A Tanker-Spyplane for the RAF?

Here’s an idea that’s occasionally surfaced amongst top officials in the U.S. Air Force for a few years now that appears to be gaining traction with the Royal Air Force; Using its coming fleet of 14 Airbus A330-based tankers to carry ISR gear, making them much more than just flying gas stations that can double as cargo-haulers.

RAF chief Sir Stephen Dalton tells Flight Global:

“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.”

But 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.”

U.S. Air Force officials have played with this notion for the fleet of KC-X tankers (Boeing’s 767-based KC-46). However, nothing official has come of the idea in the U.S.

And while the notion of using tankers to serve as ISR jets may be appealing, especially for an RAF that’s losing its new ASTOR ground surveillance radar jets, it’ll still cost plenty of money to make the tankers double as spy planes; and money is something the UK is short on, as Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia tells DT:

Let’s get this straight…they’ve killed Nimrod and ASTOR, and they’re thinking of growing ISR by inserting sensors and workstations on their tankers?  Sounds like a talking point designed to counter criticism that the RAF is gutting its ISR capabilities.  Air Chief Dalton’s “affordability permitting” caveat is kind of a giveaway…right now, affordability is most definitely not permitting.  In the long run sensor and datalinks will get small and efficient enough to allow all planes to function as data relay and collection planes, but for the next decade or two the RAF’s AWACS will be the only significant air ISR asset.

Oh, and don’t forget the three nearly 50-year old KC-135Rs that the U.S. is converting to RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT planes for the RAF to use as a replacement for Nimrod R1s that are being retired. The RC-135s are expected to be delivered by 2014 and may stay in service, under the name Air Seeker, through 2045.

At the end of the day, expect the tankers to be tankers and the AWACS, RC-135s and the secret Shadow R1s (rumored to be a complement to the ASTOR) to fulfill most of the RAF’s airborne ISR duties.

Still, given the close relationship between the USAF and the RAF, don’t expect this idea to simply disappear. It might just surface again on this side of the Atlantic.

  • Ben

    How is it possible for a Boeing 707 airframe to last 80 or 100 years? I’m quite amazed and wonder why metal fatigue doesn’t apply (like it doesn’t seem to apply to the Stratofortresses either.)

    • *****

      preventative maintance..

      • Richard A. Bielfelt

        Try the difference between speed forces and stress on the planes plus the load that it carries. These are factors we didn’t give a lot oof thougfht to many years ago.

        I go back to the F100 days and I remember having wing cracks in the wheel well where the wing was bolted to the frame. Who ever would think that a 1inch piece of steel that is 2 feet long woould crack in the middle. I saw it happen to one of the planes I helped crew while in service. Same rules apply here. We had 450 gal drop tanks where other used the 335 gl tanks and others 275 gl tanks. Over time thay all cracked somewhere.

  • SJE

    Are there any technical hurdles combining the roles?
    For example, is there a problem with having your flying gas tank also emitting large amounts of high energy EM radiation?

    • greenshirt

      not too sure, but I don’t think that receivers emit radiation…

  • Fools

    The article mentions how the brits have no money… Hasn’t the US realized they are in the same boat yet? Head in the sand never does anyone any favors.

    Just keep spending boys, you will be right.

    • Sev

      Well when all the boats are sinking its easy to become complacent and think everything is fine. Until you finally go under that is. Enjoy your socialism. It aint gonna last long when we run out of credit. Then whatcha gonna do? Blame the corporations, republicans, Tea Party? COme at me bro!

    • STemplar

      They have money, the budget pressures faced by both are as political as financial. The UK has a far deeper social welfare entitlement system. They also heavily tax their population, and that population has come to expect those services. It makes it politically more difficult for the UK to not cut defense in favor of entitlements. There is the same sort of debate going on in the US as well.

      Personally I think there are ways to cut defense if we simply would spend less on the 5% least likely scenarios and more on the 95% going to occur scenarios. In the end I don’t think we will sacrifice any security in the US because it isn’t the $400 billion dollar stealth aricraft programs that separate the US from pretty much everyone else, it’s the boring stuff like, 700 aerial tankers, hundreds of cargo aircraft, maritime pre-positioning squadrons, forward deployed storage depots, etc. We just get caught up in buying high end systems for conflicts that are overwhelmingly unlikely to occur.

      • http://twitter.com/Earlydawn @Earlydawn

        Precisely. Beginners talk strategy, while experts talk logistics. The U.S. has the logistics market cornered.

  • ew-3

    While you can’t make a tanker into an E-3, it makes perfect sense to develop a pod that can be mounted under wing to do a lot of elint/sigint data collection. Back in the coldest days of the cold war this kind of thing was done all the time,usually with civilian aircraft. That is part of the reason KAL-007 was taken down.

  • asdf

    the problem is that they are not their aircraft, it’s a commercial venture.

  • Old_Bear

    Guys, Britain is broke, the last government made every economic mistake in the book and invented a few new ones along the way. The MOD’s procurement budget has a £40 billion black hole in it, that is we had £40 billion of equipment on order and no money to pay for them, in fact the MOD’s budget is in a permanent state of crisis, after suffering nearly 14 years of deliberate underfunding by that idiot Gordon Broon. Add in the problem of incompetent programme management and major delays of several major programme including both the Nimrod and the ASTOR, especially the Nimrod and you can see the deep trouble we are in, so we have to make do with what we can afford, beg, borrow and steal, you think you Americans have got problems, ours are ten times worse.
    With regards to the Nimrod, the idea of upgrading a 40 year old aircraft based on an late 1940’s design, was extremely stupid, a problem greatly exacerbated by the fact that the programme was ten years behind schedule, 200% over budget and the aircraft wouldn’t be ready for at least another three to four years. So the decision was taken to cancel it.

  • http://www.hcp.kk5.org Brian Black

    If you have a tanker in the air anyway, it makes sense to get the most out of that platform.
    What worries me is that a potentially worthwhile supplementary asset would end up being used to replace dedicated aircraft, and the overall capability would suffer as a result.
    There is also an issue regarding the RAF’s cargo capacity, were these aircraft to be fully configured for some kind of sigint role. There’s arguably already going to be a shortage in the RAF’s air-cargo capacity as these new aircraft replace the existing fleet.

  • NeoConVet

    Obviously the Brits are not borrowing enough from the Chi-coms…. which our (US) interest payments fund a huge part of their defense budget. We should have borrowed from London to help them finance what they need!