The current global crisis has emphasised the need for multinational cooperation and the ability of Allied armed forces to respond to a broad range of missions in different operating environments.
In this context, the newest NSPA multinational programme, the Multinational Multi-Role Tanker and Transport Fleet (MMF), stands out as a unique example of successful cooperation among NATO and EU Agencies and nations, enabling participating nations to be flexible and to rapidly respond to emergencies in multiple capability domains.
The MMF, managed by the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) with strong support of the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR), under the ownership of NATO and operated by an international unit, will provide its six participating nations (Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, Norway and the Netherlands) with strategic tanker and transport capabilities.
Based on a pooling and sharing concept, the nations will soon have access to a total of eight Airbus A-330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft, which can provide strategic transport (pax and cargo), air-to-air refuelling and medical evacuation capabilities.
A steady progress amid COVID-19
The MMF project plan is making steady progress despite the current health crisis pandemic and deliveries will follow the initial schedule with only a limited delay.
While the first two of eight A330 MRTT, MMF1 and MMF2 are ready for acceptance, the third and fourth aircraft are currently under conversion at the Airbus Defence facilities in Getafe, Madrid and the fifth aircraft, currently a “green aircraft”, was flown from Toulouse to Getafe last week. The handover of the first two aircraft to the Main Operating Base in Eindhoven is scheduled to start next month.
The training of the crews was inevitably delayed due to current restrictions. However, the first batch of pilots and mechanics had already been fully trained and they are now ready to follow their recurring training, as the last step to be able to operate the aircraft. Training for the rest of the crew and future pilots is scheduled to start again shortly at Airbus training centre in Sevilla, Spain.
A prime example of multinational cooperation
The success of the MMF relies on the excellent cooperation between NATO and the European Union Nations and Agencies since the very beginning of the project. Back in 2011, the European Defence Agency (EDA) started an initiative to address the long-standing European shortfall in the air-to-air refuelling capacity. Since then, this initiative has grown into a mature programme managed by the NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), on behalf of the nations, and supported by the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR) on the acquisition phase.
While this is a prime example of inter-Agencies cooperation, this programme stands also as an example on how nations can cooperate, pooling and sharing resources to get access to state of the art capabilities that would be difficult or impossible to access individually. All the nations involved, independently of their size and the number of flying hours, have access to the MMF capabilities.
The Netherlands and Luxembourg initially launched the programme in July 2016, with the first one as the lead nation of the project. Germany and Norway joined in 2017, Belgium followed in early 2018 and Czech Republic lastly joined the MMF programme in October 2019.
Eight MRTT aircraft, three capabilities
Based on the participating nations requirements, eight Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft were procured by OCCAR, on behalf of NSPA. These state-of-the-art aircraft are configured for a variety of missions, from air-to-air refuelling (both boom and hose and drogue), to troop transport, VIP transport, cargo/freight transport and can also be re-configured for aeromedical evacuation.
The 111 tonnes basic fuel capacity enables the aircraft to excel in air-to-air refuelling missions without the need for any additional fuel tanks. Moreover it can provide, a maximum fuel flow rate of approximately 2,200 litres a minute, using a boom and a hose and drogue mechanism, can quickly fuel all of the aircraft in inventory with the MMF nations ( F-16, F-35, C-17, Eurofighters, Tornado and Gripen ) and most of the other aircraft used within NATO.
However, as Jan der Kinderen, NSPA MMF System Manager explains, “not all of the hours will be taken up by air-to-air refuelling. Many of the nations will use them for transport, as well as for medical evacuation.”
To that end, the A330 aircraft can provide strategic cargo to up to 45 tons and transport up to 267 passengers simultaneously. Additionally, MMF nations can benefit from aeromedical evacuation capabilities, as the aircraft can be configured to include six intensive care units and 16 stretchers.
Six nations pooling and sharing resources
The MMF programme is based on a pooling and sharing concept, laid down in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), in which the participating nations pool the aircraft and share costs, benefits and risks.
The MMF developed a transparent and fair cost share arrangement by calculating a cost through a flying hour share set in the MoU. This enables smaller nations to join with a limited amount of flying hours and still getting assured access to an entire fleet of aircraft. Also, bigger nations benefit of economies of scale offered by this multinational cost share arrangement.
Germany is the largest contributor with a share of 5,500 hours a year. The Netherlands will take up 2,000 hours a year. Belgium will take 1,000 hours, Luxembourg 200 hours and Norway and Czech Republic will take 100 hours a year each. As the projected utilisation will be 1100 flying hours per aircraft per year, the fleet of of 8 aircraft is fully committed.
The Multinational Multirole Tanker Transport Unit (MMU)
The MMF aircraft will be operated by the Multinational Multirole Tanker Transport Unit (MMU) comprising of military personnel of the participating nations. The unit is based in two permanent operating bases, the Main Operating Base (MOB) in Eindhoven (the Netherlands) and the Forward Operating Base + (FOB+) in Cologne-Wahn (Germany). Among the eight MMF aircraft, five will be based at the MOB in Eindhoven, and three at the FOB+ in Cologne.
The MMU will have the capability to deploy for short and long assignments globally, providing the MMF nations with reliable Air-to-Air Refuelling, Air Transport and Aeromedical Evacuation capabilities. To ensure a 24/7 Aeromedical Evacuation capability, one of the A330 MRTT aircraft located at the FOB will permanently stand by in the MEDEVAC configuration as of end 2021.
The MMF nations will use these capabilities in support of national missions as well as in support of NATO, EU and other multinational commitments.
NSPA’s role as MMF System Manager
To satisfy the mission assigned by the MMF participants, NSPA created the MMF System Management Office, with the objective of acquiring, managing and supporting the fleet of MRTT aircraft and related assets.
The involvement of other Agencies was key to the success of the MMF initiative, while the EDA played a critical role in the early stages of the programme. The close cooperation with OCCAR is still essential during the acquisition phase. The many actors involved in the success of the MMF act under the direction and supervision of the NSPA’s MMF System Manager, who manages and coordinates the programme of behalf of the nations. The core team of the MMF is based at the NSPA headquarters in Capellen (Luxembourg) but many elements provide support from other locations (Eindhoven, Cologne-Wahn, Bonn and Getafe).
This organization is unique in the Agency and could be a template for other initiatives in the future aiming to procure complex weapon systems for NATO Nations through a cooperative approach.
With the first two aircraft delivered during the summer, the main purpose in 2020 is to complete the training of the crews to make the unit operational. During their first missions, the aircraft will mainly fly for training and will then gradually deploy on operational tasks by the end of 2020.
The delivery of the third aircraft is planned for October 2020 and the fourth one will be delivered early next year. From that point on, a new A330 MRTT will be added to the fleet regularly, with the expected delivery of the last aircraft in 2024.
The MMF Initiative is still open to new partners and it is expected to grow in the near future. Following the guidance received from the MMF Nations, NSPA actively seeks cooperation with other MRTT users around the world to enhance opportunities and maximize the positive synergies identified in the Programme.