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Improving Europe's air-to-air refuelling capabilities

Federico Trillo-Figueroa Martínez-Conde describes how Spain has taken the lead to build a fleet of European air tankers.

Capability shortfall: The lack of air tankers in Europe could undermine NATO's ability to respond to crises (© NATO)

In recent years, both the Alliance and the European Union have been concerned by shortfalls in essential capabilities — including air-to-air refuelling, stocks of precision-guided munitions, and strategic transport — among European countries. In response, countries are now joining forces in an innovative way to boost capabilities in these areas. And Spain is the lead nation in a consortium of nine working to create a fleet of refuelling aircraft.

Air tankers are expensive assets, but are critical to long-distance deployments in support of other aircraft. Indeed, the United States possesses more than 700 air tankers. The lack of such aircraft in Europe is a major shortfall in EU military capabilities. It could also undermine NATO's ability to respond to crises. For this reason, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Spain agreed at NATO's Prague Summit to examine ways to make good this shortfall in the short to medium term.

Both the European Union and NATO have analysed the nature of the air-to-air refuelling shortfall in an effort to identify eventual solutions. At NATO, a High Level Group chaired by the Netherlands developed the first study of the air-to-air refuelling shortfall within the framework of the NATO Defence Capabilities Initiative, the Alliance's high-level programme to increase capabilities.

A more recent effort to improve Europe's air-to-air refuelling capabilities came with the launch of the European Capabilities Action Plan (ECAP) within the framework of the European Union's European Security and Defence Policy. The ECAP set up multidisciplinary panels of experts — known as "ECAP panels" — to address the most serious capability deficiencies. This included an Air-to-Air Refuelling Panel, in which nine EU member states under Spanish and Italian stewardship have been working together with industry to explore cost-effective ways of increasing the number of air tankers in Europe.

Avoiding duplication

In the ECAP, the European Union has worked together with NATO and its agencies to avoid duplication and find synergies. In this way, NATO representatives have attended and contributed to some ECAP meetings. Similarly, when NATO defence ministers launched the Prague Capabilities Commitment, the Alliance's new capabilities initiative, they decided that this new initiative should "achieve mutual reinforcement and full transparency with related activities of the ECAP, taking account of the importance of the spirit of openness respecting the autonomy of both organisations, under modalities to be developed".

The need for mutual reinforcement is especially important in any activity involving multinational cooperation. To facilitate this, care was taken at the Prague Multinational Cooperation Conference in September 2002 to assign NATO lead functions for multinational activities to the same countries that had already assumed a similar responsibility in the EU context. For this reason, Spain has taken the lead on air-to-air refuelling.

The lack of air tankers in Europe could undermine NATO's ability to respond to crises

Although the European Union and NATO have identified common solutions to common deficiencies, they retain different approaches to the problem and continue to work within different political and strategic frameworks. NATO defence planning reflects the objectives and means for achieving them set out in the Alliance's Strategic Concept. In response to an annual Defence Planning Questionnaire, Allied governments submit to NATO their force and defence-spending plans for the coming five years, which are examined with the aim of harmonising them with the NATO Force Goals. In the process, the Alliance's Strategic Commanders — Supreme Allied Commander, Europe and Supreme Allied Commander, Atlantic — have helped identify capability requirements based on their operational needs and missions.

The European Union does not currently have a Strategic Concept in which to frame the political decision taken in Helsinki in 1999 to develop specific military capabilities. As a result, capability requirements were identified by simulating generic scenarios spanning the whole spectrum of humanitarian and rescue missions, peacekeeping and crisis management operations, the so-called Petersberg tasks, and incorporated in the Helsinki Headline Goal Catalogue. The shortfall is the difference between those requirements and the various national contributions.

The shortfall in air-to-air refuelling severely limits the European Union's operational capability and is difficult to put right in the short term. This is because normal procurement programmes take many years to generate results. Moreover, even transforming existing transport aircraft into tankers would take a long time and prove costly.

European countries have been reluctant to invest in air tankers for a variety of reasons, one of which is clearly the cost. Defence budgets have come under pressure ever since the end of the Cold War and especially in the past few years as countries have sought to meet the economic criteria — including strict limits on public borrowing — imposed by the creation of a single European currency. Moreover, in the case of many smaller countries, acquiring and operating air tankers on a national level makes neither economic nor military sense.

Spanish initiative

The Spanish initiative is aimed at creating a multinationally procured and jointly operated fleet of between 10 and 15 multi-role tanker and transport aircraft. All possible procurement options — including leasing, renting, purchasing and private financing — will be considered. The modalities of contribution, cost sharing, type of aircraft, force design and operational requirements will be subject to oncoming studies. At present, however, Airbus 310, Airbus 330 and Boeing 767, seem in principle to be the most suitable aircraft.

In Prague, the nine participating countries decided to set up an appropriate management organisation to procure the means and recruit the multinational force to operate the aircraft. In this way, the fleet would have the character of a commonly operated capability. Although it would primarily exist for NATO's benefit, it would also be available to the European Union. Moreover, the capability could be used for national purposes under conditions, which are yet to be agreed. The venture also remains open to other countries that might wish to join at a later stage, and to contributions in kind.

Since the Prague Summit, the Spanish defence ministry has formed a National Task Group to take the initiative forward. The Group has since helped create a multinational team to analyse the various procurement and management options, which met for the first time in the last week of January in Madrid. Although it is still early days for this initiative and there is a long way to go, it has the political endorsement of the leaders of all the countries involved. The omens are good. If the initiative comes together as planned, it will provide the European Union, NATO, and individual nations with significant additional capability.

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