UK to study F-35C ‘buddy’ refueling

When the Royal Navy resurrects its carrier aviation, it won't have any older fighters to refuel its F-35s, so they'll need to learn the trick.

Although U.S. Navy officials love to extol the wisdom of “necking down” to the fewest types of airframes possible, the introduction of the F-35C Lightning II may be a welcome exception: Rather than needing to use its brand-new, frontline fighters as stand-in tankers, as it must do with its F/A-18Es and Fs, the Navy will be able to use older Super Hornets to refuel new Lightning IIs, the way its retirement-age A-6 Intruders and S-3 Vikings once refueled newer fighters. Today, the Navy must use new and existing Super Hornets to refuel each other, meaning that for a given mission, some of the latest combat jets aren’t actually available for combat — and taxpayers are buying a full-up warplane but actually getting a part-time fuel mule.

The Royal Navy, however, effectively will be building its carrier aviation capabilities from scratch when it gets its Cs. It won’t have any existing 4th generation fighters that it can use as tankers. So, as Robert Wall reports in AvWeek, this is one of the may things the Brits have to figure out as they get closer to actually fielding these ships and aircraft:

The Defense Ministry has since tried to address some of those uncertainties, although it may take another year to define future plans completely.

For instance, the move to the carrier version (CV) has caused the Defense Ministry to explore air-to-air refueling capabilities in case of a disruption on the flight deck during recovery operations. The U.K. has asked Lockheed Martin to assess the feasibility of using the F-35C in a buddy-buddy refueling mode. Under rules of the JSF program, countries must themselves fund studies into unique capabilities they want for an aircraft. Since the U.S. can rely on F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as carrier-based refuelers, the U.K. has to finance the engineering assessment on its own.

A U.S. military official says the engineering details and cost estimate of the upgrade should be ready “later this year.” But the U.K. may take longer to decide on its course of action. Peter Luff, the U.K.’s minister for defense equipment, support and technology, tells legislators that the assessment of how to provide “the most cost-effective means of providing an embarked air-to-air refueling capability in support of the department’s future Carrier Strike capability” should emerge around March 2012.

This isn’t only something you need in case of emergencies: On U.S. Navy carriers, the first aircraft to go off as part of flight operations is usually the tanker, loaded down with external tanks so that it can top off jets after they launch but before they actually set off on their missions. Fighter jets drink fuel like teenagers drink Mtn Dew.

This isn’t the F-35’s first international mid-air refueling confusion. Up in Canada, where the F-35 is consistently controversial, there was a kerfuffle back in February when somebody added 2 and 2 and came up with 4: Canada plans to buy A-model fighters, which are designed for U.S. Air Force-style boom refueling, but Canada’s tankers are set up for probe-and-drogue style refueling, to accommodate it existing fleet of CF-18 Hornets. So Canada will either have to modify its CC-150 Polaris tankers, or ask for its CF-35s to be modified for probe-and-drogue operations. Last we checked, the jury was still out on that.