ISTANBUL – The Netherlands, Norway and Poland will issue a request for proposals “in days” to Airbus Defense and Space, paving the way for a joint purchase of A330 multi-role tanker transport aircraft.

In a program facilitated by the European Defense Agency (EDA) and fronted by European armaments agency Occar and NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency, the three countries hope to reach an agreement and contract signing by the end of this year for up to four A330s to be operated as a single fleet, providing aerial refueling and strategic transport for all three countries toward the end of the decade.

“We expect a quick response from Airbus, so that negotiations can begin and so a contract can be signed by the end of year, or early in 2016,” said Peter Round, EDA capability director.

Under current plans the fleet would be operated with Dutch registration and regulations and would likely be serviced at Eindhoven air base, although forward-operating bases will be set up in Norway and Poland. The aircraft will be identical and equipped with an aerial refueling boom system, and wingtip pods for hose-and-drogue systems to refuel probe-equipped aircraft. Initial aircraft, under current plans, will be delivered in the first half of 2019.

The Netherlands will use the A330 to replace its existing fleet of Douglas KDC-10 tankers. Norway and Poland will be new to operating a tanker fleet, but the capability will be vital to Norway’s plans for greater international engagement as it purchases the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Round says he hopes the purchase will grab the attention of more nations. Belgium is an observer for now, but reports differ about its intentions. Some suggest it may invest in its own fleet of aircraft. Others say Belgium will invest in the new tanker operation, but buy annual flight hours. Round says more nations are interested and many more could join during the next 12-18 months.

The EDA’s work was prompted by lessons learned from operations over Libya and the Balkans, when European nations found themselves reliant on the U.S. for tanker assets. The agency is trying to encourage greater interoperability and the pooling and sharing of assets so nations can make better use of them.

One key area of study is the ability for one country’s tanker to hop over borders and conduct refueling in the airspace of another, an issue currently requiring diplomatic clearances and other documentation. The EDA is trying to clear those hurdles, Round says.