|The first FSTA plane lands in the UK|
For the first time ever, the first plane of the 14 acquired under the FSTA (future strategic tanker aircraft) banner has come to the UK, landing at Boscombe Down, in Wiltshire, where the RAF will test the plane on the ground and in the air, ensuring that it can efficiently refuel Tornado, Sentry, Typhoon and Hercules aircrafts. EADS, which builds the airplanes, has already done its own tests, successfully refueling several F18 fighter jets during trials. The tests will continue well into 2012.
With a 60m wingspan, and measuring nearly 60m from nose to tail, the new dual role air-to-air tanker and transport aircraft based around the Airbus A330 airframe will replace the long-serving VC-10 and Tristar fleet.
The new aircraft will bring a considerable capability boost, each able to carry 291 troops over 6,000 miles, and to refuel other aircraft, in flight, from a 100,000 litre reservoir - greater than that of two large petrol tankers.
Seven of the UK's aircraft will be configured with under-wing hose and drogue refuelling pods, while the rest of the fleet will be three-point tankers also equipped with a centreline fuselage refuelling unit for use with large aircraft types. The first operational plane will arrive later this year. Within 2014, the air-refuelling capability of the new plane will be completed and by 2016 the whole fleet will have been handed over to the RAF.
One of the most striking capabilities of the new tanker is the ability of a single plane to support a packet of four Typhoon fighters (for example) in a 5000 km travel, while also carrying 15.000 kg of payload. The fuel is transferred at a rate of 5000 liters for minute – 83 per second! – e 60.000 kg of fuel can be carried on a travel of 1600 km by the air tanker.
And already there’s been official speculation of using it as an ISR platform as well: "FSTA is much more than a tanker," says chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton. "It has the ability to stay airborne and provide a [communications] relay facility for much longer than our current aircraft types."
Dalton believes the fleet's potential could go much further than these traditional roles, for example by taking on some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions. "We need to do much more in the way we drive towards innovation," Dalton told the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace 2011 conference in London on 13 April. "There are few good reasons why every airframe in an operational area should not be an ISR collector, or that FSTA could not be configured as a strategic ISR platform. Off-the-shelf modular capabilities to make this happen exist and can, indeed should, be integrated into future and current platforms, affordability permitting."
France is still likely to buy hours of usage out of the RAF tanker fleet, since, to avoid cuts to its fighter jet fleets plan, the French air force has delayed an urgent, much-needed requirement for new air tankers. Negotiations have already been ongoing for some time, and despite French claims of the price being “too high”, there is no other way for the French air force to go around the problem. An agreement at some point is likely.
Abandoned appears instead the idea of giving part of the planes to civilian users when not needed by the RAF: finding a contractor would not be easy, and, at least as long as the UK will have troops deployed abroad, be it Afghanistan or somewhere else, it is unlikely that there will ever be such a thing such as “not needed” airframes of this kind. The only real regret remains not buying the Cargo variant of the A330,
which probably was a compromise too much. The capability that we could have possibly had was formidable, and i agree with ThinkDefence on this point. And also, another limit is that, as it is, the FSTA planes will have no AAR kit themselves: a tanker will not be able to take on fuel while airborne.
The FSTA will still be a great step forwards though, so let's try and think positive.
And we also finally know the type-name: the FSTA is now officially the Voyager.