The A330MRTT: Transforming the RAAF’s Sustainable Reach

By Robbin Laird

In an article published on January 17, 2015, I provided an update on the RAAF’s A330MRTT in a conversation with the then head of the Air Mobility Group who now is an Air Vice Marshal who is the head of the new joint capabilities group in the Australian Department of Defence.

With the RAAF self-deployment from Australia to engage in the air strikes against ISI, a visible change in capability is apparent. 

A key element in this process of change is the transformed role of the Air Mobility Group. In early January 2015, I had a chance to discuss the process of change with the commander of the Air Mobility Gorup, Air Commodore Warren McDonald (whose bio can be seen in the PDF included below).

Air Commodore Warren McDonald

Question; On April 1, 2014, your command changed its name from Airlift Group (ALG) to Air Mobility Group (AMG). 

You have gone from the Caribou/C-130 package to now a more comprehensive mobility package of C-130Js, C-27Js, C-17s and KC-30As which clearly is the material foundation for shifting the name, but how best to understand the transition?

Air Commodore McDonald: The shift was motivated in large because of the reintroduction of Air to Air Refueling (AAR) through the KC-30A and the growing maturity of this platform. 

The shift also highlights the expansion of AMG capabilities of roles within the RAAF.

Renaming the Group signaled an important change to the focus of AMG and the way ahead. The name change also aligns us with naming conventions of both the RAF and USAF Air Mobility commands.

Question: The basic change has been core lift to move personnel and equipment to extended range sustainment of the RAAF and the Australian forces, isn’t it?

Air Commodore McDonald: Correct.  AMG now has considerable capacity, sustainability, speed and reach.

The sheer capacity of our AAR assets and heavy lift platforms has fundamentally changed the landscape of Air Mobility within Air Force.

Question: The movement of the RAAF from Australia to Iraq was a major statement about the self-deployment capability of the RAAF enabled by the AMG.  Could you describe this effort?

Air Commodore McDonald: This was a defining moment for the RAAF and really the first time we self deployed an air combat package, equipment and personnel over such a long distance and in such a short period of time.

The maturing of the KC-30A was the game changer, in conjunction with our heavy lift fleet.

As you know from visiting the KC-30A squadron earlier this year, we have been very focused on assembling a combat focused capability piece by piece.

This has not been without its challenges, as the KC-30A still has a foot in both the operational space and project space.

However, both the project and operational teams are working the issues collegiately.

Operation Okra has accelerated the maturing process of the KC-30A. 

At the end of 2013, the squadron was transferred from a project focused Transition Team to Number 86 Wing – and in doing so was placed directly into the hands of the war fighter. In 2014 the Wing, in conjunction with the project office,  addressed the training and key operational issues that were preventing the full utilization of the KC-30A.

The shift in operational focus, as a result of transferring the KC-30A to the Wing, is reflected in the increase in AAR from 40% to 75%.

The deployment to the Middle East has also accelerated the certification of aircraft able to be tanked by the KC-30A.

In three months, we have dramatically increased the number of aircraft certified. 

This would not have happened without the press of events and the operational tempo associated with the deployment.

It is the tanker of choice in Iraq we are being told by coalition partners.

Question: The KC-30A has been doing hose and drogue refueling but what is the status of the boom and its coming into service with the KC-30A?

Air Commodore McDonald: In July last year boom testing was successfully completed in Spain.

We are now close to achieving a Special Flight Permit that will enable boom operation for the RAAF.

To secure an SFP, an Airworthiness Board (AWB) will be convened in late March, which will review the overall status of the KC-30A, and we are confident that a favorable outcome will result.

The boom was assessed as having flying handling qualities of 1 across almost all of the envelope, with an evaluation of 2 in a small area – 1 is the highest ranking and 10 is the lowest, so you can see we have a quality product here.

Of the two aircraft still in Spain one will return in February and the other in March.

After clearance from the AWB, both aircraft will finalize upgrades and begin flying in late April.

Some other software changes and modifications will be made over that same period.

Question: The RAAF is really the launch customer for the KC-30A, which has its advantages, and challenges for you.

Air Commodore McDonald: By being at the cutting edge with this tanker we have learnt a lot of lessons in the engineering and technical capabilities space.

Any large project has its challenges, however, the rewards are evident in the ability of Air Force to now deploy our own forces the Middle East and contribute to the global coalition.

The challenge now for AMG is to smoothly introduce the boom AAR capability, as this method of AAR will progressively rise in importance as we approach the end of the decade.

The reason for the increased importance of the boom is reflected in the shift that Air Force will make away from hose and drogue being the primary method of AAR to that of the boom.

This shift is driven primarily by the introduction of the F-35 into Air Force and as more boom refueled aircraft enter service.

Indeed, the KC-30A is an essential partner for the introduction of the F-35.

Question: In the Iraqi operation, the RAAF has deployed the Wedgetail and the KC-30A and this gives your new capabilities exposure.

And one can assume that through the combined use of the KC-30A and the Wedgetail that the KC-30A could contribute more to the battlespace than just an AAR capability in the future?

Air Commodore McDonald: That is certainly true.

And as we go forward, the excess of space, weight and power that resides in the KC-30A lends itself to the introduction of capabilities that can work effectively with combat aircraft and the Wedgetail.

In the future, the KC-30A will clearly be used as a communication node in the battlespace and thereby compliment the capabilities of the Wedgetail.

Question: Murielle Delaporte interviewed your counterpart in France, and the focus was on the coming of the A400M.

The French General made the point that the coming of the new platform allows him to re-think how to use his other assets differently and going forward how to think about modernization of the legacy assets.

Are you doing the same as the C-17 and KC-30A have come into the force?

Air Commodore McDonald: We are.

The Chief of Air Force has set the foundations for Plan Jericho, which looks at the interactivity and connectivity of key platforms in the RAAF and how best to transform Air Force to meet future operational needs.

Obviously, AMG is a key part of this effort.

We are looking not at just adding lift and tanking capabilities but are focused on how these traditional assets can connect to our forces in the battlespace and provided enhanced C2 and situational awareness for Australian and coalition warfighters.

We currently have disparate levels of communication capabilities across each platform within AMG.

To address this shortfall we are installing satellite links in 12 C-130Js by the end of 2016.

We are also working the ground station piece and are focused on having an AMG control center able to know where our aircraft are at all times in order to better support the force.

Similiarly, we are focused on shaping a more effective rapid air tasking capability across the fleet and to do so we are adding significant situational awareness capabilities across our aircraft. 

In doing so we will provide a very wide range of options for decision makers.

To your point about recrafting legacy assets as new air mobility aircraft enter service, the C-130J is a good example.

With broader lift needs now being met by the C-17s and the KC-30As we have the capacity to better tailor our training and capabilities, in the C-130J, to the needs of the Special Forces.

We will also extend this reshaping to the C-17A and the C-27J.

And as we move forward with the KC-30A, modifications for that aircraft as well a modernization program for the rest of the fleet will provide a wider range of roles that can be applied to the networked battlespace.

For us, the KC-30A is a brilliant platform for enhancing our overall capabilities.

Question: The nature of air mobility has changed dramatically over the last decade.  How do you view these changes in terms of changing the role of the AMG within the RAAF overall?

Air Commodore McDonald: By 2017, with the maturing of the KC-30A and the introduction of the C-27J, we can rethink the role of AMG.

We will have considerable flexibility and capacity with regard to airlift within Air Force, and this allows for us to create options that better integrate AMG with overall RAAF and defense operations.

Question; My visit to the Wedgetail and KC-30A squadrons highlighted that their introduction was about culture change, not simply buying a new platform. 

How do you view the culture change aspect?

Air Commodore McDonald:  The Air Force transformation under Plan Jericho is not just about networking; it is about changing the way we think about operations and integrating as a fighting force.

In that sense, cultural change is inevitable.  In that context, it is clear that the introduction of new capabilities into AMG is a key driver on that journey.

The Chief is leading a broad process of cultural change that includes training, experimentation and the development of tactics.

All of these initiatives will allow the RAAF to operate more flexibility and adapt readily to the future.

Question: How has the US reacted to the Australian KC-30A in Iraq?

Air Commodore McDonald: There was some hesitation as the US Navy looked at the KC-30A for AAR operations.

However, in the Fall of last year NAVAIR came to Australia to test the aircraft refueling the F-18.

These tests were very successful and we provided the USN with a robust level of confidence in the KC-30A as a result.

And the operation in Iraq has also removed many barriers, as you know the USN is a war fighting machine and they have quickly seen what we can do with the KC-30A.

They now know how it can contribute a core capability which the USMC and USN utilize for Pacific operations as well.

AAR in the Pacific will be further enhanced as Singapore introduces its KC-30As.

The featured photo shows an F/A-18F Super Hornet departing the main air operating base in the Middle East Region for the final time as it heads home to Australia after a successful operation with a KC-30A in the background. Credit: Australian Department of Defence.