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.
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.
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.
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.
While Boeing has struggled so far to win any additional orders for its KC-46A design, bar the four KC-767J tankers equipping the Japanese Air Self Defence Force, and the four KC-767A aircraft equipping Italy, this has not been the case for its C-17 Globemaster-III freighters. The Seattle planemaker has won orders around the world. Most recently, the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence announced that it would acquire an eighth Globemaster for the RAF. The RAAF’s five-strong C-17 fleet will also be augmented with a sixth example. Other orders have followed from India, which will purchase the C-17 to replace its Ilyushin Il-76 freighters, while the UAE acquired its first Globemaster-III example in May last year, and will obtain a further five aircraft to this end.
Airbus, meanwhile, is forging ahead with its A400M turboprop strategic freighter which has been designed in part to fill the ‘airlift gap’ existing between the C-17 Globemaster-III and Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules. A number of potential A400M customers are being targeted by Airbus. These include Indonesia. The Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004 was a wake-up call to the country in terms of the necessity of moving large amounts of humanitarian supplies across the relatively large geographical spread of the archipelego. Similarly, Thailand is also being targeted by Airbus sales executives.
The company has already enjoyed one export success in the Asia-Pacific region, with Malaysia choosing to procure the A400M. In fact, following the earlier pullout of South Africa from the A400M programme, Malaysia represents the only sale for the freighter beyond the original European partner nations involved in the A400M programme. Kuala Lumpur will obtain its first A400M in 2015, with a further eleven aircraft to be delivered by the end of the following year. France will obtain the first production A400M with deliveries commencing in 2013. Orders will then follow to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom at a rate of up to 30 airframes per year by 2015.
Procurement of A400M freighters could represent a natural step for Indonesia. The country’s Air Force is already familiar with Airbus’s freighter products in the form of the 34 CN-235 turboprop freighters that the country operates. This year, these aircraft will be augmented by a further two C-295s; the larger cousin of the CN-235. Indonesia is not the only country receiving the C-295. Kazakhstan has ordered eight examples of the aircraft, allowing Airbus to gain an important foothold in the Central Asian military airlifter market; a market which has traditionally been strong for Ukrainian and Russian suppliers. Kazakhstan is expected to receive its first two C-295s in 2013.
Besides Airbus’s offerings one programme which is being eagerly watched is Embraer’s KC-390 turbofan tactical airlifter. The company has decided to upset the apple cart by designing a tactical freighter which uses turbofans. Traditionally such aircraft have tended to be powered by turboprops. So far, the largest order for this new aircraft is expected from Embraer’s home country of Brazil. Nevertheless, several other countries also look like attractive prospects: These include Chile, which may purchase six airframes, along with Colombia, the Czech Republic and Portugal. Deliveries of the KC-390 are expected to commence in 2015. Alongside the ‘vanilla’ version of the aircraft, Embraer has mooted a ‘stretched’ version which could see a fuselage plug being added to lengthen it. This could be achieved, the company says, without needing to modify the aircraft’s wings or its engines.
Of course no article on airlifters would be complete without a discussion of the C-130 Hercules. The aircraft is arguably the West’s most successful military freighter in terms of numbers of examples sold, its performance and the variety of variants which remain in service around the world. Lockheed Martin is thnking about how to further develop the C-130J design. One idea that has been suggested includes the C-130XJ. This would essentially be a stripped-down version of the C-130J which would have a lower level of specification than the ‘Julliet’, but without suffering any degradation to its performance. Another C-130 version, known as the C-130NG has also been mooted which could include changes to the aircraft’s fuselage and tail.
That the C-130 shows no sign of its evolution coming to an end is a strong reflection of the health of the overall military freighter aircraft market. Turboprop and turbofan cargo aircraft remain in strong demand, as do the strategic freighters on offer from Boeing and Airbus. Expect yet more developments in this fast-moving market over the coming years.