The Royal Air Force had long since relied on a capable, though aging, fleet of Lockheed L-1011 TriStar and Vickers VC10 series aircraft to fulfill its inflight refueling requirement - essentially commercial passenger airliners modified for the battlefield role at hand. However, the L-1011 held roots in a 1970 design and the VC10 fared no better, originating in 1962. In 2004, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) authorized the procurement (under a 24-year lease agreement) of the French Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport), an all-modern militarized variant of the popular A330-200 passenger airliner (nearly 1,000 of the type have been built to date). The proven airframe would, of course, be properly modified for the inflight refueling role including the addition of drogue fuel dispensing underwing pods, specialized secure military-level communications equipment and defensive-minded countermeasures while doubling as a basic medium air transport with the refueling equipment removed. The initiative falls under the UK's Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) program.
The initial MRTT was first flown on June 15th, 2007 and introduced by Airbus Military on June 1st, 2011. The Royal Air Force's (RAF) multi-year lease is through the UK-based parent company of AirTanker Ltd, a consortium made up of defense powers EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company), Rolls-Royce, Thales, Babcock and Cobham while the actual delivery falls under the AirTanker Aircraft Supply division (headed by EADS). The deal was formally inked on March 27th, 2008 with initial deliveries of new-build A330-200 MRTT bodies occurring at the end of 2011. While in the RAF inventory, the aircraft have not yet been cleared for active refueling service as of May 2013, leaving the aging L-1011s and VC10s to remain in active status. The platform will coordinate with the advanced Eurofighter Typhoons and older Panavia Tornados as well as other platforms currently in play for the RAF.
The RAF will receive two distinct versions of the aircraft under the designations of "Voyager KC2" and "Voyager KC3". While both will be similarly equipped with a pair of Cobham 905E series underwing drogue refueling pods, the KC3 will also include the Cobham 805E series Fuselage Refueling Unit (FRU), an underfuselage drogue installation - allowing for servicing of three aircraft at once. The aircraft will retain the basic A330 MRTT form and functionality which includes the forward-set flight deck, low-mounted wings and single vertical tail fin. The underwing pods will be affixed outboard of the engine nacelles in typical fashion and feature the UK-originated Rolls-Royce Trent 772B-60 series turbofan engines promising performance of 72,000lbs thrust each. Each aircraft will carry 240,000lbs of fuel up to 40,000 feet in altitude and feature loitering times nearing two hours. Currently (2013), there are a total of 14 Voyagers on order for the RAF with seven of these in the KC2 guise and the remaining seven outfitted as KC3s. Approximately three airframes were in the RAF charge at the beginning of the 2013 and it is expected that nine airframes will make up the completed fleet, the rest held in reserve and pulled online as needed.
The AirTanker / A330 MRTT endeavor is an interesting venture, allowing military air forces to lease critical logistically-minded aircraft as needed with shared costs between other powers of the world. As such, the RAF airframes may become available to other European powers through NATO in which maintenance and operating costs should be held in check over the 24-year term. The move comes at an interesting time for Europe where the lack of viable, proven inflight refuelers has showcased a strategic deficiency during faraway deployments such as that in the French intervention over Mali - a deficiency not currently shared by the massive United States Air Force.