AirTanker Aims To Solve European Tanker Shortage

By Tony Osborne
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Other opportunities to raise third-party revenue include performing safety, maintenance and service checks on other operators' A330s at RAF Brize Norton, England. AirTanker is working to gain full C check status by the second quarter of 2014.

Separately, the Defense Ministry is exploring opportunities to share flight hours of the nine-aircraft core Voyager fleet with other European Union and NATO member nations. Under the plan, being promoted by the European Defense Agency (EDA), the RAF Voyager aircraft would be offered through NATO's Movement Coordination Center Europe, which coordinates the usage of such aviation assets. Borrowed assets are paid for as one C-130 Equivalent Flight Hour, so if Country A lends a tanker to Country B for 1 hr., then Country B owes Country A three C-130 flight hours. Such pooling and sharing would benefit the U.K. by reducing the fixed costs of the fleet, AirTanker says.

“The U.K., [Defense Ministry] and the RAF have the capability through Voyager to deliver a significant part of the solution to Europe's air-to-air-refueling and transport requirements and to promote U.K. defense capability and expertise, should they wish to take it,” Blundell says. “The groundwork has been done by the EDA. There is now a clear policy in place, plus—critically—the political will to deliver it. At the same time, recognition of current gaps in capability as demonstrated in Mali, and the U.S. shift in strategic focus toward Asia and the Far East, add impetus to the program.”

Challenges remain, however. AirTanker's Voyagers have not yet refueled any RAF front-line combat aircraft. Clearances for the tanker to dispense fuel remain unsigned by the U.K. Military Aviation Authority (MAA). AirTanker said the clearances were imminent in January and continues to say they are imminent now.

Tanker training for front-line fast-jet aircrews could begin within days of receiving the MAA documentation, but until that is done, the RAF must continue to nurse the VC-10s and TriStars into the air for refueling missions. The RAF's fleet of Panavia Tornado GR4s would be the first to benefit from new tankers, as they have been cleared to refuel from the Voyager, following the completion of “hundreds” of prods by crews from an RAF test unit. Typhoon clearances are expected to follow, with other types in the inventory after that. But it is not clear, in the event of pooling and sharing, how quickly the clearances would be given for other NATO types to refuel from Voyager or who would pay for them.

In a deployment of RAF Eurofighter Typhoons to Malaysia for a military exercise and participation in the Langkawi International Maritime & Aerospace Exhibition 2013 in March, the fighters were supported by a pair of Italian air force Boeing KC-767s. The NATO Eurofighter and Tornado Management Agency gave the clearances to refuel from those aircraft because Italian Eurofighters have already worked up the capability. Commanders did not want to rely on the VC-10s or TriStars in case they became unserviceable during the trip and delayed the inbound or outbound legs of the deployment.

Because of the tanker shortage experienced by the French air force during the Mali campaign, the French and Italian governments hurried through a clearance program so that Rafales and Mirage 2000s could be refueled by KC-767s. The clearances were given after just a handful of sorties.

Meanwhile, AirTanker has also embarked on an in-house program to update the Voyager's defensive aids. Before the first aircraft was delivered, the British press reported that the Voyagers would not be able to fly into hostile airspace as they lack the right number of defensive aids. Each is fitted with two infrared countermeasure devices, which were deemed sufficient to handle threats in the Afghan theater when the aircraft were ordered. But changes in the threat picture have demanded that the Voyager be fitted with three systems.

Under the £20 million ($31 million) program formalized in March, the aircraft are being fitted with a third countermeasure, which could potentially allow it to operate directly from the U.K. into Afghanistan to support the military airbridge and next year's withdrawal.

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