Alongside its Pacific strategic partner, the US conducted a clearance trial to approve the complementary performance of a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A multi-role tanker for two US airframes: the RC-135 Rivet Joint and the A-10C Thunderbolt II.

Australia provides critical support as a strategic ally in the vast expanse of the Indo-Pacific, where tensions between the US and China continue to grow. The trial occurred from Edwards Air Force Base, California, ahead of a prospective military confrontation with the regional aggressor to explore the flexibility and performance between platforms in both air forces.

The RAAF detachment consisted of Aircraft Research and Development Unit flight test aircrew, including one qualified test pilot and four flight test engineers, a flight test system specialist, two contractor flight test air refuelling operators and other personnel from 33 Squadron, including aircrew and maintenance personnel.

The clearance trials were a result of three months of preparation to understand what data needed to be collected and the risks involved with testing.

Flight Lieutenant Jordan Smith, a qualified test pilot for the activity, claimed that nearly 450 contacts were made across both airframes during the air-to-air refuelling process. “A total of 412 contacts were successfully made between the KC-30A and RC-135 over eight sorties,” Smith stated.

“The RC-135 works well as a receiver for the KC-30A as they are relatively stable in contact position and the fuel offload rate is reasonable for its size.”

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According to GlobalData intelligence, the RAAF operates seven KC-30 aircraft, procured by the government between 2011 and 2018. The tanker is based on the Airbus’ A330 airliner that allows the Air Force to conduct air-to-air refuelling and provide strategic air lift.

Issues refuelling the Warthog

The US Air Force (USAF) also tested its A-10C Thunderbolt II (known as the ‘Warthog’ due to the platform’s distinguishable characteristics), designed for close air support, is “considerably slower than the majority of aircraft the KC-30A is compatible with,” according to a joint statement.

“However, the KC-30A also performs well at slower speeds, with 34 successful contacts made [with the Warthog] through one sortie.”

The A-10C offers “excellent manoeuvrability at lower airspeeds and altitude”, the USAF explains. while maintaining a highly accurate weapons-delivery platform.

A USAF A-10C Thunderbolt II flies over the US Central Command area of responsibility in support of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, 29 June 2020. Credit: Staff Sgt. Justin Parsons/US Air Force.

Meanwhile, the Boeing RC-135 is a medium weight reconnaissance aircraft that can travel at a maximum airspeed of 540 miles per hour (870 kilometres an hour). The range and service ceiling of RC-135W is 6,500km and 39,000ft, respectively.

Following the trials, the KC-30A and Boeing RC-135 air-to-air refuelling data will be processed to make the final flight test assessments of the pairing for the USAF Flight Test Report.

This report will help facilitate a series of gateway checks and once the clearance has been approved by both countries, it will be documented for future use when conducting air-to-air refuelling with the pairing.