-200 MRTTs signed by the French Ministry of Defence in November 2014. The order for the remaining four aircraft is scheduled to be confirmed in 2018 with deliveries of all twelve aircraft before 2025 to replace the French Air Force’s fleet of 14 Boeing KC/C-135F/FR tankers. The first A330-200 MRTT will be delivered in 2018, followed by the second in 2019, and the remainder at a rate of one or two per year. The French aircraft will be equipped with a combination of the Airbus Refuelling Boom System and under-wing hose-and-drogue refuelling pods. It will also be possible to configure them in a variety of layouts carrying up to 271 passengers as well as medical evacuation arrangements including the French MORPHEE intensive care module carrying up to ten patients plus 88 passengers.

EDA programme
France was an original signatory to the EDA programme to acquire a fleet of tanker aircraft but opted to order twelve A330-200 MRTTs to replace its Boeing C/KC-135F/FRs. (Airbus)

The EDA has also highlighted the fact that AAR kits have only been purchased for 18 percent of the ordered Airbus A400M Atlas turboprop freighter aircraft and its efforts to convince more operators to consider buying or leasing additional AAR kits for their platforms, in order to satisfy EU and NATO targets, have so far not been taken up. The A400M successfully demonstrated simultaneous air-to-air refuelling of two McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornet fighters in February 2015 during which, in the course of four flights, the A400M performed 74 contacts and dispensed 27.2 tonnes of fuel to the Spanish Air Force aircraft.

However, this success was tempered in October 2015, when Fernando Alonso, the head of Airbus’ military aircraft division, admitted that the aerial refuelling of helicopters by the A400M was impossible to achieve in the aircraft’s current configuration. As several countries had expressed interest in this capability, Mr. Alonso said that the company had begun working on a solution to the problem despite the fact that it was currently not physically possible given the length of the hose, the wake of the aircraft and the speed of the receiver helicopters, to safely refuel from the A400M. One of the countries interested in the A400M’s capability to refuel helicopters was France. In October 2015 The French Air Force carried out its first operational in-flight refuelling of a helicopter when a US Marine Corps KC-130J tanker refuelled an Airbus Helicopters H-225M Caracal medium-lift utility helicopter in Africa. Only a month later a notice published by the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency noted that France had requested a Foreign Military Sale (FMS) of four Lockheed Martin C-130J aircraft, including two extended-range KC-130J tankers. 

Only a small number of A400M customers have ordered its air-to-air refuelling kits which have been successfully trialled with fixed-wing aircraft, but which are not yet capable of refuelling rotary-wing aircraft. (Airbus)

United States

The US Air Force and Marine Corps operate several C-130 tanker variants, all for which are capable of refuelling helicopters, and are each acquiring new C-130J aircraft. More than a dozen countries operate KC-130H tankers including Spain and Sweden in Europe while Italy has three KC-130Js. The C-130J has also been exported to Saudi Arabia with two of five KC-130J Hercules on order recently delivered to the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF). 

KC-130 family
The US Marine Corps has used the KC-130 family tankers for refuelling rotary-wing aircraft and the latest KC-130J model has been ordered for the French Air Force. (USMC)

Boeing was awarded a contract in 2011 to design and develop the US Air Force’s next-generation tanker aircraft and is building four test aircraft; two are currently configured as 767-2C variants of the vanilla Boeing 767-200ER airliner and two as KC-46A tankers, also based upon this airframe. EMD-1, a 767-2C test aircraft, has completed more than 260 flight test hours to date since its first flight in December 2014. After several highly publicised setbacks in 2014, EMD-2, the programme’s first fully provisioned KC-46A tanker, made its maiden flight on 25 September 2015 and has now completed more than 180 flight test hours. The KC-46A first flight was originally scheduled to take place at the beginning of the year, but was delayed after problems with wiring bundles were discovered in the test aircraft. Boeing successfully completed the first flight of the programme’s second KC-46A tanker aircraft on 3 March 2016, from Paine Field in Washington State and landing at Boeing Field in Seattle. During the flight, Boeing test pilots performed operational checks on engines, flight controls and environmental systems. “Adding a second tanker to the flight test programme is very important as we move into the next phase of testing,” said Colonel John Newberry, US Air Force KC-46 system programme manager. “The team will initially use the aircraft to test mission system avionics and exterior lighting. Later, it will share the air refuelling effort with the first KC-46,” according to an official USAF press release.

The Boeing team now will conduct a post-flight inspection and calibrate instrumentation prior to the next series of flights. As part of the overall flight test program, the KC-46 will demonstrate it can refuel 18 different aircraft. The second tanker will help share the test load and receiver certification. EMD-3, a second 767-2C, will begin flight-testing later this year. 

Boeing KC-46A
The second Boeing KC-46A made its first flight on 3 March 2016, and will be initially used to test mission system avionics and exterior lighting, before joining the first fully provisioned KC-46A tanker to carry out air refuelling trials. (Boeing)

However, on 24 March the US Defence Contract Management Agency has expressed its “low confidence” in Boeing’s ability to deliver the KC-46A on time. The first delivery of an initial of 18 KC-46As to the USAF was expected by August 2017. Despite this, the agency now believes Boeing cannot deliver the 18 KC-46As before March 2018, and there is a possibility that this new date might not be achievable either. The estimated price tag for the Air Force’s KC-46A’s development contract appears to be levelling out at US$6.4 billion, more or less unchanged from last year, according to a service spokesman.

Other Players

Although the EDA MMF project selected the A330-200 MRTT as the consortium’s preferred aircraft over the KC-46A, and Airbus had recently achieved a run of export sales (notably to Australia, the United Arab Emirates, the Republic of Korea, Saudi Arabia and Singapore), it is not all bad news for Boeing. The company was able to announce that Japan had selected the KC-46A to become its lead international customer in October 2015. The Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) operates a fleet of four Boeing KC-767J MRTTs and Japan intends to procure three KC-46As by 2020, at a reported cost of more than US$173 million per tanker. According to Boeing, the KC-46 is particularly attractive to Japan as it will be capable of refuelling the JASDF’s planned fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning-II fighters and the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) forthcoming Bell-Boeing MV-22A Osprey tilt rotors. “We look forward to working alongside the US government to help Japan expand its aerial refuelling capabilities with Boeing’s next-generation (KC-46A) tanker,” Boeing said in a press release. “We appreciate the confidence the Japan Ministry of Defence has shown in Boeing as we honour our commitments in the country and continue our enduring partnership with Japan, which has been going strong for more than 60 years. Japanese industry plays a vital role in Boeing’s commercial and military programmes and we hope to increase our presence in Japan.”

Boeing KC-46A
Japan has become the first export customer for the Boeing KC-46A when it was selected to replace the Japan Air Self-Defence Force B-767J MRTTs which will retire from 2020. (JASDF)

According to Bloomberg, the New York financial data company, Israel formally asked the US last year to quote a price for four, six and eight KC-46As, including spare parts, support equipment, and training. The USAF deputy for international affairs provided answers by 19 December 2015. Nevertheless, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has told Armada that it is offering its own B-767 MRTT to the Israel Air Force (IAF), and believes it’s the best solution for the client’s needs to replace its four KC-130H and nine KC-707 tanker aircraft. The Bedek Aircraft Division of IAI has delivered a single B-767 MRTT to the Colombian Air Force and is in the process of final negotiations for the sale of three B-767 MRTTs to the Brazilian Air Force (Força Aérea Brasileira, FAB) under its KC-X2 programme.

Boeing is targeting the KC-46A for the Egyptian Air Force, which has no tanker aircraft but a large fast jet fleet, and the Turkish Air Force to replace its Boeing KC-135Rs. In the longer term, the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force may consider the KC-46A as a replacement for its ageing fleet of Boeing 707 and 747 tankers although, according to Boeing, this is a question for the US Government. As with the commercial airliner market, Airbus and Boeing are head-to-head but the latter is still playing catch-up. That said, there is still everything to play for in the niche market sector.

by David Oliver