Air Refuelling Proliferates

This is an article published in our March 2018 Issue.

In December 2017 the JASDF placed a $279 million order for a single Boeing KC-46A Pegasus AAR aircraft. The USAF will expects to operate 179 of the aircraft. (USAF)

Fighters need fuel; Airbus and Boeing are competing with their own modern solutions in a region where range is crucial.

With so many large numbers of different fighters operational in Asia Pacific, it is not surprising that the region contains a large array of air-to-air refuelling (AAR) aircraft. In the past the United States (US) has largely supported foreign allies with refuelling assets, but over the last decade countries including Australia, Japan, and more recently South Korea have opted to acquire their own AAR assets. These range from the older Lockheed Martin KC-130/KC-135s to brand new Airbus A330 MRTTs via old Russian Il-78MKIs.

Operating these aircraft is expensive, but many fighter operating governments have recognised the tactical and strategic requirements that AAR brings.

Asia Pacific Tanker Operations

Country No/Type Deliveries/On Order
Australia 6 x KC-30A 2011/12/17
India 6 x IL-78MKIs 2004
Indonesia 2 x KC-130Bs 1987
Malaysia 5 x KC-130Ts 1998
Japan 4 x KC-767J 2009/10
1 x KC-46 on order by 2021
South Korea 4 x KC-30A on order 2018/19
Pakistan 4 x Il-78MKIs 2010/11
Singapore 4 x KC-135Rs 1999/2000

Most recently, the Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) procurement of a single Boeing KC-46A Pegasus, representing a $279 million deal, was signed on 22 December, 2017 with delivery expected by 28 February, 2021. This marks the first international customer for the KC-46 and is likely to be followed by an order sometime in the future for two further aircraft, to augment the JASDF’s existing four Boeing KC-767s. Japan was also the joint first international KC-767 customer with Italy, when it ordered four of the newly developed tankers in 2003 (designated KC-767J).

The KC-767 can be modified to accommodate refueling wing pods and a centre-line hose for probe and drogue refueling, while the fuselage can also be fitted with a centre-line refueling boom for both boom and receptacle refueling missions.

A two-year delay caused by design issues meant the first aircraft never entered service with 404th Tactical Airlift Tanker Squadron/1st Tactical Airlift Group based at Komaki until 2009. They are mainly used to refuel the local JASDF F-15C/DJs as well as US jets, as part of the inter-operability agreement with the US Air Force (USAF), United States Marine Corps (USMC) and US Navy (USN). The KC-46 is likely to operate with the same unit.

“We are excited to partner with Boeing as we assist Japan in advancing its aerial refueling capabilities,” said Brigadier General Donna Shipton, program executive officer, US Air Force Tanker Directorate on 22 December, 2017 on the announcement of the Foreign Military Sale (FMS) through the USAF. “This is an important step to strengthening the US-Japan alliance and will enhance our interoperability with both nations flying KC-46s.”

First flight of the fully-provisioned KC-46 tanker took place in September 2015. By the end of 2017 six test aircraft had completed more than 2,200 flight hours and conducted refueling flights with F-16, F/A-18, AV-8B, C-17, A-10, KC-10 and KC-46 aircraft.

The KC-46A can carry 213,000lb (96,300 kg) of fuel, which is 10 percent more than the KC-135, and 65,000 lb (29,000 kg) of cargo. In addition to its tanker capabilities, the KC-46 features a main deck cargo door and strengthened cargo deck. The floor includes seat tracks and a cargo handling system, allowing for a variety of mission configurations. The airframe can be configured to carry 114 passengers and to serve as an aero-medical evacuation aircraft.

The USAF has ordered 179 KC-46s to replace its 600-strong KC-135 fleet, but the tanker has suffered from several design problems in the past. These have included wiring issues, followed by redesigns and retrofits to address a faulty integrated fueling system leading to a modified refueling boom.

Japan has always maintained a close relationship with the US and was reportedly attracted to the KC-46 because of its ability to work with the Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey, 17 of which are to be acquired for the Japanese Ground Self Defence Force (JGSDF).

Airbus did not bid with its A330 MRTT, because it viewed Japan’s request for proposals as biased towards the KC-46.

Six Airbus A330 MMTT (KC-30As) are currently operated by the RAAF, with one of them serving in the Middle East as part of the Operation Okra commitment. (RAAF)

Airbus Grasps AAR Market

Aside from Japan, Airbus has secured many international sales, with Australia, Singapore and South Korea all opting for the A330MRTT. Known by its USAF style KC-30A designation, the tanker has been a phenomenal success since the first was sold to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in 2004. The first of five originally ordered, entered service in September 2011 and remarkably, by October 2016 the fleet had flown 20,000 hours.

In 2015, the Australian Government ordered two second-hand A330-200s modernised by Airbus at its Getafe facility. The sixth was delivered in September 2016 and the seventh, with a partly VIP interior, will arrive later this year. They are operated by No. 33 Squadron at RAAF Amberley, Queensland which has played a major part in Operation Okra, Australia’s contribution to Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) against Daesh in Syria, since September 2014. There is a longer term requirement for two more KC-30As which will be expected in the late-2020s.

The KC-30A can carry more than 100 tonnes of fuel and is fitted with an Aerial Refuelling Boom System mounted on the tail of the aircraft; and a pair of all-electric refuelling pods under each wing. These systems are controlled by an air refuelling operator in the cockpit, who can view the recipients taking on fuel on 2D and 3D video screens. Working with its own military, the RAAF KC-30As refuel F/A-18A/B Hornets, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets; E/A-18G Growlers, E-7A Wedgetails; C-17A Globemaster III; and other KC-30As. While the RAAF F/A-18s flew their last combat mission for OIR on January 17, the KC-30As will remain behind along with the E-7s to continue working as part of the RAAF’s Air Task Group.

In March 2014, Singapore’s Defence Minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen confirmed that the A330MRTT was being bought for the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). He said, it would “boost air-to-air refuelling capabilities and extend the endurance of our fighters, and replace the ageing KC-135R aerial tankers bought second-hand in the 1990s”. The contract for six aircraft will see the first delivered by summer 2018.

The RSAF A330MRTT/KC-30As will be the first to incorporate a number of enhancements introduced on the basic A330 as well as upgraded military systems as part of Airbus and Airbus Defence and Space’s continuous product improvement programme. This new standard A330 MRTT features structural modifications, aerodynamic improvements giving a fuel-burn reduction of up to 1 percent, upgraded avionics computers and enhanced military systems.

The six new aircraft will replace four KC-135Rs which have been used by the RSAF since 1999, to refuel its ever-growing fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds and Boeing F-15SGs. They are regularly used for tanking fighters en-route to exercises, like Pitch Black at RAAF Pearce, Darwin. They are operated by 112 Sqn based at Changi. While 122 Sqn based at Payar Lebar still operates four hose and drogue-equipped KC-130Bs and two KC-130Hs these are now, in the wake of the F-5 and A-4 retirements, focussed towards tactical airlift.

A RSAF KC-135R has deployed three times to Al Udeid, Qatar since 2015 on three month detachments. Supporting OIR, they off-load fuel to thirsty allied fighters attacking Daesh targets in Iraq and Syria. The most recent deployment, which lasted from May to August last year, saw the tanker fly 50 missions refueling on average four to six fighters per mission. The RSAF detachment Commander told media just before heading home: “Singapore is a small country, but we recognise the importance of contributing to this global cause. I am glad that we are able to contribute meaningfully to the OIR campaign. Our partnership with the United States and coalition nations is strong and will strengthen further as we improve our interoperability and contribute to each other’s mission success.”

On 30 June, 2015, South Korea selected the A330MRTT to fulfil a new requirement for its first ever tankers. Under the four aircraft deal, worth $1.33 billion, Airbus will supply the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) with the first aircraft during the fourth quarter of 2018, with the remainder following by the end of 2019. The A330 MRTT beat off competition from the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus and an IAI offer of a Boeing 767-300ER-based Multi-Mission Tanker Transport (MMTT) conversion. The aircraft was selected on the basis of price, performance, fuel capacity and the amount of personnel and cargo it could carry, according to a South Korean Defense Acquistion Program Administration (DAPA) statement.  The fact that, unlike the KC-46A, it is already in service with a number of air forces around the world was also a factor in its favour, DAPA said. The tankers will be to the same New Standard configuration as the RSAF aircraft, and equipped with the AN/AAQ-24(V) Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) system.  Each LAIRCM system includes three Guardian laser terminal assemblies (GLTA) and six AN/AAR-54 ultra-violet missile warning system (UVMWS) sensors.

The JASDF will continue to use four Boeing KC-767J tankers while waiting for the first delivery of a new Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker expected in 2021. (Adrian Pingstone)

Regional Firsts

The first air force to operate tankers was the Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Udara, TNI–AU). Two Lockheed Martin C-130Bs acquired in 1961, were upgraded to the KC-130B configuration in the mid-80s. Political issues in East Timor, where separatists were fighting Government troops called for A-4 Skyhawks and eventually Hawk Mk 209s to fly long combat missions to the eastern edge of Indonesia.

In November 1994 and July 1995, both aircraft spent nine months with Malaysia’s AIROD based in Kuala Lumpur for their service life extension, which saw the replacement of major structural fittings, outer wing refurbishment and new avionics systems, together with upgraded Cobham Mk 32 In-Flight Refuelling pods. Unfortunately, one was lost on 30 June, 2015 when it crashed into a residential district of Medan, North Sumatra shortly after departure from Soeowndo Air Base. It claimed lives of 11 crew members plus 111 passengers and around 20 personnel on the ground. The single aircraft continues, but these days it is used for training missions which includes working with the TNI-AU’s Su-27/30 fighters.

The Indonesian Air Force has a requirement for a modern tanker to work with its fleet of F-16s, but this is currently outside the scope of its budget. Undoubtedly given the close relationship between PTDI and Airbus, the Indonesian Government is likely to opt for the A330MRTT.

The Indonesian Air Force operates a single KC-130B, which is used to train with Su-30MKMs. (TNI-AU)

Malaysia operates five C-130Ts which serve 20 Sqn based at Subang. The first two were converted by AIROD in 1997 and were operational with the RMAF the following year and still occasionally train with the local Su-30MKMs and Hawk Mk208s. Three further C-130Ts have been converted from the C-130H-MPs.

Pakistan and India

Both Pakistan and India operate the Ilyushin Il-78MKI Midas to refuel their fleets of fighters. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) acquired four of these Russian monsters with a hose and drogue system in in each wing, between late-2009 and late-2011. They are used to refuel the PAF’s huge fleet of Mirages and growing number of JF-17s. A Ukrainian team worked with PAF Base Nur Khan-based No 14 Sqn to train personnel in the early days of operations, but this has now been taken over by PAF personnel.

The Il-78s also provide the PAF with a long haul strategic airlift capability which sees them on regular visits to Europe. The PAF has a requirement for a boom-equipped tanker for it 60-strong fleet of F-16s, but the USAF is unwilling to sell or donate KC-135Rs and other options are too expensive.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) operates a fleet of six Il-78MKIs, acquired in 2004 and based with 78 Sqn at Agra Air Force Station. They work with Dassault Mirage 2000s, Sukhoi Su-30MKIs and SEPECAT Jaguars. Like the PAF, the IAF is keen to acquire a more modern tanker. It has gone several steps further than its long-time antagonist though by selecting the A330MRTT in May 2009 only to be cancelled because of the high cost. After a re-bidding process was launched in 2012, the A330MRTT was selected again in 2013. However, in June 2016, the Indian Government terminated the six-year $2 billion tender for six tankers, citing the high cost once again. Airbus has vowed to work the Indian Government in ‘finding a way to bringing the A330MRTT’s capabilities to India.’

by Alan Warnes