The UK Royal Air Force will receive its first of 14 Airbus A330-200-based Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft in 2011, following the 27 March signature of a £13 billion ($25.8 billion) private finance initiative deal with the EADS UK-led AirTanker consortium, which recently secured the initial £2.5 billion in financing required to launch the programme.

To fully replace the RAF's Lockheed TriStars and Vickers VC10s by 2016, the passenger A330s will be ordered from Airbus in the near future by EADS’s Military Transport Aircraft Division, says AirTanker chief executive Phil Blundell. The Rolls-Royce Trent 700-powered aircraft will undergo final assembly in Toulouse, France, with air-to-air refuelling equipment to be installed on the first two examples by EADS Casa in Spain and on the remainder by Cobham in the UK.

 © AirTanker

The new aircraft will be assigned to two squadrons, with the RAF planning to have 37 crews, including seven formed by sponsored reservists.

A core fleet of seven or eight aircraft will be used to support day-to-day duties, with five planned to be available for third party usage by the commercial airline sector and the remainder to be placed on the commercial register by AirTanker. All 14 could be made available within a 30-day period to support a surge in military operations, however.

Seven of the aircraft will be equipped with under-wing hose and drogue refuelling pods, with the remainder to also have a centreline hose and drogue configuration. Full air-to-air refuelling provision will be declared in 2014. Maximum fuel load will be 111t; more than 30% greater than the VC10 K3's 80t maximum.

The A330s will also be capable of carrying up to 295 passengers to operational theatres such as Afghanistan. "Our VC10 and TriStar aircraft are working really hard at the moment, but we just cannot meet the dispatch reliability of a modern aircraft," notes Air Marshal Iain McNicoll, deputy commander-in-chief operations for the RAF's Air Command organisation. "This fleet of aircraft is going to place challenges in operating it to its full capability, given its dispatch reliability," he adds.

AirTanker will support operations of the FSTA fleet for 23 years after first aircraft delivery, with VT Group expecting its service provision work to total more than £1 billion. R-R says engine production and support will generate over £700 million, while Cobham will get £150 million to provide, install and support AAR equipment. Thales will supply avionics, defensive aids and mission-planning equipment, plus a full-mission simulator and other training devices. Construction of a two-bay hangar to support the FSTA fleet will commence at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire during May.

Describing the PFI contract as "robust, imaginative and innovative", but also "very complex", Blundell notes that AirTanker and the UK Ministry of Defence secured the money required to launch the programme from June 2007, despite facing "turmoil" in the global economy. The MoD - which took four years to reach a contract after eliminating a rival bid based on secondhand Boeing 767s - will make its first programme payment on the delivery on one aircraft during 2011.

Closure of the FSTA deal means that EADS has now secured firm orders for the A330-based tanker-transport from Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the UK.

Partnered with Northrop Grumman, EADS North America also recently won the US Air Force’s KC-X contest with the KC-45, although Boeing has appealed against the decision to the US General Accountability Office, which must rule on the validity of its protest around mid-June.