During the NATO operation over Libya in 2011, European nations were criticized for a lack of aerial refueling assets and their need to depend on the U.S. for assistance. But plans for multinational tanker purchases may soon reverse that trend.

In May, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland jointly issued a request for proposals to Airbus Defense and Space as the three countries paved the way toward joint procurement of the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). More countries could join the program, potentially bringing additional aircraft to the fleet.

In a program facilitated by the European Defense Agency (EDA), and fronted by European armaments agency Occar (Organization for Joint Armament Cooperation) and NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency, the three countries hope to reach agreement and contract signing by the end of the year for at least four A330s. These will operate as a single fleet, providing aerial refueling and strategic transport for all three countries toward the end of the decade.

Under current plans the fleet would operate under Dutch military registration and airworthiness regulations and likely be serviced at Eindhoven Air Base in the Netherlands, 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. Under current plans, the first aircraft will be delivered in the first half of 2019.

The Netherlands will use the A330 to replace its fleet of Douglas KDC-10 tankers. Norway and Poland have never had tanker fleets, but the capability will be vital to Norway’s plans for greater international engagement as it purchases the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Joining the multinational operation ends Poland’s hunt for aerial refueling capability. Warsaw had been studying use of the Boeing KC-46 and conversions by Israel Aircraft Industries of second-hand Boeing 767s for the mission.

The joint program follows the purchase of the A330 by the Royal Air Force through the privately financed Airtanker consortium, and more recently France’s plans to purchase 12 aircraft, to replace its fleet of KC-135FR/R Stratotankers.

With an increasing number of countries buying the A330 in Europe, EDA officials point to realistic opportunities for greater interoperability, joint training and the ability to share receiver clearance information, which could mean that once a tanker is cleared to refuel one receiver type, all the operators will benefit from being able to refuel that type, eliminating the need for costly clearance trials in each country.

Another 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 that currently requires diplomatic clearance and other documentation.

Other European air arms are looking to purchase the A330. Spain, which had been looking at joining the multinational force, is now examining an independent purchase of the type not only to replace its Boeing KC-707s, but also the Airbus A310s used in VVIP missions.

Currently, Belgium is an observer to the multinational project, but reports differ about its intentions. Some suggest it may go the route of investing in its own fleet of aircraft, others that Belgium will invest in the new tanker operation but buy flight hours on an annual basis.

Airbus Defense and Space briefed Turkish air force officials on the A330 MRTT at the International Defense Industry Fair (IDEF) in Istanbul in May. The Turkish Air Force operates seven Boeing KC-135R tankers and, because of its largely U.S.-produced fighter fleet, would need a tanker with a boom-refueling system.

There is no requirement for a new tanker aircraft for Turkey, but the number of A330s there could make it an attractive option. The Turkish government uses one for VIP duties, and national carrier Turkish Airlines is one of the world’s largest operators of the type.

While programs like this will put more trailing hoses and booms into the sky, collectively the number of tankers in Europe is falling. The RAF used to operate 28 Vickers VC10s and nine Lockheed TriStars, the majority of which were tankers, but these have been replaced with a core fleet of nine A330 Voyagers.

The 14 KC-135s in the French fleet will be replaced by 12 A330s. In return, air arms will gain a larger offload capacity and more reliable capability. Although the number of fighters the A330s will refuel is being greatly reduced, the additional tankers will help keep those fighters on task longer.