Europe has formally begun the acquisition process for a new aerial refuelling capability under the Multinational MultiRole Tanker Transport (MRTT) Fleet (MMF) project, it was announced on 21 November.
With the European Defence Agency having already harmonised requirements, a co-operation agreement was signed between the NATO Support Organisation and the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) to launch the acquisition phase of the MRTT MMF project on the same day as the announcement.
According to OCCAR, this agreement sets the framework and conditions under which it will manage the acquisition phase of the aircraft on behalf of NATO. The project will be led by the Netherlands, with Norway also participating. Both nations have established a support partnership within the NATO Support Organisation (NSPO), which will oversee the acquisition and operational sustainment of the MRTT MMF aircraft.
Although not mentioned in this announcement, Belgium and Poland are expected to join the project also. Airbus Defence and Space is likely to contest the requirement with its A330-200 MRTT platform, as is Boeing with its KC-46A Pegasus. Service providers AirTanker and Omega Air have also expressed an interest in bidding. IHS Jane's understands that a downselect is expected before the end of the year, with a contract award due before the end of 2015. Initial operating capability is scheduled for 2019.
As recent operations over Libya and Iraq have proven, aerial refuelling is the key enabler that makes the mission possible (over Libya, 25% of all the 26,500 sorties flown by coalition aircraft during the eight-month campaign were flown by tankers).
For decades, a shortfall in indigenous European aerial refuelling capability has been masked somewhat by the US Air Force, which has provided regular support to NATO on the continent with its Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers of the 100th Air Refueling Wing based at RAF Mildenhall in the UK.
However, with sequestration curtailing operations and the United States military pivoting towards Asia-Pacific, this level of support can no longer be relied on indefinitely. It is with this backdrop that the EDA is looking to establish an organic tanking capability for Europe, along the lines of the NATO Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC), based at Papa Airbase in Hungary. The SAC project sees three Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlifters for the benefit of the 10 member nations, plus Finland and Sweden.
It should be noted that, while the European aerial refuelling project is dubbed the MRTT MMF, the similarity to the A330-200 MRTT moniker is an unfortunate coincidence and does not presuppose any bias towards a particular platform or solution.