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Tankers: Pygmies need not apply for RAAF requirement.

HeadsUp  Aerospace & Defence News
Published in HeadsUp, Issue 192, January 31, 2001
by Carlo Kopp
© 2001,  2005 Carlo Kopp

MELBOURNE: The Defence White Paper commits the ADF to replacing the RAAF's four elderly 707-338C tankers with five new aircraft; yet it also sets some ambitious goals for the RAAF.

Air defence ranks high in priority. The RAAF is expected to control airspace through out our maritime approaches, including the Cocos and Christmas Islands, and over forward deployed maritime and land forces (6.30, 8.39, 8.42, 8.47). 'Control' is pivotal here, since in strategy-speak it means a continuous aerial presence in the area of interest. 

Given the commitment to four to seven Wedgetails, which provides a capability of a pair of orbiting AEW&Cs in two different places at once, the RAAF's new tanker fleet must be capable of supporting the continuous fighter Combat Air Patrols working with these.

In practical terms, this amounts to having one spare tanker and two pairs for operational use. Each pair would support the fighter packages for a single AEW&C orbit. In turn this means each pair would swap orbits on station. While one tanker orbits, the other heads home to gas up or is returning to station. Is this stretching it a bit? Arguably yes, but the numbers still leave one spare to cover downtime.

Capability goals for long-range strike are also ambitious. Tanker-refuelled F-111s, supported by AEW&Cs and tanker-refuelled F/A-18 escorts or bombers, are to penetrate defended air space to attack those militarily significant targets that might be used to mount or support an attack on Australia. These are not to be pinprick raids, ie we do, however, want to have the capacity to mount sustained strike campaigns against a significant number of such targets (8.71, 8.75).

Given the recent proliferation of cruise missiles, strategic bombers and 700 NMI radius class Su-30 fighters, this amounts to an intent to project strike packages out well beyond the 900 NMI radius of the F-111 - arguably as far out as 2,500 NMI.

In practical terms this is feasible, launching from Learmonth and using Cocos, Christmas and possibly Malaysia as diversion runways for fighters. Will five new tankers do the job? For a single strike package of F-111s and F/A-18As, two outbound tankers, two inbound tankers and one airborne spare is a bare bones minimum.

The big issue - which is not explicitly stated in the WP - is how big these five tanker aircraft should be. A simple rule of thumb, recently proven again in the Serbian air campaign, is that one KC-135R medium tanker is required to support four fighters in combat; or one KC-10A heavy tanker to support eight fighters. Repeatedly modelling this problem simply confirms the USAF's experience. If you want to put up eight fighters for air defence ops, you need two medium tankers or one heavy tanker airborne.

If the RAAF is to put up 16 Hornets to support a pair of  Wedgetails at realistic CAP radii in the north-west, then with five tankers, these tankers must be heavies. If the RAAF is to project a mixed package of about 15-25 F-111s and F/A-18s beyond 1,500 NMI, then yet again the five tankers must be heavies. With anything less than 10 medium tankers, the White Paper capability goals are pie in the sky. Moreover, crewing 10 medium tankers means doubling the number of tanker pilots.

What are the choices today? If the ADF wants an aircraft with a proven boom and pod installation, then only the heavy DC-10/MD-11 is available. If the ADF were to accept only the risk of adapting the existing KC-135R/KC-10A podding package, then the heavy 747 is available with a proven boom installation.

If the ADF wants any hope of putting the aircraft into PFI use in a 747/MD-11F/DC-10 dominated market - and meeting WP expectations of a substantial air cargo capability (8.47) - then heavies are the only choice.

If the ADF doesn't care about risk, the White Paper capability goals, or PFI, then the unproven 767-300 or A330 medium tankers would be an option. With Italy expected to sign for the A330 and pay the NRE, it is likely to be ahead of the slightly smaller 767-300 series. What is the best buy in the next two years? In terms of bang for buck, probably a late build 747-300, closely followed by an early build MD-11 or 747-400. An early A330-200 will cost about the same as an older 747-400, arguably not the best buy around. In running costs the dominance of the 747/MD-11F/DC-10 in the cut-throat air freight market speaks for itself.

With the expectations of many in the ADF hierarchy centred on medium sized 767-300 or A330, the WP setting goals out of the reach of five medium tankers, and PFI bidders preferring heavies, the AIR 5402 project office faces some interesting challenges.

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