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.

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Speaking as a lawyer, it’s difficult to believe there are no options for the MOD to work around or renegotiate the contract. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Get some decent lawyers – it’ll be expensive but not nearly as expensive as this contract is costing them – unless the MOD insist on endless meetings. I can think of a couple of contractual avenues of attach already, although I must confess I haven’t read the thing.


The more I think about this, the less I can see that a blanket provision requiring the MOD to take all its A2A refueling from Airtanker for 25 years could be 100% enforceable. It goes beyond protection of Airtanker’s legitimate interest and may also be anti-competitive. I would expect that Airtanker would have to show that it is losing out if/when the MOD uses another A2A refueler or does it itself. That shouldn’t be possible if the MOD continues to use Airtanker or it uses another supplier/does it itself and Airtanker can’t or doesn’t offer the service – e.g. where… Read more »


Well said


I’d not bother with the cost of osprey and just buy more F35 instead, only when there is enough F35 to fill the carrier should it be considered

Daniele Mandelli

Again I ask, as in the first article. Who are the clowns who signed this? There should be accountability.

Chris H

@Daniele Mandelli – For the first time I have to disagree with your comment. As presented the writer paints a very negative picture. But then that was the intent. It was not an objective assessment in any way as the positives were not even mentioned. Just what we (allegedly) could NOT do. And most of the ‘cannot dos’ are nothing to do with Air Tanker. Like Helo refuelling? What the writer could and should have done is a delta comparison datasheet of all the purchase costs, manning, maintenance, new hangars and storage of surge aircraft and all the rest of… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

No problems Chris. You make valid points.

With your added perspective it would be interesting to see another article
on this subject.

Geoffrey Roach

There is nothing to argue about in this excellent article. It is the same old story. Buy the best but not quite Push off the last part of the expenditure, waste he opportunity of a complete system and then spend three/ four times as much “improviing” the system later. I don’t suppose anybody will ever be pulled up on this, nor will the politician who told them to sign but what a waste.


There’s a great deal to argue

Geoffrey Roach

A man of few words? If you want to explain…

Chris H

@geoffrey Roach – well I argued repeatedly against the content of this article above. So I agree with Dave on this.


The air tanker contract has to be one of the worst contracts ever conceived, the corporate lawyers must have struggled to suppress their laughter when the MoD signed on the dotted line.

Despite identifying the contract’s ludicrous cost as early as 2010 it still has 16 years left to run (until 2035). The passenger service is also appalling as anybody who has flown crab air will know.

Darren Hall



The US Navy is developing the MQ-25 drone to refuel its aircraft, so I can a similar need being identified for the USMC and RN. Though such a drone would need VSTOL capabilities for carriers without cats as traps.

I wonder if the AirTanker contract stipulates covers refuelling from drones?…,


And you wonder why the defence budget is so stretched thin….

Surely there must be a buy out/cancellation clause in the contract….

James Darby

Remember when everyone raved about the airtanker contract and what a bargain it was. Outsourcing or privatising the military will never work the sooner our elected officials realise this the better.
Neither party cares about defence anymore and it’s going to bite soon, but at least a few quid was saved


How can our military have its hands tied like this!? Defies belief. If the companies involved in this deal have the Uk’s Interests at heart they should offer the MOD a reasonable way out. If not, the Mod should play hardball and tell them if they don’t, then future work will be going else where.
I just cannot believe the Mod/government haven’t stipulated a way out, if not, who does that?????


Not to be cynical but the people who sign these often benefit later down the line often being hired by the companies that win the contract. Why they tried to penny pinch by removing the boom from a 25 year capability is beyond me.

Chris H

@T.S – Please show us where hands are tied to the point of being detrimental. Observing contracts happens every day of the week so observing what a contract states isn’t tying your hands as presumably there is benefit being gained.
And where exactly are Air Tanker not delivering what was contracted for especially given the very high availability rates?
I suspect somewhere there will be an exit clause but why should we give up something that works well, will cost us £ Mns in buyouts, higher risks, higher employment costs and other permanent costs?


If there was political will, (managed to type that with a straight face), we would get Parliament to extend the Unfair Contracts Act to include PFI deals.
Also, bring back the Treason Act, which ought to cover deals which allow private firms to hamper the defence of the realm. A new corporate treason offence.

Rob Collinson

Too right!!

The PFI deal was an utter travesty. Lock them up! Put them in the tower!

Chris H

@JohnHartley – can you please quote the Clause or Section in this contract where Air Tanker does in fact ‘hamper the defence of the realm’. Now I can quote far worse PFI deals like the ones now putting NHS Trusts in financial difficulty but this one works and works well. Its a shame people seem to be prepared to jump to exaggeration while not having a clue about the subject matter.
I think you need to have a quiet word with yourself mate …


I think preventing the RAF from buying/operating aircraft to refuel those that need booms, plus slow moving helicopters/turboprops, does indeed hamper the defence of the realm.
I note that the Americans, the home of capitalism, sent the disgraced boss of Enron to prison for 24 years. That would be a suitable term for corporate treason.

Chris H

@JohnHartley – You just projected a falsehood and even this negative article admitted that if the RAF said fit ARBS they would be fitted. And even you must agree that creating the Helo problem now some 11 years after this contract was forged is a bit disingenuous? Voyagers would struggle to keep the airspeed of a Helo so whether the RAF owned them or not is irrelevant to the discussion. Can the RAF add helos to the Air Tanker contract? I have no idea but if helo refuelling was a critical defence matter I am sure the helos would have… Read more »


It tells me that they cannot afford to, because they would have to pay through the nose to Airtanker to be allowed to do so.

Chris H

@John Hartley – More diversion. Sorry John answer the question – as no UK helos have been fitted EVER with refuelling probes what does that tell you? OK its rhetorical. The answer is they military have seen no tactical need for them.

And if the RAF owned the Voyagers they STILL would not be able to refuel them due to safe airspeed. Its that simple.


Do you need to declare an interest? Have you a connection to AirTanker? Please do not twist my words. I never said that Voyager would refuel helicopters. I said in part 1, that the RAF should buy a pair of KC-130J to refuel helicopters (like France & Germany), if the AirTanker deal was not in the way. You moan I do not give sources, then rubbish the direct quotes from the NAO report. You say this tanker deal is not a PFI, yet the NAO with access to the official documents, say that it is many times. You say AirTanker… Read more »

Chris H

@John Hartley – I am bemused. You misinterpret my words alleging I am misinterpreting yours. Wow … However …. You do misrepresent my words where you make a classic innuendo I have an interest in Air Tanker. I do not or I would say so quite clearly. Had you READ my words fully it would be obvious I was declaring my interest that we should have demanded Boeing fit Probes & Drogues rather than Boom Receptacle to our new Boeing aircraft. I even gave the Sentry as an example. My complaint about your lack of sources was concerning your allegation… Read more »


Elsewhere you have rubbished comparisons to RAAF KC-30A. Well if I quote from the EADS CASA SA 2009 guide to KC-30A, it points out that the KC-30A has a UARRSI receptacle, so those tankers can be topped up. None of the UK Voyagers have UARRSI. Just one more example of how the UK taxpayer has paid over the odds for a poorly equipped service. I repeat, which bank or banks had £2 billion to spare during the 2007-2011 panic period? They would only have lent it, if they first got it from the government, either from the Treasury or via… Read more »

Chris H

@John Hartley – It is getting rather tedious correcting your projected misrepresentations John. Please argue your case on facts. 1. I have never ever ‘rubbished’ anything about the KC-30s or comparisons thereof. I challenged the writer of the article’s comparator that the additional KC-30s were cheaper than the Air Tanker unit costs. I pointed out that these were purchase and not through life or indeed operational costs. I then asked that if indeed these were cheaper because core costs had already been paid then what were the costs of the original KC-30s WITH those core costs. So far we have… Read more »


You have your opinion, I have mine. Let us be civil & agree to disagree.

Chris H

@John Hartley – I always try to be civil John so no worries ..


An excellent analysis of this issue by Kelvin (and thank you for this great piece of work) with many succinct and damning comments from our posters. The frustrating thing is, do we know if this getting back to the MoD? Can we get answers from the bean counters and those responsible for this downright fiasco and monstrous waste of public money?

George – any chance of getting anyone to listen? Send it to Penny, for instance?

Chris H

@Crabfat – Sadly this was not the excellent analysis you make out for the reasons I give above. So what is wrong with only paying by the hour used? And where does this contract stop UK Typhoons or F-35s refuelling off German A400s? We have one set of tankers – Voyagers. So whether or not Air Tanker was involved the only UK tanker the RAF and FAA could ever use is …. Voyagers.!


I’ll venture that the relative cost and ease at which some or all of the AirTanker Voyager fleet can be upgraded to include a boom refuelling capability will be a test of the maturity of the PFI contractual relationship, as there must be considerable growing pressure on the RAF to consider its options on how to support the growing fleet of aircraft in its inventory who require this type of refuelling connection.


I’m sure they could refuel off the German A400’s…. however, would the MOD not need to pay twice for the fuel…once to the Germans, then to satisfy the exclusive element of the contract, the same payment to Air Tanker?

Chris H

@ Andrew – Long answer short Andrew – No.


Apart from the failures highlighted in the article there is of course the fact that we are buying assets such as the c17 globemaster shortly the P8 ASW, the rivet joint and now looking like the 737 wedge tail that require flying boom refuelling which the RAF cannot support. As I understand it either the voyager assets in the surge fleet currently in civilian operation or the existing voyagers could easily be converted but the air Tanker contract will not allow it.

Chris H

Well not for the first time I appear to be in a minority of one. But I feel obliged to make some observations on what was a clear hatchet job on the tanker programme. So many points with which to argue and I will try and keep it succinct but I do have to start by pointing out the simplest of errors. That German A400M could have refuelled those Typhoons all day long and there is nothing in the Air Tanker deal to stop such refuelling. Likewise the RAF and FAA can refuel off any foreign tanker as required. So… Read more »


I am reading these comments with interest as I know very little about this subject but I like the concept of the PFIs. In theory they seem to offer so many advantages and could be used in many areas across all 3 services (3rd line maintenance, some logistics, all areas that over lap with civil needs maybe?) Are there lessons to be learned from this PFI that could be integrated into future contracts to try and create a win win situation for the military and industry?

I am genuinely curious as the theory of PFI seems great.

The Artist formerly known as Los Pollos Chicken

Mike It’s like most things in theory they seem great but in reality ………PFI contracts are generally accepted now as being poor value for money and are in most cases no longer used by gov .Big Phil has never signed off on one (so he claims) it was Mr Brown who ramped up their limited use over the previous Major era government. Just look at the deals the NHS got and you’ll soon come to the conclusion they are a bad bad idea. Think of it like a giant Ponzi scheme as the collapse of Carillion highlighted. Bottom line the… Read more »

@ Los Pollos – It is always to group things under one name and condemn them all simply because they have the same name. Yes the NHS trust ones are a calamity but then others have worked well. We all know it was a political sleight of hand by one Gordon Brown who deployed PFIs and still ran up huge deficits. All cars are not bad: Some are good, some are awful…. However to your last comment about Air Tanker. Top call it a PFI is actually misleading but opponents love to apply the tag. That does not of itself… Read more »

The artist formerly known as Los Pollos chicken

Chris , I’m not disagreeing or agreeing on whether on balance it is good or bad . That’s why I put a question mark I honestly don’t know enough about the ins and outs of it other than it’s been bad for the nhs.You seem to know a fair bit and I must admit your arguments for in this specific instance seem logical and persuasive. All I’m saying is somewhere somebody has to make money and there has been a track record of piss poor financial decision making by the MOD in the past that’s why I’m sceptical about it… Read more »

@Los Pollos – Oh I agree we must all be sceptical about those in power. The problem we have with this particular ‘PFI’ is that no one actually knows what is in the contract although some things can be deduced (like we do tank Typhoons off US AF tankers for example).
My issue is that the article seeks to condemn but adds no factual support for that argument and so I just ask questions and challenge the statements. Call me sceptical …Lol


Chris H, as always your knowledge and insight on many subjects is great to have on this site and long may it continue. However, do you think maybe when espousing your knowledge and take on things it could be delivered in a less confrontational way? Rather than calling people out in such a brusque manner you could just deliver your insight in an educational way. You have been involved in many an argument on this site due to this and it’s really not necessary. I will be the first to admit I lack deep knowledge or understanding on many military… Read more »


Confrontational? More like robust argument. The problem with these sorts of issues is that the gaps in our knowledge are often filled by speculation. After a time, these become truths. Perhaps the Defence Secretary could clarify the issues around the PFI deal. I have a feeling that questions have been asked in the House about the tanker PFI. I believe it was Lord Adonis that brokered the deal for Labour….perhaps someone should contact him for further enlightenment?

Chris H

@ T.S – i am sorry you see straightforward comments and questions as ‘confrontational’. But if it is so then it is because I ‘confront’ the issue being discussed not the person making the point. Of course you are free to quote where I have in any way made personally disrespectful comments to you or anyone else here. As to your main point: ” It is the inability to provide tanking from other sources that angers me and cannot understand why we would have allowed it.” UK aircraft can tank off any other nation’s tankers at any time anywhere as… Read more »


Yes, but when the credit crunch hit, Airtanker could not raise the cash from banks as they were broke/strapped, so the UK Gov stepped in to lend that money to Airtanker. That is when the rational for PFI broke down. Gordon loved PFI as it let him spend without the debt going on the public debt balance sheet. So you saved the cash now, for higher payments later. By lending the upfront costs to Airtanker, the taxpayer had high upfront costs + higher payments later. I think that when the UK Gov needed to lend Airtanker upfront money, was the… Read more »

Chris H

@John Hartley – I noted your opening comment and went into research mode but I can find no confirmation of this anywhere. So I would be interested to see some sources and links please. The only change to original funding was that they resorted to commercial bank loans rather than the original Bond Issues. As reported by Reuters at the time: “It caps years of negotiations over the funding and was clinched in the midst of a global financial market crisis which saw plans for a bond to finance the plans collapse, forcing banks to cobble together a 2.2 billion… Read more »


It was reported in the financial pages of national newspapers at the time.


So I went & looked up the NAO report, 30 March 2010. Under finding 18 “. the selection of a PFI solution was made without a sound evaluation of alternative procurement routes to justify why the PFI route offered the best value for money. . timescales more than doubled. After a five-year competition the Department was unable to close a deal and subsequently it took four years of non-competitive negotiation to agree an acceptable deal with AirTanker. Over this period the Department incurred additional costs both in conducting the procurement and running on the existing aircraft fleets. . during the… Read more »

Chris H

@John Hartley – So you are using 9 year old NAO negative reports and not the later positive ones? And this report criticises the MoD for the way it conducted the sourcing, design and RPP process. And yet you use this to justify your thoughts that the MoD would have made a good fist of buying 14 aircraft? Or not given the lack of cash in 2008 / 09. Maybe you would prefer to not have these 14 tankers John? Once the contract was signed the contractors delivered everything on time and to budget. Early in some cases allowing earlier… Read more »

Chris H

@JohnHartley – OK. So why can’t I find any reference to it anywhere or those financial pages or national newspapers? And I do use search engines other than Google. Of course you will have those links and sources for us John?


Think back to that time. The banks either had no money, or those that did were too scared to lend it. You may be right that the gov used the banks to lend the money to AirTanker, but the banks would have had to get that money from the Treasury, or via the Bank of England with Treasury approval. The indirect way gave the government a fig leaf ( & probably fat fees for their banker mates). Where are your links & sources to prove I am wrong? Why is it that people who demand these, never provide them either?… Read more »

Chris H

@John Hartley – You ask where my links are? Well 8 hours ago I gave you this: Now all we have had from you is nothing (regarding the allegation you made about the Government ‘giving a loan’. I will go with Reuters at the time OK? So if you can’t be arsed to read what is submitted there is not a lot of point in discussing further John. Oh and thank you for misrepresenting what I had written earlier. I said I had to declare an interest because I think we should actually have Probe & Drogues fitted and… Read more »


This is the Chris I love, this is the Chris this site massively missed, sharp, combative and backed up with factual counter argument.

Reading this article and all these comments has been brilliant, it’s a subject I know very little about and the insight I have learned from these comments I could not get reading 50 mainstream media articles.

This particular set of comments is why the comments section on UKDJ is a must see daily read for me.

Chris H

@SoleSurvivor – A belated and apologetic thank you Sir … No more please I am running out of cheques ..

Barry Larking

Chris H. I much appreciate the calm analysis you provide. Initially I was appalled by the description of the present situation of the R.A.F.’s in flight refuelling. On the face of it this looked like staggering incompetence. Your comments have shone a light on some of the article’s key contentions to good effect and I welcome them.

Chris H

@Barry Larking – Thank you for your kind words but please analyse what I write as much as everyone else’s comments. I just try to question when something either looks wrong or I know from my own experiences it may well be wrong. We all may not agree but when you have detailed and quality posts from people like ‘the_marquis’ and then add in my bits and pieces I hope we all benefit.


given that the UK has been a key sponsor of Airbus’ military offerings, and also given the problems said company has had with the A400. I suspect we could renegotiate to buy the aircraft – possibly by purchasing addiitional A400’s. What I think is required is for us to get more capability for the same or similar price as these companies have dealt in good faith (it is not their fault HMG have been incompetent in this case). So what does this set of manufacturers want from the MOD that we can use to leverage us out of this contract,… Read more »


Is the contract for the PFI publically available?

Do we know what clauses are actually in there for future adjustments etc?

In theory it looks like someone in the MOD really messed up, in the aim of cutting short term expenditure but it is possible the contract isn’t as bad as we are led to believe.

Kelvin C

Thank you to all who have written comments in response to my article. In response to some of the comments made I should like to make the following observations: 1. Concerning the Lufwaffe refuelling RAF Typhoons. It is true that this could have occurred but not without the RAF paying a penalty to AirTanker for doing so. This has previously been covered by the UKDJ. 2. Indeed, RAF aircraft cannot refuel from other providers, either military or commercial without paying a financial penalty to AirTanker. However, Voyagers can refuel military aircraft of other nations and nowhere did I imply… Read more »


Kelvin, are you able to say if there are any viable ways to get out of the contract or is it airtight?

Kelvin C

Thanks for the question. I would refer you to the NAO report. In 2004 The FTSA project team recommended that the project be cancelled. This was rejected on the grounds that cancellation would have ‘unsettled the market’ and increased the cost of any other PFI deal (p.5). There is also the matter of sovereign risk. The contract could in theory be cancelled but any such action would incur heavy financial penalties. The government could pass an Act of Parliament to declare the contract null and void. However, the probability of any company bidding for MoD PFI contracts would probably fall… Read more »

Chris H

@Kelvin C – when you use comments like ‘its a train wreck’ and here like ‘a disastrous situation’ you are just inflaming what should be a cold analytical discussion. Yes we get that you are an opponent. And because you are so opposed we are entitled to ask why exactly. Because nothing in your article shows a clear and demonstrable reason that is has failed. Indeed you conflate one scenario (UK A400Ms) to justify a false statement regarding German A400Ms. Whether you like it or not Air Tanker has delivered everything demanded of it without fail and to contract. Most… Read more »


I believe your item 8 also answers why the RAF would need to pay to have any boom refuelling rigs added to the Voyagers. It suggests that the RAF signed-off on a configuration of the Voyagers they thought was going to be sufficient from the outset – though if that is the case, over a 30 years timeframe, that would seem quite short-sighted (and is acknowledged as such).

Chris H

@Kelvin C – I have made my criticisms of just some of your article and I will not add further here. In item 1. You deliberately confuse two distinct matters and then provide a UKDJ link to somehow support your own statement. You allege in your article and now repeat it here that a Typhoon refuelling off a German A400M would cause a penalty payment. I disagree strongly. So I do ask you to provide proof here. Where in that Air Tanker contract does it say that refuelling by other nation’s tankers incurs a penalty payment? Sources and links please.… Read more »


The range comparison of the GR4 Tonja and F35B is inaccurate and misleading. The radius of F35B is as given as it’s a clean aircraft and will only vary depending on attack speed or altitude profiles chosen. The longer range quoted with GR4 is for a fully ranked aircraft with no weapons load. A similarly armed GR4 as can be fitted in F35B stealth mode had a significantly lower RoA than the 35B.

Kelvin C

I noted in the the article that the figure for the F-35B was for an aircraft in clean condition. I also noted that the figure for the Tornado was for an aircraft carrying external fuel tanks. Hence, my comparison is neither misleading or inaccurate. At this point no figures are available for an F-35B carrying either drop tanks or conformal tanks, and no model of the F-35 has been so equipped because both are still under development by Elbit.


There’s an FOI response on “whatdotheyknow” that confirms the MoD is liable to penalties if it buys AAR from another supplier, other than Air Tanker Services: The FOI response does state that there are exclusions that allow for MoD aircraft to receive AAR from other vendors supporting “current operations and joint exercises”. The FOI response also confirms that the Air Tanker contract was a consideration among other concerns when the MoD decided not to use the RAF A400M fleet for AAR work. In terms of the cost of the Air Tanker deal, the £12.3bn is not a final price,… Read more »

Daniele Mandelli

Fascinating post. Thank you.

Chris H

@the_Marquis – An excellent post there Sir and given the depth I will most certainly explore that FOI before commenting further. However I can respond to one aspect you quoted: ” The NAO report also makes clear that there is a minimum spend built into the contract, therefore the MoD has to pay a certain amount before it begins to pay per hour, regardless of how much it uses the Voyager fleet” Your interpretation of ‘minimum spend’ is not quite accurate. Basically it means the RAF has to use a minimum number of HOURS not pay a ‘fee’ and THEN… Read more »

Chris H

@the_Marquis – well that FOI reply consisting of 2 paragraphs didn’t take long to digest and I have to say I feel you have slightly stretched two meanings: 1. The FOI confirms as you write that the RAF is free to tank from other Nation’s assets as I have said all along and which is contrary to the allegations made by the writer of the article. But you forgot to mention that while penalties are in theory payable none had actually been paid. 2. It is slightly misleading to infer that the Air Tanker contract was the sole reason we… Read more »


Hi ChrisH, thanks for your reply. Just to clarify, no inference was intended that the Air Tanker deal was the sole reason for the A400Ms in RAF service not to be kitted out for the AAR role. I merely wanted to draw attention to the FOI for the record. I agree with you, while the Air Tanker deal was a consideration, even without it the A400M would most likely not be fitted out to be used as a tanker in RAF service as there wasn’t a pressing need for it, and MoD policy has consistently been to only fit the… Read more »

Chris H

@the_Marquis – Once again an excellently crafted and detailed response from you Sir. I won’t go into detail in reply as we both (and others) know the core issues we are discussing. So let me briefly comment on each topic if I may? 1. I am glad we are in general agreement about A400M tankers. This was one of my main ‘beefs’ with the writer of the article and how he substantiated what was an error. 2. As regards the NAO of 2012 and the use of the surge fleet if it is out in sub lease. The NAO failed… Read more »

Geoffrey Hicking

I have reached the end of my tether. If sources such as the UKDJ cannot be trusted, then it is impossible to avoid being a fantasy fleeter. Even if it were, I’ve said too many fantasy fleeter comments to be redeemable.


How should fantasy fleeters be punished? As commentator “fruitman” of the Thin Pinstriped Line said so robustly, there is nothing good about fantasy fleeters.

I might ask well as those with robust and sharp views what is to be done.

The 300

These two articles raise some interesting points but do miss a few obvious ones. Firstly the C130 fleet is an air transport asset that is heavily committed and barely has enough aircraft and flying hours to maintain training currencies for the crews and its obligations on ops without having more aircraft taken off the front line for converting to a needless AAR asset. Once converted it could then only be used for AAR and a few other minor roles not what it was purchased and desperately needed for. As for the A400 it has its own problems and is far… Read more »