The Falklands conflict of 1982 highlighted the necessity for air-to-air refuelling, particularly for the successful prosecution of an air war at long range.
This article aims to discuss the future of UK aerial refuelling needs.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Kelvin Curnow. Kelvin’s particular area of interest is naval aircraft and aircraft carriers. He is a keen writer and over the past fifteen years he has had a number of articles published in different journals.
By October 1993 the last of the Victor K2s which had proved so essential in the conflict had been retired. Their replacements included an eclectic array of aircraft some of which had only a short service life. Among the latter included six Hercules C-130Ks converted to single point tankers by Marshalls of Cambridge and six Vulcans converted to K2 configuration.
The principal replacements for the Victors, which began their service lives in the late 1980s and early 1990s, were no fewer than twenty-seven Bae/Vickers VC-10 C1K/K2/K3/K4 tankers. The VC-10s were supplemented by six ex-British Airways Lockheed L1011 TriStars purchased in 1982. Outside of the USA the VC-10/Tristar squadrons formed the largest tanker fleet in the world.
By March 2014 all these aircraft had been withdrawn from use, replaced by fourteen Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) aircraft under the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme. The programme was a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal awarded to the AirTanker consortium owned by Cobham plc, EADS, Rolls-Royce plc, Thales UK and VT Group plc. Based on the Airbus A330-200 airliner the Voyager is a modern design with inherent low operating costs, a vast pool of available spares and an enviable availability rate of 90%+.
It is capable of carrying a maximum payload of 245,000 lb (111,000 kg) of fuel, an additional 99,000 lb (45,000 kg) in non-fuel payload and 291 passengers. The growing number A330 MRTT operators, including Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, France Spain and the Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport Fleet (MMRTTF) ensures that the RAF will have a supportable aircraft over the lifetime of the AirTanker contract.
The AirTanker Contract
The AirTanker contract has proven deeply controversial. Worth £10.5 billion, the contract runs until 2035, and is worth £390 million per annum. Of this amount running costs are £80 million while the remaining £310 million covers the consortium’s financing and profit together with the capital cost of the project which includes aircraft and infrastructure. The exclusivity clause in the contract specifies that AirTanker will be the sole supplier of air-to-air refuelling services to the UK armed forces. In March 2010 the National Audit Office (NAO) declared that the PFI was not value for money.
In May 2012 an investigative piece by the BBC Newsnight programme revealed that according to AirTanker the cost of each Voyager is £152m. Newsnight reported that the Aviation Valuation Company deduced that the purchase of a fleet of fourteen aircraft would mean the list price per aircraft should be closer to £50m. As a comparison the purchase price of two additional KC-30As (Australian designation for the A330 MRTT) for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is £226m at 2012 prices. In a further comparison, the Armée de l’Air’s (AdI’A’s) fifteen aircraft A330 MRTT (French designation Phénix [Phoenix]) programme will cost £2.6B, approximating to £142M per example. In both instances the Australian and French air forces have purchased their aircraft outright, there are no ongoing costs of the kind associated with the AirTanker contract.
Current RAF Aerial Refuelling Capability
Of the fourteen Voyagers accessible only nine make up the ‘core fleet’, the remaining aircraft are the ‘surge fleet’. When not required by the RAF, these ‘surge’ aircraft can be leased to airlines (minus their military equipment), or to allied nations with the agreement of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Of the five ‘surge’ aircraft only one was leased out for a period of three years via a June 2014 agreement with Thomas Cook Airlines. Of the ‘core fleet’ one is a civilian registered aircraft operated by AirTanker which is available to the MoD as a passenger and cargo transport on a charter basis flying the Falklands/UK air bridge. The eight in service refuelling aircraft consist of two Voyager KC2 and six Voyager KC3 variants.
The former are fitted with two Cobham 905E under-wing refuelling pods, the latter add a Cobham 805E Fuselage Refuelling Unit (FRU) in addition to the pods. Eight aircraft is a woefully small number for the RAF’s refuelling commitments. At any one time single aircraft are: based in the Falklands supporting Quick Reaction Alert (QRA); providing QRA tanking to UK based fighters; and, supporting Operation Shader against Islamic State (ISIS). This leaves spare capacity of just five Voyagers to meet all other refuelling needs. The fact is that there are inadequate numbers of tanker aircraft available to the RAF on a day-to-day basis is palpable, particularly given the heightened tensions between NATO and Russia, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, and escalating Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea. The lack of numbers is further exacerbated because the Voyagers are also employed on transport tasks including one which has been modified to VIP configuration.
Future Aerial Refuelling Needs
Leaving aside the cost of the AirTanker contract, there are three major issues facing the RAF. First, the Voyager is the only version of the A330 MRTT to not be equipped with the Airbus Aerial Refuelling Boom System (ARBS). Second, the Voyager is not capable of refuelling the growing number of helicopters in both RAF and Royal Navy (RN) service which can be probe equipped. Third, the exclusivity clause prevents the RAF using its own aircraft such as the Lockheed C-130J Hercules which can be equipped to provide air-to-air refuelling.
The first issue is easily resolvable with relative ease and little cost. The then Deputy Commander of Operations, Air Marshal Greg Bagwell, said at the FIDAE Airshow in Santiago Chile in March 2016 that the operational case for equipping at least some of the UK’s Voyagers with the ARBS had already been accepted. The ARBS would allow tanking of the growing number of aircraft in the RAF equipped with the Universal Aerial Refuelling Receptacle Slipway Installation (UARRSI). These are the Boeing C-17A Globemaster III, Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint, and the forthcoming Boeing P-8A Poseidon and Boeing E-7A Wedgetail. The mooted purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35A for the RAF would see the need for boom equipped tankers increase exponentially. An excellent example of the flexibility offered by a drogue and boom equipped tanker comes by way of the RAAF.
In operations against ISIS over Syria and Iraq a single KC-30A proved capable of tanking a wide variety coalition of assets. These included F/A-18F Super Hornets, other KC-30As (Australian MRTTs are equipped with the UARRSI), E-7A Wedgetails, C-17 Globemaster IIIs, AV-8B Harriers, Eurofighter Typhoons and Dassault Rafales. The flexibility of the KC-30A was demonstrated when in November 2015 a Boeing E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft performed its longest mission over Iraq lasting 17 hours and 6 minutes requiring two aerial refuellings. Arguably this mission could not have been accomplished with a Voyager and E-3D Sentry combination given the inordinate amount of time required to pass fuel using the FRU (2,650 l/min as opposed to 4,542 l/min for the ARBS). Additionally, the greater fuel load and higher fuel burn of the Sentry would have inevitably required more air-to-air fuel transfers.
Above all else aerial refuelling aircraft are force multipliers and enablers. Voyagers supporting the UK QRA permit the Typhoons to stay in the air for longer periods of time. This circumvents the need to scramble additional aircraft. For Tornados and Typhoons striking ISIS targets, aerial refuelling from Voyagers has allowed the fighters to stay on mission for anything up to 8+ hours. This has the consequence of providing unbroken over watch of embattled allied ground forces.
Another excellent example of how the A330 MRTT is both a force multiplier and enabler comes by way of the AdI’A’s Phénix aircraft. Prior to the introduction into service of the Phénix, the deployment of four fighters to Afghanistan would have required the support from one Boeing C-135FR to refuel the fighters, and two Hercules to transport 50 personnel and 12 tonnes of freight. This operation now requires only one Phénix. In another instance where the aircraft is both force multiplier and enabler, the RAAF intend to employ their KC-30As to refuel their Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft giving them the ability to range further out to sea and/or stay on station longer.
Given that the E-7A and P-8A are basically the same aircraft, 17 hour maritime patrol missions are quite possible. With the small number of P-8As and E-7As being procured for the RAF, the ability to fly longer missions would permit a more effective and efficient use of the two fleets.