France currently relies on 14 C-135s for its aerial refueling needs, but these militarized relatives of the Boeing 707 are expensive to maintain, lack key technologies required for unrestricted flight, and are approaching 50 years old. Over those intervening decades, European governments have built up their own aviation industry, and the Airbus A330 MRTT has been ordered by a number of countries. In 2014, France is finally joining them, and beginning a EUR 3 billion program for 12 A330 “Phenix” aerial tanker-transports.
The French purchase will cap a series of interim moves to keep the existing fleet operational. French governments have searched for space in their multi-year military budgets to fund recapitalization, even as technical delays held up key projects…
What’s Now, and What’s Next
France’s aerial refueling fleet consists of 11 C-135FRs modernized from KC-135A equivalent status, and 3 KC-135Rs. Both fleets fly with GE/Snecma CFM56-2 turbofan engines, in place of more primitive Pratt & Whitney J57 turbojets. In addition to standard aerial refueling roles, they remain vitally important to the reach France’s nuclear deterrent, which retains a significant dependence on Mirage 2000N and Rafale F3 fighters armed with ASMP-A missiles.
In 2009, France’s DGA announced that they would be modernizing the avionics in the Armee de l’Air’s 11 C-135FR aerial tankers to the C-135FR RENO2 standard, in order to keep them compliant with ICAO regulations for operation in civilian airspace. The goal was to deliver the first modernized aircraft in 2011, finish deliveries by 2013, and begin replacing the fleet in 2015 with A400Ms and A330 MRTTs. Budget problems (A330, see below) and late projects (A400M, late by 3.5 years) have scrambled that timeline, and so France added its 3 KC-135Rs to the upgrade program.
France also has a small passenger transport fleet, made up of 3 shorter-range A310s and 2 long-range A340s. They can fly long distances more efficiently than France’s C-160 Transall and C-130H Hercules fleets, using civilian airports and other infrastructure to carry larger numbers of troops and some cargo.
Unfortunately, the sum total of all current French fleets would only meet 25% of the airlift requirements set out in France’s 2008 defense white paper, and falls well short of aerial refueling requirements. France’s aerial refueling and large/ long-distance transport fleets will be replaced in a 2-part maneuver.
At the high end, France is buying 12 A330 MRTT tanker-transports to replace 14 C-135 variants, and 5 Airbus passenger jets. They are significantly larger than the C-135s and A310s they replace, albeit slightly smaller than the 2 A340s. They will be delivered in a conventional core configuration, powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines and equipped with both Cobham’s underwing hose-and-drogue refueling units and the Airbus Refuelling Boom System (ARBS). France will be the 1st customer for an “MRTT Enhanced” option that upgrades the mission system, flight controls, IFF, and refueling boom, while providing better cruising performance.
The planes are expected to carry full defensive systems, and can be configured in a variety of layouts for carrying up to 271 passengers. MEDEVAC arrangements will include the French MORPHEE intensive care module, which can carry up to 10 patients and 88 passengers. Cargo payload can be up to 40t of containerized freight.
At the lower end, France has modernized the avionics on its 14 C-130H medium tactical transports, and bought a fleet of 27 new CN-235 light tactical transports from Airbus to offset the decrepit state of their 52-plane C-160 fleet. The ultimate solution involves around 50 A400M Atlas medium-heavy tactical transports, which finally began delivery in “austere configuration” by 2013. The A400M is covered in-depth via its own DII FOCUS article.
If the appropriate Cobham plc wing pods are added, fully equipped A400Ms will be capable of refueling both jets and helicopters, though their 4-turboprop design will make them less efficient than the A330s in the jet refueling role. They’ll also become France’s core cargo airlifters, with short take-off capability and in-air refueling ability that will let them carry 35t+ loads intra-theater distances. They won’t be as efficient as the new A330s for long-range cargo work, but their ability to carry tactical loads like vehicles, helicopters, etc. will more than make up for it.
France’s future fleet is expected to be:
* 12 Airbus A330-MRTT Phenix aerial tanker-transports
* 50 Airbus A400M Atlas tactical transports with aerial refueling capabilities
* 27 Airbus CN235 light tactical transports
Contracts & Key Events
A330 order coming at last; KC-135R upgrade contract; A330 training has already begun.
December 18/18: 3 more added France is ordering three more A330 MRTT tanker aircraft from Airbus. Awarded by the French Defence Procurement Agency (DGA), this is the third and final tranche of the multi-year contract signed in 2014. Paris needs 15 MRTTs to replace its fleet of old C-135FR and KC-135R aircraft, some of which have been in service for over 60 years. The acquisition program is priced at roughly $3.4 billion and sees for the delivery of the aircraft in France’s specific “Phenix” configuration by the end of 2023. The A330-200 MRTT is a derivative of the Airbus A330, about 60 aircraft have been ordered by 12 nations.
September 25/18: Scheduled for 2023 The French government is reaffirming that it will speed up the upcoming delivery of 12 aerial tankers to the French Air Force. The A330-200 MRTT is a derivative of the Airbus A330, and was designed from the outset to be able to function as an aerial tanker and a transport aircraft at the same time. The French Air Force wants the Phénix by 2023, two years earlier as initially envisaged. The new tankers will replace France’s fleet of ageing C-135FR and KC-135R aircraft, some of which are close to 60 years old. The acquisition is part of a number of equipment modernization measures included in the 2019-2025 military budget law.
Nov 21/14: A330. France’s DGA hammers out an agreement with Airbus to supply A330 MRTT tanker-transports, but they haven’t formally signed a contract yet. The EUR 3 billion program is expected to cover 12 A330 planes in France’s specific “Phenix” configuration, It also includes associated support and training systems, spares, ground support equipment, and an initial 5 years of in-service support from first delivery.
Purchases are expected to take place with an initial order for 1 plane before the end of 2014, a major order for 8 planes in 2015, and then 3 more that will be ordered at some future date. The 1st flight of the A330-MRTT Enhanced variant is expected in fall 2015, with flight testing beginning in earnest by July 2016. Initial delivery to the Armee de l’Air is expected to take place in 2018, followed by the 2nd A330 in 2019, and then the rest at a rate of 1-2 per year. In other words, France’s C-135s and existing Airbus transports will be completely replaced somewhere between 2024 – 2029.
France’s A330 MRTTs will use the standard basic configuration: Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines, 2 underwing Cobham hose-and-drogue pods, and the high-flow, fly-by-wire Airbus Refuelling Boom System (ARBS). French “Phenix” aircraft will also benefit from A330 Enhanced improvements that include upgraded an mission system, flight controls set, IFF, and refueling boom, while providing better cruising performance. Communications and defensive systems, and internal outfitting, are also expected to receive some customization. Once the contract is signed, France will become the A330’s 6th military customer after Australia (5), Britain (13), Saudi Arabia (6), Singapore (4), and the UAE (3); with India (6) and Qatar (2) waiting in the wings. Sources: French DGA, “Le ministre de la Défense annonce la commande de 12 avions MRTT” | Airbus DS, “France announces order for Airbus A330 MRTT air-to-air refuelling aircraft” | Defense News, “France orders 12 “Phoenix” aerial refuellers from Airbus for €3 Billion” | Le Journal de L’Aviation, “Jean-Yves Le Drian officialise les A330 MRTT Phenix”.
12 A330-MRTT Phenix
Oct 28/14: A330. The French Ministry of Defense formally approves the launch of the program to buy 12 A330-MRTTs, during a session of its investment committee. Airbus had reportedly submitted a proposal back in February 2014. Sources: Le Journal de L’Aviation, “Jean-Yves Le Drian officialise les A330 MRTT Phenix”.
Aug 21/14: KC-135R. The 1st modernized KC-135RG is delivered to Istres AB in France, by an American crew who ferried the aircraft from San Antonio.
The upgrades include avionics that meet the RENO Global Air Traffic Management standard, creating navigation standards identical to those of modernized American KC-135s. They also preserved the on-board intercom that’s unique to the French planes, fitted a high-frequency wire antenna, and re-configured the aircraft to carry standard cargo pallets. Sources: French Armee de l’Air, “Le premier KC-135 renove se pose e Istres”.
June 10/13: KC-135R. Rockwell Collins Inc. in Cedar Rapids, IA receives a $44.5 million firm-fixed-price contract to install the KC-135 Global Air Traffic Management Block 40 Upgrade into 3 French KC-135R aerial tankers.
France flies 3 KC-135Rs alongside its 11 C-135FRs, and the Block 40 upgrade is a well proven solution. The USA finished its own KC-135R fleet retrofits in 2010.
Work will be performed at Cedar Rapids, IA and is expected to be complete by Nov 10/15. The USAF Life Cycle Management Center/WKKPA at Tinker AFB, Okla., is the contracting activity (FA8105-13-C-0001).
KC-135 RG upgrade
April 7/14: Training. An AirTanker release highlights the efforts of Armee de l’Air pilot Capitaine Francois Gilbert, who is on secondment to RAF No.10 Squadron at Brize Norton:
“The French Air Force is expected to place its first order for the MRTT later this year. With the first of 12 tankers built by Airbus Defence and Space to be delivered by 2018, they will replace France’s 14-strong [refueling and transport] fleet of C135 FR jets, three A310 and two A340.
“I’m here to build an understanding of the MRTT, its capability and training required to fly it so that when I go back, the knowledge and understanding that I have gained here, can be applied to the French AAR programme”, he says.”
It also provides a solid foundation if France should need to buy FSTA flight hours before 2018, though that’s looking less likely. Sources: AirTanker, “Entente [Most] Cordiale”.
2010 – 2013
C-135R upgrades; A330 delays; Lancaster House accord with UK offers a fill-in A330 option, but France doesn’t bite.
Feb 22/12: A330. Defense Aerospace reports on a 2012 news conference involving French DGA head Lauren Collet-Billon. He leaves the door open to participation in Britain’s FSTA, but makes it clear France will have its own tankers:
“Although it may buy tanker capacity from the Royal Air Force “if the flight hour price is affordable,” France intends to buy its own fleet of A330 tankers which are required to support the French air force’s sovereign nuclear strike mission. These will be ordered in 2013.”
Due to budget difficulties and other commitments, they are not. Sources: Defense Aerospace, “France Could Loan Rafales to Royal Navy”.
Nov 18/11: A330. AIN reports that Libyan lessons learned have made new Airbus A330 MRTT aerial tankers a bigger priority for France, alongside their aging C-135FRs.
An interim contract for 5-7 A330 MRTT planes is now expected in 2013, which means that Britain’s AirTanker LLC partnership is less likely to see any French leasing contracts (q.v. Nov 2/10). Sources: AIN, “French Air Force Chief: Tankers Soon, but Anglo-French UAV Much Later”.
Nov 2/10: UK & France. The “UK-France Summit 2010 Declaration on Defence and Security Co-operation” has this to say:
“15. Air to air refuelling and passenger air transport. We are currently investigating the potential to use spare capacity that may be available in the UK’s Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) programme to meet the needs of France for air to air refuelling and military air transport, provided it is financially acceptable to both nations.”
France currently flies 14 C-135FRs for aerial refueling, and will probably need to keep these Boeing 707 relatives in service for refueling in combat zones and nuclear strike missions. Their planned replacement buy of A330 MRTT refueling and transport planes has been pushed back due to budget concerns, however, creating a need for a stopgap than can lower the C-135FR fleet’s flight hours, and fill some of the gaps. The FSTA tankers will be downgraded versions of France’s own future buy, making it an attractive option that could even result in a reduced future purchase of A330s for the Armée de L’Air.
On the British side, more hours bought by military users beyond Britain makes key modifications like defensive systems easier to justify, and easier to handle operationally because the need for civilian conversions and removal/ modification is reduced.
Oct 12/10: C-135FRs. The French Air Force recaps the C-135FR modernization, and says that the first modified C135 is expected to be delivered in early 2011. Delivery of the equipment will continue until 2013. Sources: French Armee de l’Air, “Renovation des avions ravitailleurs de l’armee de l’air”.
Jan 14/09: C-135FRs. France will replace the avionics in its 11-plane C-135FR fleet, in order to comply with ICAO requirements and fly in civil air space. Modified planes will become C-135FR RENO2.
The EUR 37 million (almost $50 million) installation contract will be handled by Air France, who is also handling a similar set of upgrades to E-3F AWACS fleet. The planes have similar base airframes, with the tankers using the militarized C-135 as their base, and the E-3Fs using the civil 707-320B. DGA release [in French] | Flight International.
C-135FR RENO2 upgrade
July 7/10: A330 delayed. French defense minister Hervé Morin tells the parliamentary defense committee that France will postpone program contracts worth EUR 5.4 billion, in an effort to slash EUR 3.5 billion from the military budget over the next 3 years. France’s plan to replace its aged C-135FR aerial tankers with 14 A330-200 MRTT aircraft by 2015 is one of the delayed programs, even though it’s critical to many of the goals in the government’s 2009 defense white paper.
The parliamentary committee reportedly asked Morin if sharing the British FSTA service might help as a stopgap. If so, it would be a partial one at best. Not only is FSTA unable to operate in even low-threat areas, a commercial service cannot be used to refuel nuclear-armed strike aircraft. That was not an issue for Britain, whose nuclear weapons are limited to submarine-launched Trident missiles. Defense News. “France To Delay Air Programs: Mirage Jets, Tankers, C2 Hit by Cuts”.
* Airbus Defence & Space – A330 MRTT: the 21st Century Benchmark.
Other A330-MRTT Customers
* DID – Saudi Arabia’s A330 MRTT Tankers.
* DID – Singapore’s Aerial Tanker Buy.