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Thursday, January 31, 2019

Philippine Air Force Options for Aerial Refuelling: Probe-and-Drogue or Flying Boom?

Since we’ve been discussing about aerial refuelling tanker aircraft this morning, might as well expand the discussion further into the Philippine setting.

Currently the Philippine Air Force is not in need of any air refuelling tanker aircraft, since all of its current air assets do not have aerial refuelling capability.

But this can change in the next few years, especially with the PAF already serious in its acquisition of Multi-Role Fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Block 70/72 Viper and the Saab JAS-39C/D Gripen. Both aircraft have built-in aerial refuelling capability, although they use different methods in doing so.

A KC-135 Stratotanker providing fuel to F-16s using the Flying Boom method.
Photo taken from US Air Force archives. To

Right Method for Every Aircraft:

There is a correct method of aerial refuelling for every aircraft.

The F-16 Viper, as well as its older Fighting Falcon variants uses the Flying Boom method, while the JAS-39 Gripen (all variants) uses the Probe and Drogue method.

A closer shot of the Gripen with it's extended probe receiving fuel from an article refuelling tanker using the Probe and Drogue method.

Meanwhile, while the KAI FA-50PH Fighting Eagle does not have aerial refuelling capabilities, KAI has already developed the DART system that was offered to the USAF as part of its T-50A variant. Although the T-50A was not selected, the technology is already there and just needs further development and certification. The DART system uses the Flying Boom method as well, similar to the F-16. Also, KAI has previous plans to incorporate aerial refuelling capability to the T-50/FA-50 family using an installable Probe, to allow the Probe and Drogue method.

So, in selecting the PAF’s future aerial refuelling tanker, one has to consider the aircraft which will require it. If the PAF selects the F-16 Viper, then it is logical that the PAF needs to consider the Flying Boom system. But if the PAF selects the JAS-39 Gripen, then it has to go for Probe and Drogue system.

Currently, the cheapest aerial refuelling option is for the PAF to acquire used and refurbished Lockheed KC-130H/T Hercules heavy tactical transport-tanker aircraft from US stocks. But this option is limited only to Probe and Drogue refuelling method (as the KC-130 does not employ the Flying Boom). This is only possible if the PAF chooses the JAS-39 Gripen as its MRF.

 A KC-130 Hercules conducting aerial refuelling ops for a couple of JAS-39 Gripens.
Photo taken from the Swedish Air Force.

The Flying Boom options:

But if the PAF goes for the F-16 Viper, it has no choice but to drop the KC-130 and instead go for platforms that support the Flying Boom refuelling method:

* Currently the cheapest is going for refurbished former USAF KC-135R Stratotankers. But these aircraft, based on the old Boeing 707, are at the end of their service life and isn’t feasible unless for short time gap filler use.
* The most feasible based on MaxDefense’s option is to consider converted airliner-based aircraft like converting used Airbus A320 or the larger A330, or Boeing’s 737 or 767 family. Israel’s IAI made such offer to the Royal Australian Air Force a few years ago and has done the same for other markets.
* High end option includes going for brand new Airbus A330 MRTT or Boeing KC-46 Pegasus.  But considering the high acquisition cost, MaxDefense doesn’t recommend this.

An F-16 conducting aerial refuelling from an anrticulated "flying" boom.

The good thing with airliner-based options like the A330 and B767 is that they can also be fitted with the Drogue system on the tanker’s wings, allowing for 2 aircraft to refuel at the same time. This while also retaining the articulated Boom at the aircraft’s body. This means the PAF won’t have difficulty choosing its future aircraft plans based on aerial refuelling requirements.

Not only fighter aircraft will benefit from having an Aerial Refuelling capability. Other PAF aircraft can also be given the capability to refuel in mid-air should it become available, including the Airbus C-295 and Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the future Long Range Patrol Aaircrafr, and even the Sikorsky S-70i Black Hawk helicopter.

The CARTS - A Future Possibility for F-16 Vipers:

But going for F-16 Vipers doesn't mean aerial tankers with Probe and Drogue systems won't work. An (expensive) option for the PAF is to consider installing the joint US-India-Israel developed Aerial Refuelling Tank System (CARTS), although this is still something that is not yet in the market.

The CARTS during testing. Despite it's advantages, it's not yet available in the market.
Photo taken from

MaxDefense's Conclusion:

In the long term point of view, MaxDefense recommends the use of refurbished converted airliner aircraft to have both the articulated boom for Flying Boom refuelling method, while also have the wing-mounted Drogues for Probe and Drogue refuelling method.

A Boeing 767-based aerial refuelling tanker shows it's ability to use the Probe and Drogue refuelling system by refuelling the probe-equippee Saab JAS-39 Gripen.

Not only are these aircraft used as aerial refuelling tankers, they are also freighters that can carry palletized cargo for military and peacetime operations.

But if the PAF settles with the Saab JAS-39C/D Gripen, it can do with refurbished KC-130H/T Hercules for the short and medium term. This allows the PAF to spend less for such capability while also maintaining compatibility with it's existing C-130 fleet.

Its now up to the Philippine Air Force on when they will be needing such capability based on their modernization program. Originally, the PAF has a requirement for at least 2 to 3 aerial refuelling tanker aircraft under its Horizon 3 modernization phase.

Achievable? Yes, as long as the PAF can defend the funding for its Horizon 3 modernization program.


  1. KC-130 fits for it because the country already operates the C-130 plus the chance for the Gripen C to win the contract is high.

  2. getting an air refueling plane means Philippines would attack somewhere very far. Which i think we shouldn't do. Besides the Philippines is an archipelago, just make airstrips in different islands.


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