Peter La Franchi/MELBOURNE

Efforts to link the Royal Air Force's privately funded strategic air tanker programme with the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) requirement for an expanded in-flight refuelling capability may be bearing results, with senior Australian capability planners acknowledging the attraction of a two-nation programme.

Australian Defence Force officials, hosting a "closed door" capability planning briefing for industry held in Canberra on 7 April, say the UK offer is under serious consideration. However, Australia continues to look at the options of a dry lease, an Australian-only full service lease, the refurbishment of existing aircraft, or a new aircraft purchase.

The officials acknowledge that at least one unsolicited offer has been received from an undisclosed industry team to upgrade the RAAF's four Boeing 707 tankers. This includes hushkitting the engines to meet international noise regulations. They add that the upgrade offer has been considered, but rejected on the grounds that it fails to provide an effective expansion in capability.

The UK Ministry of Defence publicly identified Australia in February as a potential partner in the privately funded air tanker programme. The UK project aims to provide fully commercial in-flight refuelling services on demand to any point in the world.

The push to involve Australia has seen the UK Defence Export Services Organisation drawn into the campaign. Its director for Australia and Asia, Dr David Hughes, told a defence economics conference in Melbourne on 14 April that "we are both interested in future tanker aircraft. There are possible opportunities here to harmonise our requirements, our approach to procurement, and perhaps even to share assets."

The UK project is working towards the selection of a preferred contractor by 2002, with an operational service date of 2004.

The RAAF requirement, designated Project Air 5402, calls for a new solution for the project to become operational by 2004- 2006. The RAAF hopes to secure funding approvals for its requirement in the fiscal year 2001/2 Australian Defence budget.

Source: Flight International