Double Counting or Counting Double?
The Future of NATO’s Tanker Transport Fleet
By Major Chad Taylor, USA AF, JAPCC
NATO nations are in the process of a much needed modernisation of their Air Transport (AT) and Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) fleets, and in many cases, are choosing airframes that can perform both missions. For strategic applications, nations are procuring versions of the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) or a variant of the Boeing 767, while on the tactical side, the A400M is being selected to fulfil AT and AAR requirements. These new aircraft have the capacity to support AAR and multiple AT missions concurrently. The question NATO nations must ask is whether the planned inventory of these new aircraft can satisfy NATO’s full need for both AT and AAR at the same time or only fulfil the needs of only one of these missions at a time? Also, if these new aircraft are going to be used to their full potential, NATO must have doctrine and procedures in place to ensure their efficient and effective use.
Really Something New?
One might argue that Tanker Transport aircraft are nothing new. NATO has had this capability with KC / KDC-10s and Tristars for quite some time now, however, these aircraft account for only a
small part of the Alliance’s total AT and AAR fleet. Indeed, all NATO tanker aircraft have at least a limited AT capacity, but few can effectively perform both missions simultaneously with significant fuel and cargo loads. Due to critical AAR needs, the US Air Force and Royal Air Force use their KC-10 and Tristar tankers almost exclusively for AAR missions, carrying very little cargo even on ‘tow-lines’ where said cargo is to support the receivers that are in tow. Most of the time, the US Air Force tasks a C-17 to haul personnel and equipment for a ‘fighter drag’ and only uses the towing tanker to refuel the fighters. This allows the tanker to support additional AAR missions instead of positioning and repositioning to carry cargo. Also, tankers in a fighter drag are, in most cases, tied to the receivers; and if they divert, the tanker must likely divert as well. This is usually not a problem unless the tanker is also carrying personnel or dangerous goods to support the receivers; if this is the case, the divert options may be limited or more complicated. To be honest, most nations do not have the luxury of a large strategic AT fleet, leaving them no choice but to use their strategic tankers for airlifting support personnel and equipment.
Will NATO’s AT and AAR Needs be Met?
There is no question that the new Tanker Transport aircraft being produced are vastly more capable than the aircraft they are replacing, however, quality and capability do not automatically ensure AT and AAR needs will be met with a sufficient quantity of output. There are three key questions that must be answered to ensure that NATO will have sufficient AT and AAR assets to meet its stated level of ambition. First, what is the AT and AAR requirement needed to meet the level of ambition? Second, will the planned future aircraft inventories be able to meet this requirement? Finally (and most difficult to determine), given the advertised capabilities of these new AT and AAR assets, are nations planning on one aircraft to full fill both needs at the same time; and if so, will this work?
What is NATO’s AT / AAR Requirement?
The Alliance has endured rigorous coordination and discussion throughout the NATO Defence Planning Process (NDPP) to ensure sufficient capabilities and quantities of forces are available to meet its level of ambition; namely, to be able to simultaneously conduct two major joint operations and up to six smaller joint operations (one of which will be ‘air heavy’).1 The NDPP has determined the number of tankers the Alliance needs, but when exposed to serious scrutiny there is some question as to accuracy of the assessment. If one considers the ISAF mission in Afghanistan a major joint operation and takes the fact that Operation Unified Protector (OUP), an ‘air heavy’ small joint operation, greatly stretched the Alliance’s AAR assets, the question of Alliance capability to support two major joint operations concurrently (not to mention five additional small joint operations) becomes evident.
Attempting to evaluate NATO’s AT requirement is even more difficult especially since NATO has yet to quantify the need as it has with AAR. NATO doctrine has held that nations are responsible for their own deployment, sustainment and redeployment. Also, determining the amount of AT assets required is much more complex than determining AAR requirements. It is difficult to estimate the total cargo the Alliance would need to move given the number of nations involved and the diversity of their airlift requirements. Also, cargo weight is not the only limiting factor; the dimension of the cargo to be moved, especially outsized cargo, often complicates load planning. Finally, it is difficult to estimate the amount of cargo to be transported by air versus what will go by surface. By definition, AAR can only be performed by aircraft; whereas transport is multimodal. The balance between air and surface transport largely depends on how quickly the cargo must be delivered.
There is one sensitive subject that has yet to be mentioned when it comes to determining the amount of assets that each nation should provide: should any nation in the Alliance be expected to provide a majority of any given capability? The US currently provides the majority of NATO’s AAR and AT (especially outsized) capability. A number of NATO nations have stated a desire for a more balanced approach, but will this actually result in increased procurement from the rest of the Alliance? A study produced for the US Air Force Institute of Technology determined that if Europe procures its planned number of A400Ms, Europe will be able to transport an entire NATO Reaction Force (NRF) up to 4,000 miles in less than 30 days.2 The problem is that NATO’s level of ambition is larger than a single NRF. More analyses of NATO’s requirements and capabilities is needed.
NATO’s Future AT / AAR Capability
Fortunately, it is a little easier to calculate NATO’s future capability than it is to identify the future requirement. One just needs to know what specific AT and AAR assets the nations plan to procure and maintain for the future fleet and the capability of that fleet. On the surface, things look promising for the Alliance; the new aircraft are far more capable than the aircraft they are replacing. See table on previous page for NATO’s projected AT (strategic) and AAR fleets for the 2025 time frame.
Double Counting or Counting Double?
Even if it is possible to accurately determine NATO’s AT and AAR requirement and pinpoint the capacity of the Alliance’s future fleet, there remains the expectation that many of the new aircraft being procured will satisfy both AT and the AAR requirements. But can they? The question is not so much if, on the same mission, an individual A330 or 767 (and A400M to a lesser extent) can deliver a near full load of fuel and cargo or passengers, but if the entire fleet of new more capable aircraft can fully satisfy both requirements concurrently. For example, a nation determines it needs 10 tactical airlifters and 10 tactical tankers to meet its AT and AAR needs. Will the nation need 20 or 10 A400Ms to meet both AT and AAR requirements?
The problem is that even though the aircraft is physically able to perform both AT and AAR missions at the same time, the mission parameters or regulations may not allow these capabilities to be exercised on the same mission. Most wartime AAR missions are in support of fighter caps or strike ingress / egresses and require the tanker to fly to an orbit, remain there until empty and then return to home station. This allows little opportunity for the asset’s AT capabilities to be used. Similarly, strategic AT mission routings are seldom conveniently aligned with AAR tracks, thus making it very difficult to combine long AT legs with AAR tasks. Combining passenger missions with AAR missions is even more problematic. It is one thing to extend a cargo mission by hours or fly them into or near hostile airspace to accommodate AAR missions; it is yet another to require the same of a passenger mission.
During peace time, it will be much easier to manage the new tanker transport fleet, satisfying both AAR and AT requirements. Obviously, the term ‘peace time’ is relative; so for the sake of this discussion, we will consider peace time a period where there is one major joint operation, such as the ISAF mission, in the sustainment phase combined with an air heavy small joint operation similar to OUP or Mali. Under these circumstances, most of the AAR required supports training, fighter deployments or is needed to extend the legs of AT and surveillance / C2 missions. These types of missions are much easier to combine with AT missions, because the amount of fuel required / time on orbit is significantly less or the AT portion of the mission is supporting towed receivers. Similarly, during relatively peaceful times, many AT missions are scheduled for training or less urgent matters. In times of peace, there is increased flexibility to add AAR tasks to the mission mix or shift transportation needs to commercial air or surface providers.
The real question is will this new flexibility and capacity to perform the AAR and AT mission simultaneously hold up if NATO is forced to exercise its full level of ambition in the ‘2 plus 6’ environment? Much of the philosophy behind using these new tanker transports to cover both AT and AAR requirements is predicated on the belief that, during peace time, these platforms will be used primarily for training and AT duties. If large scale war occurs, aircraft tasking will shift to cover the increased AAR requirement. But what happens if the nature of the conflict (distance from NATO’s territory, the need for rapid mobility and / or lack of good surface transport options) prevents assets needed for strategic airlift from shifting to the AAR mission? Also, much the Alliance’s proposed drogue AAR capability will be realised through the A400M. What happens if the situation calls for increased use of that platform for airdrop, tactical intra-theatre airlift or special operations missions and these assets have reduced availability for AAR? To mitigate this potential shortfall, it is vital that the Alliance develop procedures and efficiencies that make it easier to successfully deconflict all of these missions.
As the Alliance’s defence budgets shrink, it becomes more and more important that the military uses its resources as efficiently as possible without sacrificing effectiveness. Many of the reductions in inventory are predicated on replacement aircraft being more capable and able to perform multiple missions. But if this efficiency and flexibility is not achieved, the planned inventory of AT and AAR assets will not support effective operations at the envisioned maximum level of NATO ambition. Updated doctrine, procedures, and tactics are needed to ensure these assets are able to satisfy the AT and AAR missions simultaneously.
As an example of the desperate need for guidance, NATO does not even have an official term identifying this aircraft type. Airbus has copyrighted the term ‘Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT)’ and Boeing has adopted the term ‘Multi Mission Tanker Transport (MMTT)’. For simplicity, the JAPCC has proposed the term ‘tanker transport’. NATO has sound doctrine for AT and AAR operations (ATP-3.3.4 Volume I & II), but if the next generation of tanker transporters is to be effective, there is a need for additional doctrine (ATP-3.3.4 Volume III?) covering the simultaneous use of AT and AAR in the same mission. Nations already have some procedures and regulations that govern the combination of these two missions, but this guidance is lacking with regard to the multinational aspect of today’s coalition operations and the sheer scale of what is required of the new tanker transport platforms.
As part of a new volume to ATP-3.3.4, the JAPCC proposes the creation of a matrix detailing the possibilities and limitations applicable to simultaneous multinational AT / AAR missions. Some nations allow the combination of AAR with certain AT missions, while others either fail to address the subject or prohibit such arrangements when a second or third nation is involved. If NATO CAOC AT and AAR planners are to efficiently combine these missions, there needs to be a clear understanding of what AT missions (including passenger, aeromedical evacuation and cargo missions, to include various dangerous goods) each tanker transport nation will allow simultaneously on AAR missions where the load and / or receiver are from different nations. The ultimate goal is to harmonise and reduce the restrictions nations put on these simultaneous multinational AT / AAR missions.
If AT and AAR missions are to successfully integrate, outdated paradigms will need revised or eliminated to make room for new and creative solutions that would have previously been dismissed. Imagine an A400M taking off with an airdrop load and then refuelling the attack aircraft that are enroute to secure / cover the same Drop Zone that A400M is dropping on? Or imagine a KC-767, delivering supplies to build up a forward operating base (FOB) and evacuating critically injured from that same FOB, all while providing fuel on the way in and out to the fighter CAP protecting that FOB? If the full capability and flexibility of the new fleet of tanker transporters is needed, missions like this may soon become a reality. If these ideas come to fruition, the crews flying such missions will need appropriate training to ensure they are fully mission qualified. AT and AAR planners will also have to develop creative ways to combine different mission types together.
It is an exciting time in the NATO Air Mobility community, as shiny new airlifters and tankers enter the inventory. It is important that the glitter of the awesome capabilities these new tanker transports offer does not blind the vigilant eyes of those tasked to ensure our fleets meet the future needs of NATO’s level of ambition. This article probably poses more questions than it answers, but we must continue to question our assumptions so that they remain true and supported by valid data and continuously strive to validate our data. We must also continue to push the envelope of the possible and be prepared to develop new ways of operating, increasing efficiency without loss of effectiveness. Much more work is required to ensure our future NATO Air Mobility forces continue the excellent support they have provided to the Alliance in the past.