France plans to order 12 of the Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft. (Airbus)
PARIS — The French Air Force has agreed to take two versions of the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft due to be ordered soon, with the first type to be equipped with off-the-shelf avionics and refueling system, Chief of Staff Gen. Denis Mercier said Feb. 20.
Under the defense and security white paper, France has been cleared to order 12 of the tankers built by Airbus Defense and Security to replace an aging 14-strong fleet of C-135 FR jets.
The service had asked for a cargo door, a specific refueling rig and a satcom datalink, but a lack of funds and a need for early delivery led to an order of two versions of the MRTT aircraft.
“We made a choice for budgetary reasons,” Mercier told journalists.
The planes in the first tranche will be equipped with avionics and a central boom and an underwing drogue and hose system already developed, which saves costs and speeds up delivery, he said.
Those planes should be delivered as soon as possible, he said.
Procurement chief Laurent Collet-Billon said Feb. 18 if the aircraft are delivered quickly, the development work should be cut.
Airbus DS has just submitted a new offer, a company spokeswoman said. French media have reported Airbus’ previous offer for the MRTT was more than €1 billion (US $1.4 billion) over an undisclosed budgeted figure.
Mercier said the service will take a second tranche in the next multiyear budget law.
A second MRTT version includes the cargo door and a datalink that allows the plane to receive information from the Rafale fighter, which carries many sensors, and transfer it by satellite, he said.
The first aircraft type will later be retrofitted, he said.
Inflight refueling is “an essential requirement, a permanent need for cover of the national airspace, airborne nuclear deterrent and support for foreign operations,” he said.
The service had asked for a central drogue and hose to be added to the boom system so that its version could be refueled in flight. Those features have been canceled.
Transport is a strategic capability, Mercier said. The MRTT carries much on pallets, “but we would like to see a cargo door,” he said.
Those operational needs are based on lessons learned, and were not on a Christmas wish list, he said.
Under the 2014-19 multiyear budget law, two MRTT units are to be ordered, with the others to follow.
With an expected first order for the MRTT this year, “I will break open the champagne I have kept just for that,” Mercier said.
The A400M transport, and the MRTT which will fly with it, will bring a new vision of deployment capability, Mercier said. The service would have needed three C-130s to match the flights recently conducted by the A400M to support operations in Mali, he said.
The A400M has a tactical carrying function, but has a long range which is strategic, he said.
“That is the first time for a long time we have had a plane like that,” he said. “That allows the service to view things completely differently in deployment methods.”
Mercier said he recently visited the French base at Djibouti and discussed training needs. That met with some reserve as the personnel saw the long flight needed stopovers on the way from France.
Mercier said he pointed out that the A400M would fly more than 20 tons of equipment for the training mission and return to France in a day. “That will completely change things,” he said.
By comparison, the C-160 and C-130 planes needed to be “prepositioned” in overseas bases, while the A400M allows the service to operate from France.
On the Reaper, Mercier said, “This is a new generation drone, the Harfang is still engaged and provides service, but it is an interim solution intended as a technology demonstrator.”
The Reaper flies farther, stays aloft longer, and delivers sharper pictures, he said.
“The problem with the drone is the more we have, the more we need. It’s an essential capability,” he said.
The personnel flying the Harfang in Niger also went to the US for Reaper training and have been away from their families for nine months, he said.
The Reaper’s first flight was operational, he said. ■