Europe Must Do More
On 22 March 2012, the 26 European Union (EU) Defence Ministers declared Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) a critical capability shortfall in Europe. Indeed, only seven EU Member States can currently deploy tanker aircraft, spread across twelve different types, which are further handcuffed because more than 40 % of the required clearances are missing. The remaining 19 Member States rely heavily on US AAR capacity.
Times Are Changing
In the past, there was little cause for concern about the AAR compatibility assessment process, mainly due to most tanker nations, other than the US, having no requirement to refuel receiver aircraft from other nations. Also, most nations’ tankers were versions of existing US tankers and thus generally compatible with the same receivers as the US tankers. At the same time, many NATO Nations were purchasing versions of US-made fighter aircraft, like the F-16 or F-18, which were already proven to be compatible with US type tankers.
The acquisition of new Airbus tankers (A310 MRTT, A330 Voyager, A400M Atlas), and the Italian Air Force (ITAF) Boeing KC-767 (which has no existing USAF version) have made the compatibility assessment process for the European nations much more complicated than before. European nations are now leading the way fielding completely new tanker platforms.
Europe’s Way Forward
The European Defence Ministers stated their willingness to support further development of European AAR capabilities through the European Defence Agency (EDA) and agreed further capabilities should be developed in Europe as a matter of priority. This political willingness to address the AAR shortfall brought the EDA and its Member States to establish four major AAR Pillars to address the problem: Pillar 1, short term gap filling with potential commercial opportunities (in dormant status); Pillar 2, optimization of existing assets and organizations; Pillar 3, the pooled procurement and sharing of A400M AAR kits (in dormant status) and Pillar 4, the recapitalization of strategic tanker fleets through pooled acquisition. Pillar 2B, led by EDA, Italy and the Movement Coordination Centre Europe (MCCE), will develop a process for collective AAR clearances on existing and future AAR platforms (KC-767, Voyager, A400M, FR MRTT, etc.) to get as many AAR clearances as possible in a minimum amount of time for a maximum amount of receivers. The outcome of this project will directly address lessons identified from the Libya operations (OUP).
The Collective AAR Clearance Trial Initiative
Hence, in October 2012, a questionnaire to organize an Italian-led collective AAR clearance trial on the ITAF KC-767 (Pillar 2B), was sent to all EDA Member States, Switzerland and Norway. It received a positive response from 11 Members. The trial was organized from 4 to 12 September 2013 at Decimomannu Airbase in Italy. This project methodology was a pilot case for future collective AAR clearances trials on other new AAR platforms. The aim and objectives of this trial were:
- get the maximum amount of receivers certified on the ITAF KC-767 in a minimum amount of time;
- save time and resources (financial and human);
- identify and fine-tune a process for collective AAR clearances on other existing and future AAR platforms.
The trial concept concentrated tanker and possible receiver assets on a single airbase. All ground and flight AAR tests would be efficiently conducted to realize a reduction in time and resources while meeting all steps to certify receivers and update ATP-22.214.171.124. This EDA trial would allow for a coordinated approach for Full clearances.
However, despite the interest of eleven nations, only aircraft from France (one Mirage 2000, one Rafale) and Sweden (three Gripens) participated in the Trial. The first day of activity started with a collective briefing about airbase local procedures, AAR activity, and the operational background (by JAPCC and EDA) and finished with ground compatibility tests. The following day, flight activity officially started and went on for two weeks. The first five days of testing were dedicated to Sweden, while France flew during the second week. All flight activity was chased / videoed by an MB-339 belonging to the Italian Official Test Center (Reparto Sperimentale Volo). The result of the Trial was Full clearances for the entire AAR envelope for all three types of aircraft, with no major issues.
The crews were very satisfied to operate from one Airbase, noting the ease with which ground tests could be performed, briefings and debriefings conducted face to face for each flight and, specifically, Decimomannu AFB’s proximity to the AAR areas. Additionally, the logistics support available at Decimomannu (a large ramp provided quick servicing of the tanker and receiver aircraft through a Hydrant Refuelling System (HRS)) facilitating expeditious turn-around time.
After the Decimomannu trial, the EDA organized the 4th Project Team AAR. The EDA observed the following and attributed the very low participation to:
- No Standardized Technical Data Surveys (STDS) available (low knowledge of the entire AAR certification process: who provides authorizations, what data, etc.).
- No test plan available. Flight test plan should be developed in close cooperation with the respective flight test centres. After common agreement, the plan needs to be approved and signed by the respective authorities of the receiver nation and sent back to the Tanking Nation.
- In some cases, no Test Unit was available.
- Slow staffing process aggravated by the fact the issue was not elevated to the proper level with the proper emphasis.
- Urgent Certification vs Full Certification (some happy with ‘just in time’ clearance waivers).
- Some Nations not comfortable with multilateral agreements and prefer bilateral ones.
- Non-availability of instrumented test aircraft.
- Budget constraints.
- Operational contingencies (e.g. Syria) cancelled receiver aircraft participation (e.g. the French E-3F) at the last moment.
What Is Next?
A second trial was organized in the autumn of 2014 at Eindhoven Air Base in The Netherlands with the ITA AF offering free tanker hours as were offered in the first trial.
In the meantime, the JAPCC has strongly promoted this kind of initiative and the JAPCC Director, General Gorenc, USAF (also COM AIRCOM), invited all NATO Air Chiefs to consider participation in the next KC-767 trial and supported the organization of similar trials with different tankers in the future. The Greek Air Chief has been one of the first to answer and the Spanish Air Chief has also had direct talks with General Gorenc on future trials. However, due to lack of receivers participation (budget constraints, interest or test unit problems) the Autumn trial has been cancelled.
Finally, Eindhoven Air Base also hosted the first European AAR-focused training ever. The European Air-to-Air Refuelling Training 2014 (EART 2014) took place over Dutch skies from 28 March to 11 April 2014. The goals of the exercise were to increase the planning, training, and standardization inside of an AAR tanker cell, to increase the pilot’s skill during consolidation (tanker-to-tanker refuelling) and facilitate face-to-face debriefing between the tanker and receiver pilots, deploying tankers to one air base and receivers to another neighbouring air base (Leeuwarden / The Netherlands). Furthermore, this occasion continued the expansion of the ITAF KC-767 clearances by adding the Spanish Eurofighter using a read across clearance procedure.
The AAR Clearance Process
Currently, there are three categories of AAR clearance (Urgent, Partial and Full) depending on the urgency and scope of the AAR requirement that directly determines the type of compatibility testing required. The first one is applied when an urgent requirement for AAR authorization due to war, conflict or other operational need exists. This clearance will be withdrawn at the termination of the war, conflict or operational need. Due to the limited timescale, there will be no opportunity for either / both ground and flight testing which may restrict the subsequently agreed / cleared refuelling envelope. It is essential that there is an open, and rapid, exchange of information (Academic Compatibility Certification) between all agencies. A successful outcome for an Urgent clearance (Cat. 1) will be enabled by:
- the maximum use of technical information and full access to accurate data from all manufacturers;
- a fully completed Standardized Technical Data Survey (STDS), if available;
- mutual acceptance that neither ground / flight testing nor instrumentation will be required.
It is important to state again that urgent clearances, limited to a specific operation, have been issued in the past on a case-by-case basis. Some examples of Urgent clearances are clearance between the ITAF KC-767 vs the ITAF Tornado and Eurofighter just before OUP, or the ITAF KC-767 vs the RAF Typhoon to support their deployment to the Malaysian Air Show.
A Partial clearance (Cat. 2) is a critical requirement for AAR as indicated in an Urgent clearance, but with opportunity for supplemental testing to minimize the restrictions to the cleared refuelling envelope. This clearance is similar to an Urgent clearance in that it is still expected to be achieved within a limited timescale. However, some ground and flight-testing will be achieved to limit the restrictions to the cleared AAR envelope.
A Full clearance is in response to a permanent requirement for an AAR clearance as defined by the requester. It is the result of the complete Compatibility Certification process and requires all requisite ground and flight testing. Restrictions to the AAR envelope only occur when available time for flight test is limited. This clearance is enduring however liable to review if there are national requirements (e.g. US quinquennial review) or changes to equipment and / or procedures. A Full clearance (Cat. 3) will require:
- a specific analysis of fatigue and stress;
- use of technical data and full access to accurate data from all equipment manufacturers;
- coordination between technical, operational and identified test agencies in addition to aircraft hardware manufacturers;
- a fully completed Standardized Technical Data Survey (STDS), where available;
- complete ground and flight tests with instrumentation as necessary to minimize limitations to the AAR envelope.
The AAR Working Group, the Aerial Refueling Systems Advisory Group (ARSAG) and the JAPCC are currently working on an update to ATP-126.96.36.199 that would replace the current Clearance Process Annex and replace it with a new Clearance Process Standards Related Documents (SRD) that explains the process in more detail and facilitates the use of the middle ground in the clearance process between the current Urgent and the Full clearance. There has been some stigma attached to the type names of clearances; currently, it is under debate to drop the use of ‘Urgent’, ‘Partial’ and ‘Full’ and refer only to the clearance categories (Cat. 1, 2 and 3). Greater use of Category 2 clearances bridges the gap between a temporary Category 1 clearance with little or no testing and a standing Category 3 clearance that can include extensive testing and layers of financial and legal coordination and agreements. A Category 2 clearance is proposed as the basic starting point and should be built upon to expand the AAR clearance envelope or to remove restrictions. As time and resources permit, a Category 2 clearance would step closer to meeting all the requirements of a Full Category 3 clearance.
The JAPCC AAR Study
In March 2014, the JAPCC published a study ‘Air-to-Air Refuelling Consolidation – An Update’ building upon the JAPCC’s initial assessment of NATO’s AAR capabilities with additional analysis in light of recent AAR operations over North Africa and the introduction into service of a new generation of Tanker Transport (TT) platforms. The study provides recommendations to address the clearance problem:
Air Chiefs should impress upon their Airworthiness / Release-to-Service staffs the importance of the ‘need to share’ technical data with respect to AAR clearances.
Nations should aid in the revision and implementation of the proposed Standards Related Documents (SRD) to ATP-188.8.131.52. (a Clearance Process Guide is one of these SRDs).
Also, the study supports many other AAR initiatives and recommends several other solutions. The iron is hot and AAR has the attention of key decision-makers. NATO and EU AAR working groups must work hard in the next months to apply the ideas proposed in the study. We should not always force Flag officers to take the responsibility of authorizing urgent AAR clearances at the beginning of a new crisis because we, their Staff, have not done our job in peacetime. Getting the Partial or Full AAR clearance is our job, so the war fighters are prepared in time for the next combat operation. We have become accustom to facing lesser adversaries but need to be prepared for possible worst case scenario (a Russian invasion of Ukraine for example). A capable adversary will not allow us to be as complacent as we have been in the past. Now is the moment to limit national constraints and / or industrial protections that slow down and make the AAR Clearance process difficult. The bureaucracy must work quickly to gain operational results and not hinder the progress that is needed.