A Tanker-Spyplane for the RAF?

Here's an idea that's occasionally surfaced amongst top officials in the U.S. Air Force for a few years now that appears to be gaining traction with the Royal Air Force; Using its coming fleet of 14 Airbus A330-based tankers to carry ISR gear, making them much more than just flying gas stations that can double as cargo-haulers.

RAF chief Sir Stephen Dalton tells Flight Global:

"FSTA is much more than a tanker," says chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton. "It has the ability to stay airborne and provide a [communications] relay facility for much longer than our current aircraft types."

But Dalton believes the fleet's potential could go much further than these traditional roles, for example by taking on some intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance functions.

"We need to do much more in the way we drive towards innovation," Dalton told the Royal Aeronautical Society's Aerospace 2011 conference in London on 13 April. "There are few good reasons why every airframe in an operational area should not be an ISR collector, or that FSTA could not be configured as a strategic ISR platform. Off-the-shelf modular capabilities to make this happen exist and can, indeed should, be integrated into future and current platforms, affordability permitting."

U.S. Air Force officials have played with this notion for the fleet of KC-X tankers (Boeing's 767-based KC-46). However, nothing official has come of the idea in the U.S.

And while the notion of using tankers to serve as ISR jets may be appealing, especially for an RAF that's losing its new ASTOR ground surveillance radar jets, it'll still cost plenty of money to make the tankers double as spy planes; and money is something the UK is short on, as Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia tells DT:

Let's get this straight...they've killed Nimrod and ASTOR, and they're thinking of growing ISR by inserting sensors and workstations on their tankers?  Sounds like a talking point designed to counter criticism that the RAF is gutting its ISR capabilities.  Air Chief Dalton's "affordability permitting" caveat is kind of a giveaway...right now, affordability is most definitely not permitting.  In the long run sensor and datalinks will get small and efficient enough to allow all planes to function as data relay and collection planes, but for the next decade or two the RAF's AWACS will be the only significant air ISR asset.
Oh, and don't forget the three nearly 50-year old KC-135Rs that the U.S. is converting to RC-135 Rivet Joint SIGINT planes for the RAF to use as a replacement for Nimrod R1s that are being retired. The RC-135s are expected to be delivered by 2014 and may stay in service, under the name Air Seeker, through 2045.

At the end of the day, expect the tankers to be tankers and the AWACS, RC-135s and the secret Shadow R1s (rumored to be a complement to the ASTOR) to fulfill most of the RAF's airborne ISR duties.

Still, given the close relationship between the USAF and the RAF, don't expect this idea to simply disappear. It might just surface again on this side of the Atlantic.

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