Monday, 14 June 2010

Aerial Refuelling Demand

The United Kingdom is currently replacing it's ageing aerial refuelling fleet.

The new aircraft will be operated under a Private Finance Initiative (P.F.I.) called Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (F.S.T.A.).

This entails the replacement of 15 VC10 and 9 Tristar aircraft with 14 A330 aircraft.

Of these 14 A330s,only 9 will be in Royal Air Force service,the remainder being leased out to other users but available to the Royal Air Force as required at significant additional cost.

It is expected that of the 9 aircraft routinely in Royal Air Force service,normally 5 will be in daily use.

These aircraft will cost a minimum of £455 Million a year over the contract's 27 year life,over £512 Million for each of the 24 years the new tankers will be in service or £647 Million for each of the 19 years of full operating capability.

There are significant extra costs if the Royal Air Force makes use of the spare capacity in the contract.

Details can be found in this report by the National Audit Office:

"Across the term of the contract,the Department will pay on average £390 million per annum for the baseline FSTA service,which includes the cost of related services and infrastructure.

Of this amount,AirTanker expects the cost of operating the service to be £80 million,leaving £310 million to cover financing,profit and the capital cost of the project,including aircraft and infrastructure.

In addition,the Department expects to spend a further £60 million per annum on personnel,fuel and other related costs,resulting in a total estimated spend over the life of the project of £12.3 billion."

The demand for aerial refuelling is declining.

Between 2002-03 and 2008-09, the number of hours flown by the Tristar and VC10 fleets fell by 21 per cent.

This decline will continue in future years.
There are a number of reasons for this.

The number of aircraft in British military service is declining.

New aircraft are more fuel efficient.

New aircraft have longer unrefuelled range.

Some new aircraft cannot be refuelled by Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft.

Some new aircraft cannot be refuelled in the air at all.

Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers allow aircraft to fly shorter distances.

An overview of the future aircraft fleet explains the decline in tanker demand in more detail.

In 1990 the Royal Air Force had 842 combat aircraft.

That number is likely to decline to about 210 by 2020.

Newer combat aircraft like the F35C Lightning II have more than double the unrefuelled combat radius of the Harrier G.R.9s which they are replacing.

The new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers will allow these aircraft to be based closer to their operational areas,further reducing demand for aerial refuelling.

The fleet of over 20 Nimrod M.R.2s is being replaced by just 9 Nimrod M.R.A.4s each of which has about 50% greater unrefuelled endurance.

The 3 Nimrod R.1s are being replaced with refuelling boom/receptacle equipped R.C.135 Rivet Joints which cannot be refuelled by the new probe/drogue equipped British A330 tankers.

The C17 Globemaster III can carry as much as four Hercules' over greater unrefuelled range.

These aircraft can also not be refuelled by the new British probe/drogue equipped A330 tankers.

The future A400M has greater unrefuelled range and nearly double the payload of the Hercules C.1/3 (C130K) it will replace,significantly reducing the refuelling needed for a given mission.

The new Hercules C.4/5 (C130J) has 40% greater unrefuelled range than the Hercules C.1/3 (C130K) it replaced,again significantly reducing the refuelling needed for a given mission.

The current fleet of 7 E3D Sentry A.E.W.1 and 13 Seaking A.S.a.C.7s is likely to be replaced by 10 E2D Hawkeyes.

With their very low fuel consumption,short runway requirements and carrier capability these aircraft will require little if any aerial refuelling,unlike the thirsty Sentrys.

The new Sentinel R.1 cannot be refuelled in the air at all.

Unlike the Tristars and VC10s they are replacing,the new A330 tankers cannot be refuelled in the air at all.

In 1990 there were around 1,000 aircraft in British service capable of receiving aerial refuelling from British tanker aircraft.

In 2010 there were around 430 aircraft in British service capable of receiving aerial refuelling from British tanker aircraft.

By 2020 there will be around 270 aircraft in British service capable of receiving aerial refueling from British tanker aircraft.

That equates to a 40% reduction in the number of aircraft being supported by British tanker aircraft between 2010 and 2020.

Each of these aircraft will require aerial refuelling less often than those they replaced due to more fuel efficient engines,greater unrefuelled range and endurance and also due to the shorter distances which carrier capable aircraft will need to fly.

For many of these new aircraft,the new aircraft carriers will also eliminate the need for long tanker-supported ferry flights to the Falklands,the United States or to operational areas.

Clearly there has been,and continues to be a dramatic reduction in demand for aerial refuelling for British air forces.

There is likely to be a 73% reduction in the number of aircraft receiving tanker support over the 30 years between 1990 and 2020.

It is not yet clear by how much aerial refuelling tanker demand will reduce in the 27 years between signing the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft contract in 2008 and the ending of the contract in 2035.

It is open to question whether it is wise to make a long term commitment to a high cost,high capacity inflight refuelling capability when tanker demand is declining so rapidly and unpredictably.

A smaller and more flexible aerial refuelling capability in line with reduced future demand will offer financial savings in the order of hundreds of millions of pounds per year.

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