Posted on 01 October 2012

KC-46 (Boeing)

An air force without an inflight refuelling capability effectively renders itself unable to project air power far beyond its borders. Similarly, an air force lacking an airlift capability cannot realistically deploy forces at speed to far-flung theatres, or resupply those forces once they are in position.

by Tom Withington

The huge importance attached to the refuelling and airlift missions, plus the need to recapitalise ageing fleets around the world, are the motivations driving forward the tanker and freighter markets, both of which will be examined in this article.


In February of this year, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) announced that it would be ordering new inflight refuelling aircraft to replace its existing fleet of tankers. At present, the RSAF strategic tanker fleet encompasses four Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft, plus five tactical Lockheed Martin KC-130B/H turboprop planes which can perform transport and refuelling tasks. As in common with many KC-135 operators around the world, Singapore is anxious to replace these ageing aircraft. A Request for Information (RFI) covering the provision of six new aircraft has been issued to this end. Likely candidate airframes to fulfil Singapore’s requirement include Airbus’s A330-MRTT (MultiRole Tanker Transport) which uses the firm’s A330-200 airliner as its basis and Boeing’s KC-46A aircraft based on the company’s 767-2C plane.


A brace of USAF Boeing K-135 tankers is seen here on the tarmac. These aircraft are used by several nations around the world, many of whom are now in the process of replacing these planes © USAF


By far and away the biggest procurement programme for new tankers, both in terms of cost and scope, is the United States Air Force’s (USAF) acquisition of new Boeing KC-46A tankers to  replace the various incarnations of its ageing circa-414 Boeing KC-135 aircraft. A second competition is expected to be held in the future to procure a new tanker to replace the USAF’s 56 McDonnell Douglas/Boeing KC-10 Extender planes. In May this year the KC-46A passed its preliminary design review, considered a major milestone for the programme. That said, a report by the US spending watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) had earlier chided the KC-46A programme for already being $900 million over its $51.7 billion budget.

The USAF’s initiatives to replace the KC-135 have proven deeply controversial in the past, most of all during the procurement phase which saw Boeing pitched against its archrival Airbus, the latter offering its competing KC-40 design based upon the company’s A330-MRTT platform. The next major milestone for the KC-46A programme will be the Critical Design Review to be held halfway through next year which will ascertain the maturity of the design, and determine whether it is ready to enter production. The first 18 KC-46A aircraft are expected to enter service by 2017, following the commencement of deliveries one year earlier. The Air Force is then expected to receive new aircraft at a rate of around 15 examples per year, with deliveries concluding in 2028.



While the A330-MRTT design lost out to the KC-46A in the United States, Airbus’s offering is strongly expected to fulfil a French requirement for new tankers by 2020. Presently, the country operates 14 C/KC-135R/FR tankers, and is expected to purchase the same number of A330-MRTTs in the near future. Recent combat operations, notably NATO’s air campaign over Libya last year, have underscored the bottleneck which exists in the number of inflight refuelling aircraft available to the Alliance. In April, the governments of France, Germany and the Netherlands agreed to share their refuelling aircraft with each other, and their efforts to acquire new tankers. Germany’s inflight refuelling assets comprise four Airbus A310-MRTT aircraft, while the Netherlands’ inventory includes two McDonnell Douglas/Boeing KDC-10 planes. How this arrangement will work in practice, particularly in wartime, remains to be seen. Germany, for example, chose not to participate in last year’s NATO operations over Libya.

Despite losing out to Boeing’s KC-46A as the replacement aircraft for the USAF tanker fleet, Airbus’s A330-MRTT tanker has won customers in Europe, the Middle East and also Australia © EADS

While France is strongly expected to purchase the A330-MRTT, the Royal Air Force has taken the plunge and acquired the first of the 14 such aircraft that it is scheduled to receive. In RAF service, these planes will replace the ten BAE Systems/Vickers VC-10K/K3/K4 and nine Lockheed Martin L-1011 K1/KC1/C2 tanker and transport aircraft in service with the force. The RAF has named the aircraft ‘Voyager’, and the aircraft is expected to be declared fully operational by 2014. All 14 aircraft will be in RAF service by 2016. The Voyagers have been acquired by the British Government using a highly complex Private Finance Initiative (PFI) with the RAF effectively leasing the aircraft from a commercial consortium. France is known to be watching this model of procurement for its new tanker aircraft (see above) with interest to see if it would offer an attractive model vis-a-vis Paris’s purchase of its future fleet of refuelling planes.

Beyond the UK, France and Singapore, Airbus is looking at other prospects for its A330-MRTT aircraft. These include the possibility that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) may choose to procure a sixth A330-MRTT example to augment its existing fleet of five aircraft. Secondly, India is strongly expected to acquire the A330-MRTT. The country’s Air Force currently operates six Ilyushin Il-78MK aircraft with its 78 Squadron. While Airbus may be the favourite to win the contract, it is conceivable that Ilyushin may seek to offer an updated version of the Il-78 given that India is traditionally a strong market for Russian military equipment. Saudi Arabia has also opted for the A330-MRTT. Like Singapore and France, the Kingdom operates a KC-135-based fleet. This includes eight KE-3As. These latter aircraft are effectively ‘hybrid’ KC-135s as they use the same Boeing 707-based airframe as that company’s E-3 series of Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft. In total, Saudi Arabia will acquire six A330-MRTTs to replace these KE-3As, where they will serve with Saudi Arabia’s 13th Flying Wing unit.

Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster-III turbofan strategic freighter has sold well around the globe. Deliveries have followed to Australia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. India is also due to acquire the plane © USAF

Saudi Arabia will be followed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the A330-MRTT’s other Middle East customer which will acquire three examples in 2013. The acquisition of these aircraft will represent a new strategic refuelling capability for the UAE. A smaller-sized purchase to the UAE’s acquisition of three A330-MRTTs may follow from Poland. Warsaw is known to be in the market for strategic tankers as this is a capability which the country’s air force currently lacks. Along with the A330-MRTT, Poland has reportedly looked into the possibility of acquiring a Boeing 767-based solution. However, should this latter prospect be pursued, it is expected that Poland would opt for a purchase of second-hand 767 airframes which could be converted into tankers, rather than new build KC-46A airframes from Boeing (see above).

While both the KC-46A and the A330-MRTT designs can be used to carry freight, as well as passengers and fuel, air forces also need dedicated turboprop and turbofan freighter aircraft for strategic and tactical transport. Such aircraft are essential for the transport of bulky and outsize equipment, and these planes can also often operate from the austere and unprepared airstrips which maybe unsuitable for an airliner-derived tanker and transport plane.

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