No air power without air-to-air-refueling. But also, no air-to-air refueling without certifications, clearances, bilateral agreements between countries and heaps of paperwork. The infamous European ‘tanker gap’ perhaps is not a matter of aircraft after all, but a matter of overcoming bureaucracy and inefficiency, it appears during the current European Air-to-Air Refueling Training (EART) at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands. If anything, participating tanker crews are determined to work together as closely as possible.
The platform at Eindhoven usually houses just two Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 tanker aircraft, but until 24 April an Airbus A310 MRTT from Germany, an Italian Air Force KC-767 plus a French Air Force KC-135R join the two Dutch aircraft. Together with their crews, all aircraft participate in EART, an initiative started by the Eindhoven-based European Air Transport Command (EATC), which commands large parts of the military air transport and tanker fleets of the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and Spain.
This exercise specifically for tanker aircraft originated from lessons learned during Operation Unified Protector over Libya in 2011, says Eric van Osch, attached to EATC and a flight engineer on the KDC-10. “During those flights all nations used the same standardized procedures, but nevertheless we noticed slight variations in planning, radio communication and other operational details. Those variations made efficient use of available tankers hard at times. This exercise here at Eindhoven is held to harmonize operations, get to know each other even better and use our joint assets more efficiently.”
The current shared feeling is that European tanker capacity is sufficient in peace times, but falling behind in major operations or during large scale conflict. Optimal use or available aircraft and purchase of new tankers should close this ‘gap’.
For two weeks, the aircraft participating in EART refuel fighter aircraft that participate in Frisian Flag 2015. Today, the Dutch KDC-10 is joined in the air by four Polish F-16Cs and four Dutch F-16AMs, while the Italian KC-767 supplies fuel to other fighters. The Italians and French are able to refuel using both the boom and probe and drogue method, while the Dutch and Germans only use the boom and drogue method respectively. The US Air National Guard F-15 Eagles currently at Leeuwarden are only allowed to refuel on the French tanker. Once more, an example of clearances, certifications and other bureaucratic headaches.
The EART tankers fly twice a day, giving away precious fuel to Frisian Flag players. Air-to-air refueling allows the fighter pilots to stay close to their target area, a necessity in current operations around the globe.
Modern air power requires air-to-air refueling and tankers are said to be in short supply in Europe. Several nations have joined forces and are looking to buy at least four A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft from Airbus, with a request for proposal expected soon. These aircraft will serve as a joint pool for the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Spain, France, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal and Norway. NATO will pay for the aircraft and they will operate from Eindhoven, with forward operating bases in Norway and Poland. Deliveries start in 2019 at the earliest. Dutch 334 squadron will likely be absorbed into the new European tanker unit.
“That means the end for the fantastic KDC-10 in our fleet”, says Van Osch, who has flown on KDC-10s since the aircraft was introduced into Dutch service twenty years ago, although both KDC-10s were actually built in the seventies and used by charter airline Martinair before. “It’s a great and fantastic, stable platform for air-to-air refueling. And of course, it has lots of character.”
Dutch Viper pilots flying next to us have ear nor eye for any of that. They are looking for gas and are happily supplied with exactly that by our KDC-10, which is orbiting the ‘Shell’ racetrack over the North Sea. Another five minutes and some friendly waving later, they disappear to continue their Frisian Flag mission.
During EART, air crews fly along on board each other’s aircraft to observe variations in procedures. These variations are discussed back at Eindhoven, where academics also take place. Ground personnel is also involved, with turnaround times for aircraft during the exercise being shorter than usual. This year’s EART follows up last year’s first successful edition, which was also held at Eindhoven. Participating crews are enthusiastic about it. According to EATC there’s a lot of potential for growth, with future exercises possibly held elsewhere also.
EART allows more efficient use of European tanker aircraft, while the number of available tankers is set to grow. The European tanker gap seems to close slowly but steadily, just like another F-16 pilot who slowly but steadily approaches our KDC-10 and gets to hear the word he wants to hear at the end: contact!
© 2015 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest