NATO has taken another step towards filling its infmaous European tanker gap, with three more European countries looking to join the European program to acquire new refuelling aircraft. The program was started by the Netherlands and Luxembourg and should result in a shared fleet of up to eight additional tanker aircraft.
On Thursday 16 February, defense ministers from Belgium, Germany, and Norway signed a Declaration of Intent to join the creation of a European multinational fleet of Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft.
The Netherlands and Luxembourg launched this initiative in July 2016 and a first order was made for two MRTT aicraft, which are due to be delivered in 2020. The new agreement allows other partner countries to join the program with the provision to enlarge the fleet to up to eight aircraft. The aircraft should be stationed at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands.
Belgium is looking to move its fast jet pilot training from France to the US, according to a statement by the chief of the Belgian Air Component. Current training takes place on the Alpha Jet in France, but since that country is replacing the Alpha Jet with the Pilatus PC-21, Belgium is looking at other options.
Starting 2019, Belgian future jet pilots will head to ENJJPT (Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training) at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas for advanced training. The move is said to be a temporary measure, since requirements may change as a result of the Belgian quest to replace the current F-16 with 34 new fighter jets. In competition are the Dassault Rafale, Saab Gripen, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon and Lockheed Martin F-35.
With France exchanging the Alpha Jet for a new training platform, the days are numbered for the Alpha Jet in Belgian service too. A total of 33 jets have been in service since the late seventies.
The year 2017 will be the year that for the first time in history sees joint air defense over four European countries. Not only are Belgium and the Netherlands operating a combined Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) since 1 January 2017, starting this summer the Czech Republic and Slovakia will do the same. The latter countries today agreed on cooperation.
The joint efforts are quite remarkable in a time of increasing international tension, although the combined effort of Belgium and the Netherlands has been on the cards for quite some time already. Whereas until last year both countries each had four F-16s on constant standby, they now take turns in keeping an eye out for airliners gone astray or potential threats, thus saving costs. Being small countries, they apparently can afford slighly longer transit times for the F-16s to get close to the action.
Czechs and Slovaks
The Czechs and Slovakians also talked about joint air defense before, but mostly in light of Slovakia maybe also leasing Saab Gripen fighter jets, as does the Czech Republic. While Slovakia for now continues to operate older MiG-29 Fulcrums, both countries today still agreed to keep a watch over each other’s skies. The agreement should be officaly ratified and come into effect later this year.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what effect the cooperation between Belgium and the Netherlands has on the former’s selection of a new fighter jet to replace the F-16. The Netherlands has already opted for the F-35 Lightning II, but Belgium is still undediced. The Belgians are looking at the F-35, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Saab gripen and Dassault Rafale.
Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-16 fighter jets hardly see action over Syria despite being cleared to do so earlier this year by Dutch parliament, reports on Tuesday 3 May say. The ageing jets apparently do not have the right communication equipment for combat over the war torn country. Most missions take place over Iraq instead.
Dutch F-16s have been engaged in fighting so-called Islamic State since the fall of 2014, operating from Jordan. They previously flew solely over Iraq until allowed to operate over Syria also earlier this year. In reality, Dutch pilots mostly only see action over Iraq.
Operations over Syria require satellite communication equipment, a feature the Dutch jets do not have. They largely rely on UHF radios. The reports do not say why the jets apparently do not need satellite radios over Iraq.
The Dutch Ministry of Defense in The Hague later on Tuesday stated that its F-16 indeed lack some relay methods, but at the same time said the jets do not operate over parts over Syria because the current mandate prevents it. It’s mostly US aircraft that operate over areas that now see fighting, according to Dutch MoD.
The RNLAF is replacing its F-16s with Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs from 2019 onwards.
The apparent shortcoming begs the question how Belgian and Danish F-16s will support operations over Syria later this year. Both countries operate F-16s identical to the RNLAF, and are preparing to send jets to the area after the Dutch leave next July.
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.