When is an airborne tanker not just a tanker? When it's a 'smart tanker', says George Muellner, senior vice-president and general manager, Air Force Systems, for Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems.

Areas on which Air Force Systems will be focusing at Asian Aerospace will include the network-enabling systems that go towards creating network-centric capabilities. "That's of growing importance to US forces and to our allies, particularly those in Europe," says Muellner, so that they can participate in future coalitions where forces have to be mustered quickly and be capable of effective interoperability.

This is where the next generation of tankers will have a role. Referring to the US Air Force's future KC-767 platforms, he says: "The tankers that the US are closing on will not just be passing fuel. They will make use of sensors. They can't have active radiating sensors because of their mission, but they will have passive sensors that will feed the network."


The presence of several tankers with passive sensors in an area of operations will greatly aid the speed of triangulating enemy emitters, particularly surface-to-air missile radars, he says. "The more sensors you have distributed around the battlefield, the more quickly you can position those emitters."

Muellner sees the KC-767s as providers of data to the US Air Force's KC-135V Rivet Joint signals and electronic intelligence aircraft, "which will be the fusion node" for the information.

The next major tanker competition in the Pacific region is under way in Australia, which hopes to finalise contracts on its Project Air 5402 in-flight refuelling contest by June. New-build Boeing 767-200s are competing with the Airbus A330-200 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) for the requirement.

The latter aircraft's success in last month's UK Royal Air Force Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft competition, defeating a bid offering ex-British Airways Boeing 767-300ERs, has opened up the Australian contest, analysts believe.

However, Muellner says the two contests are very different. The UK was looking for a refuelling service, with a private contractor providing crews, aircraft and support, "not a tanker per se.

"I think the Australians, like a lot of our other close allies, are looking for a [refuelling] boom tanker and we're the only ones who have that technology fielded and have been using it for years," he argues.

Source: Flight Daily News