An Allied “Flying Tanker Infrastructure” in the Strategic Quadrangle: The Key Role of the A330MRTT

By Robbin Laird

When I first wrote this article and when it was published on December 3, 2013, I was projecting the potential impact if Singapore and South Korea were to be A330MRTT partners and to join with Australia in providing an interactive tanking base in the sky so to speak.

It was then speculation but Singapore and South Korea have both purchased A330MRTTs and as the security and defense situation evolves in the Pacific, having a capability for allies to work together to support a mobile air base in the sky will be a crucial capability.

The article as published on December 3, 2013 follows:

The challenge of reshaping Pacific defense to deal with the various strategic challenges of the 21st century – the Arctic opening, SLOC and maritime trade conveyer belt security, North Korea and the dynamics of the second nuclear age, and the reaching out into the Pacific by the PRC – is about augmenting Pacific defense and an ability of the U.S. and its allies to operate collaboratively over the geographic expanse of the Pacific.

What we have called the strategic quadrangle in the Pacific is a central area where the U.S. and several core allies are reaching out to shape collaborative defense capabilities to ensure defense in depth.

Freedom to operate in the quadrangle is a baseline requirement for allies to shape collaborative capabilities and policies.

Effectiveness can only emerge from exercising evolving forces and shaping convergent concepts of operations.

In our book on the shaping of a 21st century strategy, we highlight Pacific operational geography as a key element for forging such a strategy.

In effect, U.S. forces operate in two different quadrants—one can be conceptualized as a strategic triangle and the other as a strategic quadrangle.

The first quadrant—the strategic triangle—involves the operation of American forces from Hawaii and the crucial island of Guam with the defense of Japan. U.S. forces based in Japan are part of a triangle of bases, which provide for forward presence and ability to project power deeper into the Pacific.

The second quadrant—the strategic quadrangle—is a key area into which such power needs to be projected. The Korean peninsula is a key part of this quadrangle, and the festering threat from North Korea reaches out significantly farther than the peninsula itself.

The continent of Australia anchors the western Pacific and provides a key ally for the United States in shaping ways to deal with various threats in the Pacific, including the PRC reach deeper into the Pacific with PRC forces. Singapore is a key element of the quadrangle and provides a key ally for the United States and others in the region.

A central pressure in the region is that each of the key allies in the region works more effectively with the United States than they do with each other.

This is why the United States is a key lynchpin in providing cross linkages and cross capabilities within the region. But it is clear that over time a thickening of these regional linkages will be essential to an effective 21st-century Pacific strategy.

The distances in these regions are immense.

For the strategic triangle, the distance from Hawaii to Japan are nearly 4,100 miles. The distance from Hawaii to Guam—the key U.S. base in the Western Pacific—is nearly 4,000 miles. And the ability of Guam to work with Japan is limited by the nearly 2,000-mile distance between them as well.

For the strategic quadrangle, the distances are equally daunting. It is nearly 4,000 miles from Japan to Australia. It is nearly 2,500 miles from Singapore to Australia and nearly 3,000 miles from Singapore to South Korea.

Clearly, air and naval forces face significant challenges in providing presence and operational effectiveness over such distances.

This is why a key element of shaping an effective U.S. strategy in the Pacific will rest on much greater ability for the allies to work together and much greater capability for U.S. forces to work effectively with those allied forces.

(From Chapter I: The Pacific Landscape of Operations).

The allies are looking to the operational quadrangle as a key area within which to project force outwards and to find ways to expand both the effectiveness and survivability of a flexible force.

Air platforms have the distinct advantage of flexibility in operations, and with an ability to operate from various land and sea bases can operate from different trajectories of operation as well.

In addition to committing resources to buying a new generation of combat aircraft, core allies see air tanking as a key infrastructural element to allow them to operate more effectively into the quadrangle. 

The United States has pioneered air tanking in the Pacific and remains the key player drawing upon its air tanker infrastructure to operate over the vast distances in the region.

The United States Marine Corps has used KC-130J tankers in innovative ways working with the Osprey to make the Osprey a longer reach asset able to operate over the chessboard of the Pacific islands, landing zones and seabases.  An Osprey tanker is being added to the mix which will only make the reach and range of various USMC and USN assets much greater.

The USAF will be adding new tankers to the mix in the decade ahead, and is looking at ways to shape tanker capabilities which might effectively refuel remotely piloted vehicles in the future.

The allies are joining in to the effort, precisely to provide greater reach and range for their air assets as well as significantly greater operational flexibility.

In the case of Australia, the RAAF already has five planes in its inventory (Note: They have since added two more).

Both South Korea and Singapore are about to enter the tanking world as well. 

The South Koreans clearly see the need to operate beyond the narrow range of the Korean peninsula, and Singapore sees its maritime interests best served by adding a new tanker capability.

But the impact will be to bring South Korean and Singaporean assets deeper out into the strategic quadrangle.

After the spirited debate about the future of combat aircraft – F-15s versus F-35s, the South Koreans have settled on shaping a role in the F-35 pacific fleet as the preferred option.

And along with this, South Korean officials see the advantage of moving the legacy and new aircraft further out in operational terms to have the kind of operational flexibility, which 21st century strategic challenges provide.

As one source put it:

Seoul has long sought to fly aerial tankers to help extend the operational range of its fighter jets as part of efforts to respond to potential territorial disputes with neighboring countries.

“Now, our fighter fleet of F-15Ks and KF-16s are able to fly missions near the eastern most islets of Dokdo as a legacy of its imperial past, only for 30 minutes,” an Air Force officer said. “With mid-air refueling, however, the operational range and flight hours will be extended, along with an increase in strike distance.”

For Singapore, tankers are already in the fleet, but they are looking to modernize that fleet.

According to a source the Singaporeans have placed:

Aerial refueling tankers at the top of the list because the air force needs to replace its four Boeing KC-135Rs. An important requirement is that the new tankers be able to assist the air force’s Boeing F-15SGs flying between Singapore and its overseas detachment at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho…..

However, industry executives familiar with the situation say the front-runner in this competition is the Airbus Military A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT)….

Singapore Technologies Aerospace, the Singapore government-linked company that maintains many of the air force’s aircraft, is also familiar with the A330, because it does the heavy maintenance work on Singapore Airlines’ (SIA) fleet of leased A330 passenger aircraft.

This means that all of the major allies operating in the strategic quadrangle will be adding tankers or modernizing tankers in the decade ahead. 

This decade is laying down the foundation for innovation in the next.

The Japanese are buying the new Boeing tanker; Australia already has deployed the new Airbus tanker.

South Korea and Singapore have yet to decide, but a case can be made for them to add A330 tankers to those of their allies and to shape a very interesting infrastructure to operate in the strategic quadrangle.

The A330 MRTT tanker as a fleet provides the possibility for a network of flying air support systems engaged for a long time in an operational setting.

Much depends on how these assets become configured.

With the fuel carried in the wings, the large deck of the A330 can be used to host a variety of air support capabilities: routers, sensors, communication nodes, etc.

Such a configuration along with the fuel re-supply capabilities of the A330 tanker makes this a flying air operational support asset.

If the model selected is similar to the model downselected initially by the USAF, it is refuelable in flight.

With the space available in the aircraft – again because of the fact that the fuel for refueling is carried in the wings – a crew rest area can be provided.

This means that the air tankers can stay aloft for a significant period of time as the refuelers are themselves refueled.

This in turn means that the refueling aircraft as a fleet can have a strategic impact.

Once the planes are airborne and they have access to refuelers for their own operational autonomy, the fleet can tank a variety of national or coalition partners operating from dispersed or diverse airfields.

And the discretion possible airborne can allow nations to tank a variety of coalition partners, some of whom might not be favorite candidates if seen on the ground….

If Singapore and South Korea become part of the A330MRTT fleet, a new Pacific defense infrastructure would be crafted airborne so to speak. 

The Pacific allies can gain  strategic depth airborne. By having similar and shared assets and training, they can support one another’s fighters and other air assets and provide the capability for a nation’s planes to operate off of airfields  or seabases which are not their own.

This provides a significant enhancement of strategic depth of the sort required to operate collaboratively within the strategic quadrangle.

And with the U.S. facing tanker shortages because of the age of its fleet, and the slow pace of tanker modernization, Pacific allies can make a significant contribution to U.S. operations within the strategic quadrangle as well.

The featured photo shows three A330MRTTs in a formation flight. Credit: Airbus Defence and Space.

Singapore and the A330MRTT

An update on Singapore and the A330MRTT was provided in a Defense News article written by Mike Yeo and published on January 22, 2018:

Singapore will take delivery of its first Airbus Defence and Space A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport later this year, as the country’s Air Force celebrates its 50th anniversary.

According to a news release issued by Singapore’s Defence Ministry detailing events and activities that the Republic of Singapore Air Force will hold to mark the anniversary, the A330 MRTT will make its first public appearance at a parade on Sept. 1, the date the service was formed in 1968 as the Singapore Air Defence Command.

Am Air Force spokesperson told Defense News that the exact date of the aircraft’s arrival is still being finalized and more details will be announced closer to the event.

The latest photos of the aircraft — taken at Toulouse, France, in November 2017 during the testing and evaluation phase following the conversion to the tanker configuration — show it still in its tan primer and not yet painted in the Air Force’s colors.

Singapore announced its order of six A330 MRTTs in March 2014 to recapitalize its fleet of midair refueling tankers. The Air Force currently operates a fleet of four Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers, acquired and refurbished in 2000 from stored ex-U.S. Air Force airframes.

The Republic of Singapore Air Force also has about five of its 10 Lockheed Martin C-130B/H Hercules airlifters plumbed for the tanker role, although they are no longer used in this role, as the Air Force currently does not operate aircraft equipped for refueling by probe.

The first Air Force A330 MRTT will be delivered in what is known as the MRTT Enhanced configuration, featuring a package of aerodynamic improvements, structural modifications and avionics updates over the previous baseline military variant. France and South Korea will also be receiving their A330 MRTTs in this standard.

The A330 MRTTs will be used to support Singapore’s Air Force and possibly its Army training exercises overseas, the latter acting as a transport with a capacity of almost 300 passengers, or almost 75,000 pounds of cargo, in addition to the 245,000 pounds of fuel it can carry and offload.

Due to Singapore’s small size, limited training areas and tropical climate, the southeast Asian country’s armed forces regularly train overseas, with the Air Force’s Singapore-based Boeing F-15SG Eagle fighters and Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon jets regularly deploying to Australia, Thailand and India for training.

South Korea and the A330MRTT

When South Korea announced its selection of the A330MRTT in 2015, this is what’s noted in an article by Bill Carey and published on June 30, 2015 about the South Korean selection:

South Korea’s air force has selected the Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) as its future aerial refueling aircraft over Boeing’s new KC-46A tanker and a Boeing 767 tanker conversion Israel Aerospace Industries proposed.

Airbus will deliver four tankers under the $1.3 billion program.

Following a two-month bidding process, South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) announced the selection on June 30, Yonhap News Agency reported.

Airbus issued its own statement, saying the selection enables it to “establish a long-term and sustainable cooperation with the Korean industry…We look forward to executing this program in a timely and efficient way as we have done with other A330 MRTT contracts and to playing our role in the security of South Korea for many years ahead.”

The A330 MRTT has won every major tanker competition outside of the U.S. since it entered the market, Airbus claims.

South Korea is the seventh nation to order the aircraft, following France, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, UAE and the UK. The latter six nations have ordered 46 total aircraft, according to the manufacturer.

On July 1, Airbus announced that it signed a contract to provide two additional A330 MRTTs to the Royal Australian Air Force, joining five the RAAF currently operates. Airbus in Getafe, Spain, will convert two previously owned Qantas Airways A330-200 airliners to the MRTT configuration, for delivery to the RAAF in 2018.

The A330 MRTT for South Korea was chosen for its performance and was “especially favorable” in terms of price, a DAPA spokesman told Yonhap. Deliveries to South Korea are expected by 2019.

“With the combat-ready deployment of aerial refueling tankers, the operational range of the South Korean Air Force will be extended to Dokdo as well as the North Korean region of Pyongyang and Wonsan,” said the spokesman, Kim Si-cheol.

In an update published on May 26, 2017:

The first A330-200 for the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) is now under conversion. The ‘green’ airframe, c/n 1787 (ex F-WWYO), is the first of four that will be converted to Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) standard for South Korea.

The aircraft was delivered by Airbus Commercial Aircraft to the company’s Defense and Space division on May 19 in Toulouse. 

According to the company, conversion to tanker configuration in Getafe would begin ‘as soon as the ferry flight from France to Spain is performed’. The A330 carried the registration EC-331 for its ferry flight, performed the same day.

The Republic of Korea selected the A330 MRTT in June 2015 in favour of the rival Boeing KC-46 Pegasus and Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI’s) Boeing 767 MMTT.

The ‘green’ aircraft as delivered on May 19 represents the latest A330-200 version, incorporating the features of the so-called MRTT Enhanced. Compared to the basic MRTT standard, this brings additional capabilities such as Cat IIIB autoland.

Deliveries of the four aircraft to the RoKAF are expected to begin in 2019.

To date, a total of 51 A330 MRTTs have been ordered by nine nations (Australia, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom).

The Republic of Korea Air Force’s second A330 MRTT  can be seen here being towed from the hangar.

This will be the Air Force’s 2nd MRTT once delivered, having made its first flight on the 30th January 2018.