The UK could employ its Airbus A330-based Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft fleet for a variety of tasks beyond its originally intended roles, says the Royal Air Force's top officer.
"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."
Fourteen modified A330-200s are due to enter RAF use from late this year, with the type to replace its aged Lockheed TriStars and Vickers VC10s in providing in-flight refuelling and passenger transport services.
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."
The AirTanker consortium, which will deliver the FSTA service under a private finance initiative deal with the UK Ministry of Defence, has also previously hinted at wider potential uses for the 14-aircraft fleet, the last of which will enter use by mid-2016.
"There's a lot more we could do," director of flight operations James Scott told Flightglobal late last year.
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Operations with the RAF's last VC10 tankers will end by 2013
The RAF's first A330 tanker is due to be flown to the MoD's Boscombe Down test centre in Wiltshire soon to begin clearance testing for UK service. AirTanker will deliver its first operational example to Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, late this year.
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.
Meanwhile, AirTanker partner Thales UK has contracted CTC Aviation to support the instruction of pilots for the FSTA service from mid-2011.
“CTC instructors will deliver A330-200 type rating training and operational support programmes” using a full-flight simulator and part-task trainer installed at Brize Norton, the company says.
“Later in 2012 CTC will assist Thales UK to establish its own A330 type rating training organisation approval,” it adds.