The president of Iberia, Javier Sánchez-Prieto, the president of Airbus Spain, Alberto Gutiérrez, and the tandem formed by the secretary of State for Defence, Esperanza Casteleiro, and the director general of Armament and Material, Admiral Santiago Ramón González Gómez, have played a three-way billiards carom.
Spain's leading airline is getting rid of three of its dozen large Airbus A330-200 wide-body airliners, which were grounded and out of regular service due to the sharp drop in demand for long-haul transatlantic flights as a result of COVID-19.
The Ministry of Defence is acquiring these aircraft, a model that was already in its sights, to be converted into strategic and in-flight refuelling transports. These are capabilities that the Air Force has lost and which it has lacked since 2016, when it retired the last of its four Boeing 707s from service. The Defence-Iberia agreement directly benefits the European industrial corporation Airbus, which benefits from Iberia's divestment of a batch of aircraft to the Air Force.
But how does Airbus benefit? The ministerial portfolio headed by Margarita Robles has to contract with Airbus Spain for the conversion of the A330-200s into military aircraft. Originally configured for commercial passenger transport, they have to be fitted with new equipment and the cargo cabin has to be converted to a multi-purpose configuration. The adaptation will be carried out sequentially at the large Airbus factory in Getafe (Madrid), where the European company centralises the transformation of the A330-200s into strategic aircraft.
In addition, Iberia will have to replace the aircraft currently sold with others of similar or higher performance. This operation will be considered when the airline detects a substantial increase in air traffic due to the increase in the global tourism and travel market, still affected by the pandemic. Given the airline's policy, these new passenger aircraft will also be purchased from the manufacturer Airbus. In short, a win-win-win-win move.
On the rebound, the government is honouring its July 2020 and February 2021 agreements with Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, in which Spain committed to purchase A330-200s in MRTT configuration for the Spanish Air Force.
The masterful billiards move has an expenditure ceiling of 675 million euros, a credit transfer authorised in the last Council of Ministers last June. However, the amount quoted by the Council of Ministers on 20 September has an "estimated" value of 810 million euros. The difference of 135 million euros is exactly 20% of the possible increase that the State can assume by law in the event of possible eventualities in the purchase.
The contract between Defence and Iberia will be signed "in the near future, foreseeably in October", according to sources close to the transaction, and the first aircraft will be received "next November". Iberia's sale package includes logistical support and the supply of spare parts to maintain the aircraft. It also commits to provide training courses for pilots and technicians and to provide the software and hardware to manage, plan and execute air operations.
The Airbus A330-200 is a long-range commercial wide-body twin-engine aircraft of which more than 600 units have been purchased by airlines around the world. While the dimensions of the giant A380 are 73 metres long, 7 metres wide and 79.8 metres wingspan, the A330-200 is 58.8 metres long, with a cabin width of 5.26 metres and a wingspan of 60.3 metres. More than 30 military MRTTs are already flying in the air forces of Australia, Belgium, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom.
With a range of 8,000 nautical miles (14,800 kilometres) at Mach 0.86, the ability to accommodate 300 seated passengers and 45 tonnes in cargo configuration, the main reason for the success of the A330-200 MRTTs is that they have five large wing tanks that hold up to 110 tonnes of fuel. As a result, there is no need to install additional tanks to transfer fuel and increase the flying range of the military aircraft.
What makes the A330-200 MRTT ideal for the role of tanker aircraft - a colloquial term for an in-flight refuelling aircraft - is that it has been fitted with different equipment for its in-flight refuelling mission. The main one is known as a boom, a kind of flexible telescopic tubular lance of Spanish technology, which manages to quickly and safely transfer around 60% of the fuel from its wings. This is enough to fill the tanks of four Eurofighter fighters or the Airbus A400M or C-295 tactical transports, which have another lance to capture the fuel from the mother plane.
The provision of three Airbus A300-200s adapted to the MRTT configuration is on the priority list of the Defence Staff, headed by Admiral Teodoro López Calderón. The need was identified almost a decade ago by the Air Force General Staff and raised with the Ministry by its chief at the time, General Javier García Arnaiz. His successor, General Javier Salto, who has held the post of head of the Spanish Air Force since 2017, has also claimed that the shortage, which until now has had to be made up for by renting to airlines and requests for support from other nations, should be solved.
Is the choice of model and the way to implement it the right one? Everything points to yes, although initially the purchase of new rather than second-hand aircraft was envisaged. But an opportunity arose and was seized. What other options were available on the market? Several, but the studies carried out by the Directorate General of Armaments and Material always showed that the equivalent American models, the Boeing KC-767 or the more advanced KC-46 -both derived from the twin-engine 767 passenger aircraft- did not meet Spanish requirements.
Spain has secured its tactical airlift capabilities with its fleet of Airbus C-295s and the newer, longer-range A400Ms of the 31st Wing stationed at the Zaragoza air base. The latter have demonstrated their high performance in the rescue of Spaniards and Afghans at Kabul airport, but had to make a stopover in Dubai before reaching the Afghan capital.
But neither are designed or capable of transatlantic flights or mid-air refuelling, for example, of Eurofighter fighters flying NATO Air Policing missions in the Baltic and deployed at the Siauliai base in Lithuania for four-month periods. With the A330-200 MRTT, the Spanish Armed Forces are equipped with a vector that increases the transfer, support and withdrawal of Land, Sea and Air units in distant Theatres of Operations.