Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) is looking at options for offering nations a pooled aerial refuelling capability based on the Boeing 767-300 Multi-Mission Tanker Transport (MMTT) tanker conversion work of its Bedek division, IHS Jane's was told on 3 April.
Speaking at the company's Tel Aviv headquarters, Jack Gaber, senior vice-president marketing and business development at Bedek, said the group was looking at new ways of providing aerial refuelling capabilities to nations that might not choose to field their own dedicated tanker fleet.
"We are thinking about new models of aerial refuelling, where a customer can buy the service when it is needed. Parties can have a share of an aircraft and [aerial refuelling] services," he said. "There is a need for tankers, but many countries cannot afford it. It is very challenging to own just one or two aircraft [and sustain a viable capability]. You need to have about four or more aircraft [to offset downtime due to maintenance etc]."
New-build options such as the Airbus A330-200 MultiRole Tanker Transport (MRTT) and Boeing KC-46A Pegasus are prohibitively expensive for all but the most advanced nations to operate in the numbers necessary to sustain a viable capability, Gaber explained. "The A330 and KC-46 are very expensive and for the rich people," he said. "Why buy new-build aircraft when you can get a converted aircraft for so much cheaper? I have a hard time understanding that."
While Gaber declined to quantify the specific savings, he said a converted B767-300 MMTT would cost about a quarter of an A330-200 MRTT or KC-46A to procure. "Life-cycle costs don't justify [buying a new aircraft] either. There is a honeymoon period at the beginning of an aircraft's life, when engines can stay on wings longer before overhaul etc, but over the 20-or-so years of an aircraft's life there is no real difference," he said.
On the issue of reliability Gaber also sees little justification for buying a new aircraft over a converted one. "Some potential customers think that a 20-year-old aircraft is too old, but it is not. Of the 60 converted B767-200 and B767-300 aircraft that are now flying [including freighter conversions], reliability has been exceptional - 99% in some cases."
With more than 45 years' experience of aerial refuelling conversion work, having converted KC-97 tankers for the Israel Air Force in 1969, IAI remains the only company to offer a tanker solution based on converted pre-owned aircraft. As Gaber explained, delays in developing the Boeing 787 Dreamliner meant airlines hung on to their B767s for longer than intended. However, with the B787 now entering service in numbers, a steady stream of donor B767s is entering the market for conversion.
To date, Colombia and Brazil have signed up for IAI's B767 MMTT conversions, with one 767-200 and two 767-300 aircraft respectively. According to Gaber, while prospective customers have shown interest in the pooled tanker idea, it is still very much in its conceptual stage with no defined timelines for being rolled out.
Aerial tanking is increasingly seen as a force-enabler and critical to today's missions. The NATO-led campaign over Libya in 2011 highlighted both the importance of aerial refuelling and the lack of tankers outside of the US Air Force (USAF).
A lack of European capability caused the USAF tanker force to fly more than twice its normal annual flight hours (15,000 hours over about 2,300 sorties, compared with the normal rate of about 6,500 hours per year) during the eight-month campaign, despite the United States supposedly taking a 'back seat' during the operation. During the campaign, 25% of the 26,500 sorties undertaken were flown by tankers.