Where’s a gas station when you need it? That’s exactly what’s going in the minds of a Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) KDC-10 crew as they look for the French C-135 Stratotanker that should be flying somewhere ahead of them. Seconds later, they find the French aircraft and move in closer. It’s an obvious metaphor for closing the infamous European tanker gap. The solution comes in two shapes: the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and the Airbus A400M.
Over the North Sea and to the crew of the KDC-10, that’s all distant music. As participants in the European Air Refuelling Training (EART) at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, they have just finished air-to-air refuelling (AAR) twelve F-16s that take part in action packed exercise Frisian Flag 2016. Somewhere ahead and beneath them, the French KC-135 also just finished refuelling fighter jets, as did the German Airbus A310 that’s also nearby.
That’s three air-to-air refuellers in the same patch of sky, a sight not often seen as tanker aircraft are usually hard to find in Europe. The overall goal of EART is to improve flexability, efficiency and effectiveness of the combined tanker force of all zeven nations (the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, France, Spain and Italy) that handed command over their assets over to the European Air Transport Command (EATC). From Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, EATC commands 19 tanker aircraft of various types from all seven nations. That number equals 65 percent of all AAR platforms available in Europe.
Compared to the hundreds of air refuelling aircraft available to the US, the European numbers fall far short, hence the ‘tanker gap’. However, that gap may soon be a thing of the past, given the increasing number of Airbus A400M available to France and Germany, plus Spain and Belgium in the near future. By 2025, EATC should have 80 or so A400Ms at its disposal, with roughly 40 air refuelling kits available for those aircraft. The new Airbus aircraft has been involved in AAR tests.
Moreover, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg and Poland are on course to jointly buy and operate the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). During EART, it emerged that a Memorandum of Understanding is to be signed during the NATO summit in July in Warsaw, with a contract for three or four aircraft to be signed that same month during the Farnborough Airshow.
The shared pool should grow to eight Airbus A330 MRTTs eventually. Belgium, Germany and Spain have already expressed interest in particpating in the program as well.
“EATC has been asked to harmonize A400M and A330 MRTT operations in the future”, says Colonel Jurgen van der Biezen, a RNLAF-delegate to the joint European command in Eindhoven. “What we are looking for, is an air-to-air refuelling hub that is very similar in operation to the European Heavy Airlift Wing operating from Hungary.”
Introducing the A400M and A330 MRTT as tankers increases EATC’s refuelling fleet to 69 assets, equal to 82 percent of all similar capacity in Europe. It’s a signifant increase compared to today’s situation, an increase that enables European nations to support their own – plus each other’s – operations.
It’s an idea that gets the thumbs up from all within EATC, just like the thumbs up shown by the crew of a Dutch KDC-10 tanker over the North Sea. They successfully performed some formation flying with the other two tankers in the same patch of sky. After leaving the formation, they are on their own again. But with a different feeling this time. There are others out there.
© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Video filming, editing and © Vincent Kok – Orange Avenue Filmworks
Featured image: On the look out for tankers over the North Sea. (Image © Vincent Kok)