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Boeing eyes up Middle East for tanker export

Posted 13 July 2018 · Add Comment

As the combat aircraft inventories of Middle East nations continue to grow, air forces are increasingly seeking to back up their front-line units with support aircraft such as tankers. As Alan Dron reports, Boeing believes that its new contender in this field will appeal to the region’s air arms.

For decades, the US Air Force (USAF) has used the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker as its main air-to-air refuelling aircraft. But, with many examples now well into their fifth decade of service, it has been realised for some time that a replacement would be required sooner rather than later.
That replacement is due to be the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus, a derivative of the long-established Boeing 767 airliner, which is today produced purely as a freighter.
The KC-46A is currently in the final phases of its flight-test programme, with six aircraft having completed more than 2,600 hours in the air.
The first production examples are scheduled to be delivered to the USAF later this year and, if all options are eventually exercised, 179 examples will go to Air Mobility Command. More than 30 airframes are in various stages of assembly.
The KC-46A will have both a centreline drogue and wing refuelling pods to service aircraft fitted with probes, such as the Boeing F-18 Hornet/Super Hornet, as well as the more usual US refuelling method of a boom for aircraft that have a built-in receptacle, such as the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Unsurprisingly, Boeing is keen to find export orders for its new product and, with that in mind, has been briefing overseas nations on the KC-46A.
The manufacturer customarily does not talk about specific countries, but says there is “strong interest from numerous countries looking to modernise their aerial refuelling capabilities”, including “multiple countries in the Middle East”.
Several nations in the Middle East and North Africa operate tanker aircraft and could potentially be interested in Boeing’s new aircraft.
Some, such as Morocco and Kuwait, fly tanker variants of the C-130 Hercules and are less likely to want, or need to upgrade to, the larger Pegasus.
The UAE has three Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) but these have been bought relatively recently.
Similarly, Qatar is in the process of buying two of the Airbus type – although Doha is known for buying military equipment from a range of suppliers so as not to have all its eggs in the same basket. Additionally, the huge planned increase in The Qatar Emiri Air Force’s combat strength – it is expanding from a single squadron of Dassault Mirage 2000-5s to a force that is planned to increase to 18 Dassault Rafales, 36 Boeing F-15QAs and 24 Eurofighter Typhoons – may well see it increasing its inventory of tankers to support them.
Elsewhere in the region, Turkey operates seven Boeing KC-135Rs, while the biggest potential prize may come in Saudi Arabia, which has a large tanker fleet of seven Boeing KE-3As (a variant of the 707), as well as six A330 MRTTs, seven KC-130Hs and two (plus three on order) of the updated KC-130Js.
Making the case for the KC-46A in the region, Boeing notes that “more and more Middle East nations are taking on an increasingly large expeditionary role, which necessitates more aerial refuelling”.
It promoted the KC-46A at the DIMDEX 2018 exhibition in Qatar in March and argues that, unlike its competitors, the aircraft has been “designed as a combat tanker from day one”. Equipment that is factory-fitted, rather than being retrofitted, includes flight-deck armour for protection against small-arms fire, a chemical and biological weapons protection system, and a threat awareness/avoidance system.
Like its European rival, the KC-46A is not limited to the tanking role. Boeing says it can be reconfigured in two hours to carry passengers, cargo or 58 medical cases (or any combination of those) while still fulfilling its tanker role.
In the cargo role, it can carry up to 18 full-size 463L pallets and has more than 7,800sqft of cargo space, while its 767 heritage means that it is based on a mature design, which should help dispatch reliability while giving what it claims are the lowest life-cycle costs of any tanker on the market today.
Boeing has won a single KC-46A export order so far; three aircraft from Japan. It will be hoping to replicate that success in the Middle East.
 

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