An Airbus A400M has successfully refuelled six Spanish Air Force F-18 fighters in a single mission as part of an air-to-air refuelling certification flight.

The 13th of December mission featured a complex series of AAR scenarios such as changes of area, receivers with unknown priorities, and unexpected increases in numbers of receivers. Through multiple contacts the six aircraft simulated a fleet of eight.

The F-18s included the first Spanish operational fighters to be refuelled by the A400M and belonged to the Spanish Air Force Test Centre (CLAEX) and the 12th Operational Wing based at Torrejón.

A total of 11.4 tonnes of fuel was dispensed using both the underwing pods and the centre hose refuelling unit. Certification authorities on board confirmed good results and the flight validated the A400M two-crew cockpit concept for tanker missions.

The UK however is not able to replicate this with its own A400M Atlas aircraft as a response to a Freedom of Information request outlined the reasoning behind the decision not to use the A400M in the refuelling role. From May 2014, the In Service Date for Voyager, the AirTanker contract stipulates that the MoD must purchase refuelling for UK fixed wing aircraft from AirTanker or be liable to pay compensation, as outlined in the contract.

This is thought to be the primary driver behind the decision not to utilise the capabilities of the A400M Atlas in this regard. It should be noted that there are exclusions which allow the MoD flexibility to receive AAR from other parties when the aircraft are supporting operations or joint exercises.

A question posed as  Freedom of Information request asked:

Does the AirTanker contract play a role in the decision not to adopt the in-flight refuelling capability on the A400M Atlas in RAF service?”

The answer read:

“The A400M Atlas aircraft was procured to provide the RAF with a Tactical Air Transport capability as part of its fleet and the MoD is currently working with Airbus to ensure the A400M Atlas will be equipped and able to fulfil this role.

After assessing all factors, including the AirTanker Contract and the AAR capability provided by the Voyager aircraft, it was determined that there is no current RAF requirement for the A400M Atlas to be used in the AAR role.”

AirTanker is a consortium made up of leading aerospace, defence and facilities management specialists, Babcock, Cobham, Airbus Group, Rolls-Royce and Thales.

AirTanker was awarded the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) contract for RAF Voyager by the Ministry of Defence in 2008. This is for the supply of an air-to-air refuelling, air transport and aeromedical evacuation capability, plus associated service and infrastructure for the duration of the contract period up until 2035.

It includes the delivery of a core fleet of nine Voyager A330 aircraft with optional surge capability rights on a further five. The service includes operational and planning control; aircraft maintenance and dispatch; a full flight crew and training service; plus two-bay purpose built hangar, operational centre and support personnel to deliver it.

Airbus Defence & Space recently carried out two test flights at its facility in Seville, Spain, to evaluate the air-to-air refuelling capabilities of its A400M transport.

During the flights, 50 contacts between the two A400Ms were made in both level flight and during turns, using a hose-and-drum add-on kit that enables the Atlas to refuel large aircraft.

The A400M is the only aircraft in its class with a third refuelling point in addition to its standard underwing pods, Airbus Defence & Space says. The MoD have chosen not to utilise this capability.

34 COMMENTS

    • Not defending it but at the time there was no money so my understanding was it’s this outsourcing contract or lose the capability all together

      • My understanding was Gordon wanted the capability but not to pay so put it on a PFA long term deal and bingo the cost is spread out, costing more than outright purchase but without stumping up the cash up front.

        I read it is all inclusive though including fuel parts training as well as the airframes.

  1. I am confused, so we are not allowed to use our Atlas’s for refuelling but instead will use other Atlas’s obtained as part of a refuelling contract to do the job instead but these will, or likely won’t be able to do so in the same way as these ones tested in Spain? However if the RAF is on its way to a strike mission and may crash if it doesn’t get refuelled it just might be able to use the first mentioned Atlas’s if a convenient hosepipe can be attached, or alternatively someone else’s Atlas’s if they get permission from various companies and agencies associated with the contract in triplicate to meet the permissions in an emergency to do so. Yep thats as clear as mud to me. But pretty typical I guess for the MoD.

    • As I understand it our A400M are strictly not for tanker use and I doubt they have the necessary hose & drum kits at all. U.K. tankers providing fuel to UK aircraft must be the A330s owned by the Air Tanker Consortium otherwise a penalty will be paid (which, apart from having no money, is probably the other big barrier to ever using U.K. Osprey for carrier-based AAR). If however U.K. aircraft (not the A330 tankers of course) are assigned to a joint operation where some country other than the U.K. is providing the AAR tankers then the U.K. planes assigned to that operation can take on fuel from whatever AAR asset is available for the operation without incurring a contract penalty. If it is the U.K. that is providing tanker assets for a joint operation then the exemption is a mute point of course because U.K. planes will be taking on fuel from U.K. tankers and those tankers might well be providing fuel to other countries’ aircraft involved in the joint operation as well. It’s actually all quite logical although clearly a big concession that the MoD needed to make during contract negotiations. It isn’t really fair to single out this one aspect of the negotiation though, we (or at least I) don’t know what concessions the ATC might have made on their side during negotiations, e.g. a big reduction in the amount of cash it asked the MoD to pay up to instate and maintain the contract.

      As Ian said, this was in a time of such severe cuts that this was probably the only way to put the contract in place at any sort of affordable price to avoid losing a capability altogether or leaving it at a pitiful level. It’s not ideal but we are where we are.

      Does anyone know how long this contract runs for?

    • spyinthesky – I am sure I could fabricate an equally sarcastic and pointless set of words about any contract. But please explain how the RAF has been in any way reduced in operational effectiveness by us not having A400M tanking? Name ONE occasion for us.

      We refuel a range of NATO aircraft with our Voyagers. We also refuel Tornados and Typhoons from a range of NATO Air Forces’ aircraft. So what if Spain adds tanking to their A400Ms? And we refuel a Typhoon? It happens now with other aircraft so whats the big deal here?

      The Voyager deal has not restricted the RAF in any way refuelling its own aircraft or other foreign aircraft indeed it has massively increased our capability with the added standby of surge capability at no cost. It does not stop us refuelling from foreign aircraft regardless of what that may be.

      Sometimes simple facts are more persuasive than rather too clever sarcasm ….

  2. Why is it a company is dictating what are military is capable of doing, and is therefore limiting the resources available to are fighting men and women. If they had an sense of honour they wouldn’t limit are military for simply profit.

    • The company are not dictating what the UK military are doing, they are providing a service.

      The military have the choice to use other assets and pay a penalty as Perth contract they signed that enabled said company to invest in a fleet the UK military wanted.

      I actually think the Voyager contract is alright and it is getting loads of usage both as a tanker and transport. its a compromise, but hardly one that deserves so much negativity.

      • Well clearly they are. Because the military is unable to use the full potential of the A400m because of their contract. Why else would they pot that clause in the contract, for reasons other then gread.

        • Harry that is simply not correct.

          A deal has been signed and if the military choose to do something else they can, but that will not release them from their obligations under the contract to pay for services they have agreed.

          It is a choice – in a similar way I can pay upfront for a mobile phone and then leave early paying termination fees to get a newer phone – the principles involved are exactly the same.

          They put the clause in the contract to ensure they make money, protect their significant up front investment and to be perfectly honest, the MOD does have a well documented history of pulling out of its commitments (13 T45 to 8 to 6 ), so I dont blame them.

          The Voyager programme is a success as far as I am concerned, we have these and the Atlas and loads of other stuff and this contractual discipline is good for day to day operations – clearly in an emergency it would not be enforceable.

    • Harry – Please get off your anti-capitalist horse and read what is written. Did we ever need C-130 tankers? Have we needed an A400M tanker recently? Has the Voyager ever failed an operational need for AAR? Why add cost and complexity (and in flight risk) to an aircraft that is better deployed at being an excellent tactical freighter and para drop aircraft. We have in place the best and possibly the most cost effective AAR tanker in the world bar none. As the failing KC-46 contract is proving so why add an A400M?

      Air Tanker are in NO way restricting what the RAF (and other NATO allies) can do as they offer far more capability than we need on a day to day basis but can surge as required without the dead costs that usually means. To say otherwise is just laughable especially as the A400M hasn’t even been passed for air tanking yet.

      • Firstly I’m actually extremely pro capitalism, but I believe patriotism should come up above all else. And I’m not arguing that the voyager and its use is bad. I’m simply annoyed that the RAF is unable to make fall use of its capacity if need without extra expense, because of a contract. It doesn’t even apply with just the A400M, what if the RN looked at getting a carrier capable areal refuelling capacity?

        • I was thinking the same thing I have no issue with the voyager AAR contract but obviously a voyager can’t refuel the F35 from a carrier so if we wanted to have a carrier bourne AAR capability using let’s say Osprey’s would we be allowed to as obviously air tanker can’t provide the service required with the kit they have so would this negate that clause in the contract. Or would they have to acquire the kit ie ospreys and we pay them more for the service of carrier AAR

          • My understanding from comments on other forums on just this topic from people who seem to have visibility of the contract is that refueling from RAF or RN owned Osprey would incur a per-litre penalty payment to ATC for every litre of fuel delivered by the Osprey. As you mention though, a solution could be to negotiate an addendum to the AirTanker Consortium contract to add Osprey as assets covered under the ATC contract which I assume would entail the ATC purchasing the Ospreys with corresponding changes to the contract negotiated regarding adjustments to the financial compensations made by the MoD to ATC.

  3. The New Year has hardly started and the naysayers are out to play. We have an excellent (in my view world beating) deal with our tanker suppliers. It has huge operational flexibility plus the unique ability to surge at short notice and we don’t carry the cost of redundant aircraft and aircrew in hangars waiting for tasking. We also have a fixed cost for operations and maintenance which makes planning easier.

    The A330 Voyager is multiple times more capable than an A400M in its tanker role (and no mean freighter) so we should use the excellent A400M Atlas aircraft for what it is really intended – Tactical freight and para drops. We never needed C-130 tankers and managed with VC-10 and Tristar tankers. Why do we suddenly find a need now?

      • farouk – Sorry but the RAF has never had any KC-130s and air tanking was done by VC-10 to Ascension and then Victors to Falklands (amongst radar reconn. and air cover for Atlantic Conveyor).
        6 x C-130s from Lyneham had refuelling kit fitted to extend their range but not to deliver fuel.

        • I was down south 82/83/84. My first tour entailed working on getting the runway at Stanley in working order. (We used AM2 matting) as we worked on the runway we got to know what flew in and out. Phantoms,Harriers, the odd Buccaneer.(But that wasn’t general knowledge) We would use our Theodolites to count how many mail bags were taken off the Mail run, always a Herc . when they took off for the journey bask to Assi, they would get a top up from one of the tankers (All Hercs) held in the Falklands, and I am sure I heard that they would top up again a little further out.

          You could also volunteer to go up in Herc to watch them refuelling the F4s, never did, but a nbr of our lot did.

          One thing I do remember is the Herc refuelling probe/drogue came out of the back of the Herc and not out of a pod fitted on the wing. (We once had an incident where a returning Herc couldn’t reel in its drogue and so landed with it out. Ripping up the AM2 matting and putting the runway and airbridge out of action. 3 other RE sqns were pulled in to help us repair the damage. However there was a Herc on its way back and we watched it land on half a runway, bloody amazing.

          Also here is a vid of a C130 topping up a F4 in the falklands
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmq3alYGX00

          • farouk – I so stand corrected Sir apologies! A bit more research reveals Marshalls did 3 (as best I can see) of the 6 converted to receiving AAR to tankers as well. I feel daft as I now recall the phrases ‘Short Victors’ and ‘Long Hercs’ off FI and ASI?

            Given this was an exceptional circumstance and mainly enabled local tanking of QRA aircraft in FI off the short Stanley runway I still stand by my earlier statement that basically the UK hasn’t needed a C-130 tanker and certainly not since the later VC-10s and Tristars came into service and we certainly don’t need an A400M tanker while we have the Voyagers.

            But its always good to be corrected thank you.

  4. Why don’t we rent or have some type of arrangement for the C130J/A400M tankers from other airforces to get around the Atlas tanker terms of contract. We help France using the C-17 for their heavy lift for instance. We could use their tankers on a case by case basis.

    • Re French, we can and probably do. If it is a joint operation where France is providing AAR tankers and U.K. contributing some combat jets then, judging from this article, the terms of the ATC contract allow us to take on fuel from the French tankers without penalty. I’d be interested in knowing the contract details when joint operation AAR tanker provision is shared between the U.K. and other countries. Would the U.K. jets be required to use the U.K. tankers to avoid contract penalties? I suspect not.

      Despite some comments here I suspect that the MoD negotiators might just have had some experience and training in negotiating multi-million pound contracts. How many commentators here have that training and experience? (I do.)

  5. The P8’s can’t refuel from Voyager. Are they going to cost us millions in running costs as a result of this purchase after the contract, which couldn’t take account of the fact?

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