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The Royal British Air Force has few aerial oil tankers, and there is no easy way to add more, precisely at the moment when you need a large and flexible oil tanker fleet.
A contract that observers have described as unforeseeable and too expensive is the main reason why the British airline is suffering from a shortage of air refueling.
The Royal British Air Force, in theory, has access to 14 Airbus A330 Voyager tankers under the auspices of the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft program of the service. In practice, only a few A330s are available for short-term war tasks, Kelvin Curnow wrote for the UK Defense Journal.
AirTanker, a consortium of Cobham, EADS, Rolls-Royce, Thales UK and VT Group, operates the Voyagers on behalf of the RAF. The agreement costs the RAF 490 million dollars a year and expires in 2035.
The UK government contract with AirTanker makes the consortium the only supplier of air refueling for the British army. The RAF is not authorized to acquire oil tankers from any other source or modify existing aircraft to become oil tankers.
The consortium manages the 14 Voyagers. Five are in reserve. One of them is exclusively dedicated to supplying the Falklands. Another supports British warplanes in the Middle East. A third operational Voyager must remain in the United Kingdom to support fighters that fly on national air defense missions.
“This leaves a reserve capacity of only five Voyagers to cover all other replenishment needs,” Curnow wrote. “The fact is that the number of tankers available to the RAF on a daily basis is palpable, especially given the growing tensions between NATO and Russia, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and the escalation of Chinese hegemony in the Sea. of the South China ».
“The lack of numbers is further aggravated because Voyager are also employed in transport tasks, including one that has been modified to the VIP configuration.”
When it comes to tankers, there are some major problems that the RAF faces, Curnow explained. First, Voyager is the only version of the A330 MRTT that does not have a boom, allowing an oil tanker to refuel combat aircraft that have probe and receptacle type refueling systems.
The Royal British Air Force operates or is acquiring C-17 air transport aircraft, RC-135 intelligence aircraft, P-8 patrol aircraft and E-7 radar aircraft manufactured in the United States, all of which have receptacle systems .
The RAF has also considered the purchase of conventional F-35A takeoff fighters to complement its F-35B vertical landing. The F-35A, unlike the F-35B, also refuels in the air through a receptacle. If the RAF buys the F-35A, it will not have a way to refuel the guy in the air unless he modifies the Voyagers with a boom.
Fortunately, “the first problem can be easily solved,” Curnow wrote. “The then Deputy Commander of Operations of Air Marshal Greg Bagwell said at the FIDAE air show in Santiago, Chile, in March 2016 that the operational case to equip at least some of the Voyagers in the United Kingdom with the [boom system] Airbus] had already been accepted.
But there are other problems. Voyager flies too fast to refuel “the growing number” of helicopters from the Royal British Air Force and the Royal Navy that can refuel through the baskets and probes replenishment system, Curnow said.
But there is a trap. “The exclusivity clause prevents the RAF from using its own aircraft,” Curnow wrote. Legally, only AirTanker can operate tankers for the British armed forces. And the AirTanker only flies with the Voyagers.
“The absurdity of the RAF possessing 22 Airbus A400M Atlas aircraft that are delivered equipped with fuel lines to the attachment points for the refueling capsules under the wing and that, however, are not capable of using that capacity, puts I again highlight the shortcomings of the contract with AirTanker, “Curnow wrote.
“The AirTanker contract could be described as a train crash,” Curnow added. “The planes were hired at an exaggerated price and in their current configuration can not meet the needs of the RAF or the Royal Navy, not to mention the future requirements.”