The Restoration of Canada’s Air Refuelling Capability

With his experience as Chairman of SCONDVA, the Standing Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, Minister Pratt brings the possibility of opportunities that may well transform our Government’s thinking regarding Canada’s defence capabilities. Overall, there is an optimistic atmosphere in NDHQ not much in ­evidence in recent years.

That having been said, the current state of our air mobility fleet is an area of concern. Our CC130 Hercules aircraft fleet is in considerable distress, with 23 of our 32 Hercules approaching 40 years-of-age and nearing the end of their useful lives. This fleet is absorbing an inordinate amount of resources considering its availability and effectiveness. With a clear recognition that something must be done with these 23 aircraft, a project is underway to replace the ten Hercules being employed in the search and rescue role: the Fixed-Wing Search and Rescue project. A follow-on project will address the remainder. A third project, well under way, is the air-to-air refuelling refurbishment of two of 437 Squadron’s CC150 Polaris (Airbus 310) aircraft. A bit of air refuelling history may be in order here.

When the Canadian Forces (CF) purchased five Boeing 707 aircraft in the early 1970s, one of the first modifications undertaken was to give two of them an air refuelling capability. The air-refuelling role at that time included the deployment of CF5 fighters to Europe, specifically Norway, in the event of a Soviet invasion. With the arrival of the CF18 Hornet, this role was retained, and in fact expanded with a commitment for the deployment of CF18s internationally.

With this Government policy base in-place, 437 Squadron’s Boeing 707 tankers performed dozens of international deployments, including participation in the 1991 Gulf War. Hundreds of tons of fuel were transferred during this conflict, not only to CF18s, but also to aircraft of several coalition air forces.

Two CF5 aircraft refuelling fron a Canadian air force  CC137 tanker.

With the arrival at 437 Squadron of five Airbus 310 aircraft (CC150 Polaris) in 1992, the air-refuelling task was envisaged to transfer to the Polaris. However, a technical solution was not yet available. Two Boeing 707 tankers were retained to provide this capability, a situation that soon became unaffordable.

In April 1997 the last of 437 Squadron’s Boeing 707 tankers was retired. It would be another four years before the CF would join with a German air force initiated program for the air refuelling modification of the Airbus 310. As a part of this program, each Polaris will be fitted with two air refuelling pods (one on each wing tip) containing about 80 feet of hose, at the end of which is a drogue. The CF18’s are equipped with a probe that will plug into this drogue and allow fuel to flow to the fighter’s fuel tanks. Additional fuel tanks will be installed in the belly of the Polaris, and a fuel operator’s station will be placed directly behind the cockpit from where the air refuelling systems will be controlled.

As of February 2004, the first German air force A310 tanker completes its flight-testing. The first Canadian Forces Polaris tanker is now in the modification facility in Dresden, Germany. We expect this aircraft to return to 437 Squadron this fall, with our second tanker arriving in February 2005. Once in-place, these tankers will again provide us with the air refuelling capability we have so sorely missed. But how will they be employed?

Aside from training, our Polaris tankers will have two basic roles: first, to deploy our CF18s internationally; and second, to provide in-theatre air refuelling “support to combat operations” as they did during the 1991 Gulf War. A description of these two roles is in order.

Assuming that the current Defence Review retains a requirement to deploy CF18s internationally, our Polaris tankers will be capable of escorting a package of four CF18s to Europe, and beyond, or a lesser number across the Pacific. This would be accomplished by having the tanker and its fighters depart Goose Bay (for example), form-up as a package, cross the Atlantic and recover (most likely) somewhere in the United Kingdom. During this transit phase, the fighters would “hook-up” and take on fuel three or four times. This procedure is referred to as the “ferry-escort” technique. The “support to combat operations” role is quite a bit different.

In the “support to combat operations” role, the tanker is essentially placed in a holding pattern near an area of combat operations. Simply put, its job is to act as an orbiting gas station. Although there are a variety of scenarios possible, it primarily involves the fighter taking off laden with munitions.

This photo by Mike Reyno shows one of Canada's CF18 fighters with probe deployed and plugged into the drogue.

The result is a reduction in the overall fuel capacity of the fighter. The fighter then meets the tanker, fills up, and completes its mission. Following mission completion, the fighter again joins up with the tanker and takes on the fuel required to return to base. This allows for much more munitions to be carried on each sortie, allowing the tanker to enhance the efficiency of the overall air campaign.

437 Squadron’s Boeing 707 tankers have participated in both of these roles very successfully. Should the Defence Review place additional emphasis on “homeland defence,” the employment of Polaris tankers to enhance fighter operations over our coasts and the Arctic would certainly be feasible.

Although possible, there are no plans to extend this capability to other roles, such as the airborne refuelling of Canadian air force transport aircraft or helicopters. Such an extension would demand not only the expensive modification of the receiver aircraft, but would incorporate considerable outlay to train and keep current the aircrews involved. At this time, we simply don’t have the policy resident to support the additional cost.

In conclusion, the renewal of our air-to-air refuelling role will greatly enhance the contribution that our air mobility and fighter forces can make in the implementation of the Government’s foreign and domestic policy goals. Through its air transport role, 437 Squadron already plays a major role in this regard. An air refuelling capability will only serve to enhance its contributions.

Colonel Pat Dowsett is an air transport pilot and a member of the Project Management Office for Air Mobility projects. He is project manager of the Strategic Air-to-Air Refuelling (SAAR) project and the Fixed-Wing Search And Rescue (FWSAR) project.
© FrontLine Defence 2004