Singapore's tanker replacement
This article first appeared on the Base Leg blog on the 2nd of August, 2011
Aviationweek ran an article a few days ago about how Boeing's commitment to build 180 KC-46 tankers for the USAF might leave the field for other air forces' tanker contracts open to Airbus. It's worth a read, but what caught my eye was the following:
The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) currently operates four Boeing
KC-135R Stratotankers with 112 Sqn from Changi West Airbase. All four aircraft
were former US Air Force KC-135As pulled out from storage in the late 1990s and
upgraded to KC-135R standard with new turbofans, avionics, a glass cockpit and a
pair of Sargent-Fletcher Mk.32 (now known as the Cobham 500/700-series)
refueling pods on the wings to refuel probe-equipped aircraft in addition to the
fuselage mounted boom to refuel receptacle-equipped aircraft. The oldest of the
RSAF's KC-135s was built in 1959, with the newest built in 1963 which would make
the fleet ripe for replacement in the timeframe stated in the article.
However, what Aviationweek did not mention specifically was the number of tankers the RSAF was looking to acquire, for in addition to the KC-135s, the RSAF also operates a fleet of ten Lockheed C-130B/H Hercules transports with Paya Lebar-based 122 Sqn, most, if not all* of which are capable of mounting a pair of Cobham 48" series wing-mounted refueling pods. Furthermore, since the introduction of the KC-130s in the 1980s and the KC-135s in 1998, the RSAF's force structure has undergone a radical change. Gone from the RSAF's combat orbat are the McDonnell-Douglas A-4SU Super Skyhawks, with the locally-upgraded Northrop F-5S/T Tiger II soon to follow. In their place are 60 Lockheed-Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcons and 24 Boeing F-15SG Strike Eagles, and it is widely expected that Singapore will be a future customer for the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.
What this means is that when the F-5S/T retires, the RSAF's current (and
possibly future) combat fleet will comprise exclusively of aircraft which
utilise the boom-and-receptacle method of inflight refueling. This would render
obsolete the C-130's tanker capabilities in the RSAF (even if its transport
capabilities are very much still in demand), and with US-based RSAF F-15 and
F-16 training detachments needing (occasional?) support, along with frequent
participation in multinational and unilateral exercises overseas**, there will
almost certainly be a shortfall in the RSAF's refueling capacity, if there isn't
So where does this lead? I would speculate that the RSAF will acquire more than four new tankers, replacing the KC-135s and KC-130s at the same time. It is not expected that the KC-130s will be replaced on a 1-for-1 basis, given the costs involved and the disparity in capabilities of the possible contenders over the KC-130. With all of that in mind, I would, however, be very surprised if the RSAF's tender for new tankers, which Aviationweek expects to be issued as early as next year with selection in early 2013, would be for less than 6 aircraft, with even 8 aircraft being a possibility.
* - It is commonly mistakenly reported that only five of the RSAF's C-130s (four C-130Bs and one C-130H) can be configured as tankers.
** - Singapore-based RSAF jets deploy frequently to Australia, France, India, Indonesia and Thailand for exercises, with flights to and from the first three-named countries definitely requiring tanker support for F-15/F-16s to reach when flying from Singapore.
UPDATE: 21 Feb 2012 (link to Blog post)
Aviationweek, quoting "industry sources", is reporting that
Singapore has issued a Request For Information (RFI) for six aerial refueling
tankers to replace it's fleet of KC-135Rs and KC-130B/Hs tankers in the
Republic of Singapore Air Force's inventory, with a Request For Proposals
expected to be issued as soon as the middle of this year.
It is unclear which platform/manufacturers the RSAF has issued the RFI to, but it is almost certain to include EADS/Airbus for the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport, which made a last minute two-day appearance during the trade day component of the recently concluded Singapore airshow in the form of Royal Air Force A330 Voyager MRTT016/ZZ330 which flew down from Getafe, Spain for the show.
Click on thumbnail for high resolution image (RAAF)
Other possible contenders for the RSAF tanker contract would be Israel Aircraft Industries' Bedek Division, which has been converting Boeing 767s sourced from the commercial market into tankers for a number of nations. Boeing's 767-based KC-46A could be another contender, although industry sources feel that with the USAF's mammoth 180-aircraft order keeping the KC-46 line busy till 2018, the RSAF's requirement may come too soon for it to be a serious contender. Both companies were also promoting their tankers at the airshow, although only Airbus had a flying example present at the static display.
Should the Airbus MRTT be selected, it's configuration will be very similar to
delivered to the RAAF, with a provision for a refueling boom in the centre
refueling station, rather than a refueling basket as on the RAF Voyager due to
the RSAF's combat fleet soon to consist only of aircraft utilising the boom and
receptacle refueling method.
The number of tankers in the RFI has surprised some observers, considering that the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is set to operate 5 MRTTs. However we have already covered this issue last August and stumped for 6 aircraft being the most plausible number due to a combination of factors, not least being that the RSAF would most likely have a requirement for their next tanker to be used regularly as a transport in addition to their tanker duties, supporting frequent Singapore military training exercises abroad.