The RAAF Adds New Tanking Capability: A Key Step in Building Out Its Reach, Range and Sustainability


2014-03-14 By Robbin Laird

During my visit to Australia, I have had a chance to visit No. 33 Squadron, at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Amberley in the state of Queensland. The Squadron operates the KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT).

My mentor and guide for my day at the base was Squadron Leader Chetan Takalkar, Executive Officer of No. 33 Squadron.  I also had a chance to talk with the head of the MRTT program in the Australian Department of Defence (DoD), based in Canberra.  These talks were then supplemented by discussions with other very senior Australian DoD officials in Canberra about the way ahead, within which the tanker is viewed as a foundational element.

During my time at the squadron, RAAF officers took me through the simulators and let me try my hand at lowering the virtual boom to tank an F-16.

Two of the five planes were at RAAF Base Amberley during the visit.

Three of the five Aussie tanker aircraft are currently involved in maintenance, upgrade, testing, and residual acquisition activities in Madrid and Australia. The squadron fleet should be at full strength in 2015.

Last year, in combination with Australian C-17s, the KC-30A squadron supported several F/A-18 deployments to Guam as well as Darwin and Tindal in Australia’s Northern Territory. This activity demonstrated the ability of the RAAF to move an air wing and support it at extended range with a tanker, while also providing airlift support.

Members of the Royal Australian Air Force and U.S. Air Force Airmen work together to unload pallets from a KC-30 July 12, 2013, after the aircraft landed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, in support of Talisman Saber 2013. Talisman Saber forms part of the Australian Defense Force's extensive training program to ensure the ADF is prepared to protect and support Australia and its national interests. Talisman Saber is a bilateral exercise designed to train Australian and U.S. forces in planning and conducting combined task force operations in order to improve combat readiness and interoperability. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Allen)
Members of the Royal Australian Air Force and U.S. Air Force Airmen work together to unload pallets from a KC-30 July 12, 2013, after the aircraft landed at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, in support of Talisman Saber 2013. Talisman Saber forms part of the Australian Defense Force’s extensive training program to ensure the ADF is prepared to protect and support Australia and its national interests. Talisman Saber is a bilateral exercise designed to train Australian and U.S. forces in planning and conducting combined task force operations in order to improve combat readiness and interoperability. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathan Allen)

This year the squadron has supported movement of Aussie F/A-18s from the United States across the Pacific and back to Australia.

Both operations underscore capabilities, which are part of shaping a 21st century Air Force.

From discussions at RAAF Base Amberley and in Canberra, it is clear that the squadron is a work in progress that represents a significant boost in capability for the RAAF.  The tanker’s potential is a clear advantage as seen by senior RAAF officers.

Standing up the squadron, finishing the procurement and getting initial use of the tanker underway is a prelude for what comes next – working through the best ways to use the tanker with the RAAF, and to work out its interoperable role in the region and beyond.

While the squadron provides support to Defense, it is still very much involved in finishing the acquisition process for the tanker. The RAAF has really the world’s first operational squadron of the MRTT, and as the launch customer is working through the launch point for the foundational capabilities of the tanker.  The Royal Air Force, United Arab Emirates Air Force, and Royal Saudi Air Force operate similar tankers, but Australia is in the lead in initial use of the tanker. India, Singapore and France are currently in the process of procuring MRTTs from Airbus Defence and Space as well.

And as they do so, the RAAF is flying the tanker and taking it through its paces and preparing for the next phase of expanding its interoperability as the boom system comes on line later this year.

Shaping interoperability with a clear role as both a national and regional asset is a strategic goal of the RAAF.  This will require sorting out common procedures with the United States Air Force and regional and global partners, but this is clearly a core effort in the works for the period ahead.

Squadron Leader Chetan Takalkar, Executive Officer of the No. 33 Squadron, has been working with the tanker since 2005.  He has spent 5 years living in Madrid and working with Airbus Military (which changed its name to Airbus Defence and Space in early 2014) to get the launch product ready for entry into the RAAF.

During my interview with Takalkar, he outlined the challenges associated with moving the squadron towards operating a fully mature, sophisticated and highly capable air-to-air refueling asset.

The focuses for the RAAF MRTT capability are on finalizing the delivery of the boom system, leading to final acceptance and maturing the in-service support and training system.

An Operational Test and Evaluation program will be used to explore the full potential of the MRTT capability, including additional receiver clearances beyond the Hornet and Super Hornets (including the E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft; C-17A; F-35A Joint Strike Fighter; P-8A Poseidon; and other KC-30As), as well as allied aircraft.

Takalkar emphasized that in the past few months, the squadron was supporting F/A-18 operations within Australia, and will soon support the attendance of the fighters at allied overseas exercises.

I am departing tomorrow to support a trans-Pacific deployment of our Hornets.  

We’ll meet our fighters just off the West Coast of America and then transit to Hawaii and thence Guam.

Then they’ll move from Guam back to Australia, all done in a matter of days For us, the KC-30 is a significant increase in capability and this deployment is an excellent demonstration of RAAF airpower.

It also needs to be remembered that the last Aussie tanker, a fleet of Boeing 707s, retired in mid-2008, and that in the interim the RAAF has leased tankers from other provider or utilized available capacity from United States Air Force.

The RAAF’s Boeing 707s were equipped only for hose-and-drogue refueling, meaning the RAAF is about to embark on boom tanking for the first time.

The gap in air-to-air refueling capability has meant that No. 33 Squadron has had to train Air Refueling Officers or “tankers” to learn their profession. The Air Force has also had to shape a Concept of Operations to operate with air assets within and external to the RAAF, such as the USAF, who are world leaders in air-to-air refueling.

With the boom coming online, the RAAF will be in a position to support both Universal Aerial Refueling Receptacle Slipway Installation (UARRSI) fitted aircraft and probe and drogue capable aircraft.

Delivery of this capability will provide a significant force multiplier for key Defense weapon platforms including the E-7, C-17A and the recently announced P8-A and the likely replacement for the FA-18A/B, the F-35.

The boom will dramatically expand the RAAF’s ability to work with allied air forces. Additionally, working with regional partners like the Republic of Singapore Air Force, which is acquiring the same aircraft, will be an important part for the future of the MRTT/KC-30A capability.

Takalkar was enthusiastic about the coming roles with allies, and the ability to shape a fleet concept of operations with allies as well.

Steps are already underway.  Takalkar and squadron executives discussed the work in progress with the US Navy to certify the Aussie tanker to tank US Navy F/A-18s.  There is no reason not to do the same with other United States military receivers, especially in light of growing Australian-US defense cooperation that could see increased numbers of American units training in Australia.

CAE is the provider of the simulator and training for RAAF KC-30A pilots and air refueling operators. Discussions with the CAE team prior to entering the two simulators highlighted the fact that the MRTT’s evolution had been reflected within the simulator through numerous software upgrades.

The RAAF pilots and tankers underscored that the simulator worked very well as a training tool, and indeed Takalkar commented during the discussions with CAE that the 90-day training period prepared the team well, and they could confidently be deployed rapidly into operational experience.

Later, I had the chance to discuss the tanker with the head of the MRTT program, Air Vice-Marshal (AVM) Chris Deeble.  The tanker is viewed as a key element of shaping a 21st century RAAF, and indeed Deeble is heading soon to the RAAF’s F-35 program as its Program Manager.

 There have been problems with the boom on the tanker, but according to the head of the MRTT program in the Australian Department of Defence, the boom problem is well on the way to being resolved.

According to AVM Deeble, “We expect the boom to complete testing and undergo acceptance around third quarter of 2014.”

He indicated that the MRTT boom is a very advanced system, which provides significantly more capability than existing boom systems.  He has been working on the program for some time and commented that challenges with the boom have been both software and hardware.

“There are elements of the hardware which have posed problems aerodynamically; and the integration of the software and hardware to ensure the required operating envelope have taken some time to develop.”

We are conducting the final Developmental and Qualification Test and Evaluation, which should be complete by mid 2014. 

We are focused on providing the RAAF with a firm basis for growing the boom capability by the end of 2014.

Working collaboratively with Airbus Defence and Space through these final phases of the program will be key to delivering a world class tanker capability to the RAAF.

Clearly, the recent decision by Singapore to select the MRTT to replace its own fleet of KC-135Rs validates the position taken by the Australian Department of Defence.  Indeed, AVM Deeble indicated that supporting Singapore during their acquisition program will remain a priority for RAAF and will ensure an interoperable regional MRTT capability.

Editor’s Note: Clearly one needs to learn to walk before one can run.  What will a fleet of Aussie and Singaporean MRTTs bring to the fight?  The total will be at a minimum 11 tankers for the region and the future capability will be about the mult-national fleet, not just about the RAAF.

It is clear as well that a key “other United States military receiver” would be the Osprey which has become central to USMC-USN operations and is coming to other allies in the region. 

For a look at the Osprey tanking requirements see the following:

 Credit Photos: Second Line of Defense

  • The first photo shows one of the two tankers at the base inside its hangar.
  • The second and third photos show the other tanker outside on theTarmac after transporting some American pilots for an exercise in the area.
  • The fourth photo shows a crew rest area on the plane.  One of the benefits of a refuelable tanker is that with crew rest areas it can operate for a significant period of time in support of operations.
  • The fifth and sixth photos show the inside of the cockpit.  
  • The eighth photo shows the front of the tanker and two C-17s just in front of the tanker.  The Squadron Commander made the point that the C-17s had brought a significant change in the RAAF with the speed, range and capacity of the new lifter.  The tanker was bringing a similar change to the RAAF as well, and the two working together was going to have a significant impact as part of RAAF modernization.
  • The final photo shows the squadron symbol as seen on the hanger.  The Dragons are working to extend the reach and range of the Aussie forces in the region and worldwide.

Background: The Tanker Squadron is an integral part of the RAAF’s Air Lift Group.

According to the RAAF website:

Air Lift Group is one of the largest Force Element Groups within Air Force. Air Lift Group operates six aircraft types from three separate RAAF Bases and from Defence Establishment Fairbairn in Canberra.

It was formed in February 1987 and is responsible for providing the Australian Defence Force’s combat air mobility capability, which comprises the following roles:

  • air logistics support
  • airborne operations
  • special operations
  • VIP transport
  • air-to-air refuelling
  • search and survivor assistance
  • aeromedical evacuation
  • training

It directly controls Nos 84 and 86 Wings and the Air Mobility Control Centre from its headquarters at RAAF Base Richmond. It is also responsible for Air Movements Training and Development Unit.

Air Lift Group has been at the forefront of Defence operations, given its role of delivering personnel, cargo and equipment where it needs to go. This includes extensive service in the Middle East Area of Operations since 2001, East Timor, the Persian Gulf, Cambodia, West Africa and throughout the Pacific.

Air Lift Group has also been extensively involved with humanitarian missions, including the following:

  • Delivering urban search and rescue workers to Japan following the 2011 Tsunami / Earthquake, as well as conducting internal airlift flights in Japan and delivering remote water cannon equipment from Australia.
  • Delivering urban search and rescue workers to New Zealand following the Christchurch Earthquake, and returning Australian citizens.
  • Conducting relief flights to northern Queensland following the Cyclone Yasi, including assisting in the evacuation of almost 200 hospital patients from Cairns area to Brisbane on 1-2 February.
  • Relieving flood-affected communities in Queensland and Victoria in 2011.

Previous humanitarian tasks have included supporting Operation Pakistan Assist I and II (2005 and 2010); recovery of Australians killed in the Kokoda aircrash in Papua New Guinea in 2009; the Australian Government’s response to Cyclone Nargis in Burma in 2008; the response to Cyclone Larry in North Queensland in 2006; and the Indian Ocean Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004.

  Conducting aero-medical evacuation flights for the following:

  • Evacuations from Vietnam and Darwin after Cyclone Tracy
  • Rabaul volcanic eruption 1994
  • Bali bombings 2002 and 2005
  • Passengers of Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 36 in April 2009