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.
Helicopters and Turboprop Tankers
The exclusivity clause of the AIrTanker contract is particularly relevant when the RAF and RN helicopter fleets are considered. Ordered in 1995 the six Chinook HC2As have a strengthened front fuselage to allow the fitting of an aerial refuelling probe in future. Based on the US Army’s Boeing MH-47E Chinook, the RAF’s eight ‘fat tank’ Chinook Mk5 helicopters can also be equipped with an inflight refuelling probe. Likewise the sixteen CH-47 (extended range) Chinooks approved for sale to the UK by the US State Department in October 2018 are based on the MH-47G and are plumbed for but not equipped with a refuelling probe. Speaking at the IQPC International Military Helicopter 2016 conference, Maj Gen Richard Felton, the then head of Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) indicated that to support the UK’s Special Forces at least some of the RAF’s Chinooks should be modified with flight refuelling probes.
In addition to the Chinooks, after 2023 the RN Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) will operate twenty-five Leonardo HC4/4A Merlins which can also be equipped with a flight refuelling probe. The need for a capability to aerial refuel the RN’s Merlins was identified by Lt Cdr Aaron Cross, operations officer for 846 NAS, at a May 2018 Prague conference. Hence, in the not-to-distant future the UK will possess fifty-five helicopters capable of being refuelled in flight, the largest force outside the US. The RAF also possesses fourteen Lockheed C-130J Hercules, more than any other operator of the type in Europe except Italy, and all potentially capable of providing aerial refuelling to helicopters. The ability of helicopters to self-deploy using air-to-air refuelling and to overfly unfriendly territory over extended ranges without the need for frequent refuelling stops cannot be overstated. This is particularly valuable in operations in the African theatre of operations where distances are vast and airfield facilities are few, and is a practice already employed by the AdI’A and USAF.
To offset the lack of aerial refuelling capability the RAF’s extended range Mk5 Chinooks have been deployed to Mali. Additionally, air refuelled helicopters could theoretically provide Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) to the Queen Elizabeth Class (QEC) aircraft carriers at longer ranges than currently possible. However despite all this capacity, because of the exclusivity clause in the AirTanker contract the UK would be required to pay compensation to the company should it choose to aerial refuel its helicopters either using its own Hercules or the assets of other air arms.
Finally, the absurdity of the RAF possessing twenty-two Airbus A400M Atlas aircraft which are delivered equipped with fuel lines to attachment points for under-wing refuelling pods and yet not being able to utilise that capability, highlights again the shortcomings of the AirTanker contract. This is illustrated no more so than in the necessity to base both a Voyager and an Atlas in the Falklands to support four Typhoons.
This is a waste of key RAF assets. The Atlas alone could provide air-to-air refuelling for the Typhoons in addition to its current tasks of providing maritime radar reconnaissance and air transport for the forces based on the islands. This is yet another example of the AirTanker contract limiting the efficient use of resources and preventing the growth in the number of aerial tankers available to the RAF.
Reinforcing the absurdity of this situation, an image which appeared in the UKDJ’s Twitter feed on 3 May 2019 portrays four RAF Typhoons practicing refuelling maneuvers with a Luftwaffe A400M. Notably, while the A400M is trailing its hoses, the Typhoons are not plugged in to the drogues.
Combined, the Hercules and Atlas fleets could provide a further thirty-six airframes in addition to the eight Voyagers. Using the fully amortized Hercules and Atlas aircraft, purchasing and fitting refuelling pods would be the only additional cost to the RAF.
The Special Case of the F-35B
A qualitative leap in capability over the Tornado GR4 strike aircraft it replaces, the F-35B is nevertheless deficient in one important aspect, that of range. Operating in stealth mode the F-35B carries no external fuel tanks. In comparison to the Tornado which does carry drop tanks the deficiency is stark. The F-35B has a combat radius of 517 mi (833 km) vs 870 mi (1390 km) for the GR4 and a range of 1035 mi (1667 km) vs 2417 mi (3890 km) for the Tornado. The USMC is addressing this deficiency in two ways, the first of which involves the way in which the aircraft would be employed operationally. Operating initially from Wasp and America class assault ships the USMC’s F-35Bs would then fly missions from land bases once they had been secured after a successful amphibious assault by marines. This methodology was demonstrated on 7 September 2018 when two F-35Bs took off from the USS ESSEX in the Persian Gulf and transited with robust USAF tanker support to Afghanistan where the fighters successfully struck fixed targets.
Post-strike the F-35Bs made a stopover at Kandahar airfield.
Denied land based tanker support or a secure airbase, the second way in which the USMC intends to address the range deficiency is by equipping its Bell-Boeing MV-22 Ospreys with the V-22 Aerial Refueling System (VARS). Palletized, so that it can be rolled on and off the Osprey as necessary, the system features a tank containing 4,535 kg (10,000 pounds) of fuel which can be offloaded by a single hose and drogue trailed through the V-22s open cargo ramp.
When stealth is not a consideration the F-35 the aircraft can carry external fuel tanks. Developed by a subsidiary of Israel’s Elbit company, 425 gal (1608 lit) drop tanks are reportedly also capable of being jettisoned along with their pylons so as not to compromise stealth. Elbit are also developing, in cooperation with Lockheed, conformal fuel tanks. Both of these means of extending the F-35B’s range are feasible when operating the aircraft from land bases. However, when flying from an aircraft carrier where operating weight is always an important consideration, especially when landing vertically in marginal conditions, external fuel tanks may not be an option.
This may be circumvented if Short Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) is employed to land on the carrier. Yet another factor to be considered is that the already over-stretched Voyager fleet may not have an aircraft available to follow a QEC class carrier around the globe providing tanker support to the F-35Bs. In addition, such a possibility would require Voyagers to have access to land bases in friendly countries, a reality which does not always exist. Given these factors, integral tanker support for F-35Bs flying from the UK’s carriers through the purchase of V-22 tiltrotors will provide the maximum possible operational flexibility to any commander of the Carrier Air Group.
The future – Where to from here?
In only what could be described as an understatement, in July 2018 A source close to the former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, referring to the AirTanker programme, was quoted in The Mail on Sunday as saying ‘Poor historic deals like this are squeezing the defence budget and leaving no room to manoeuvre’. The AirTanker contract could be described as a train wreck. The aircraft were contracted at a bloated price and in their current configuration cannot meet the needs of the RAF or RN, let alone future requirements. There are some relatively easy fixes. As noted, the RAF has stated an interest in fitting the ARBS to its Voyagers. This is a positive initiative, but inevitably the RAF will have to pay even more money to accomplish this.
Modifying its Hercules and Airbus A400 Atlas aircraft for aerial refuelling tasks would provide the RAF with a significant increase in capability but cannot occur because of the AirTanker contract’s exclusivity clause. Ironically, given the small numbers of aircraft in the RAF’s inventory going forward, maximum productivity can only be achieved via inflight refuelling and this in turn requires more, not fewer tankers.
Going into the future there are ways that the RAF can expand its fleet of tanker aircraft, should it be required.