Aerospace Archive attended the 2019 edition of the European Air Refueling Training (EART) exercise, conducted from Eindhoven air base in the Netherlands from 31 March to 12 April, 2019.
Words & Photography: Roger Kemp
Additional photography by: Jimmy van Drunen and Reinier Bergsma
Located in the south east of the Netherlands, Eindhoven Air Base is home to the Royal Netherlands Air Force transport and refueling fleet. Part civilian airport (second airport of the Netherlands with over 6 million passengers handled per year), part military air base with a storied past. Founded in the early 20’s as a small gras strip, taken over by the German Luftwaffe during the second world war, eventually turned into a Royal Netherlands Air Force air base during the cold war. In the 70’s and 80’s part of the airfield was turned back into a civilian airport. Jet fighter activity was ended after a major restructuring of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, after which the Transport and eventually the Air Refueling squadrons were located at the base.
Since 2010 Eindhoven Air Base is also the home of the headquarters of the European Air Transport Command (EATC). The idea for an organisation like EATC was born back in 1999, initiated by France and Germany, as a means to use their combined transportation and refueling assets more efficiently. The ground rules for EATC were set in 2010 and that year EATC was inaugurated at Eindhoven Air Base by the four founding members; The Netherlands, Belgium, France and Germany. Over the following years more nations and their assets joined the organisation. Currently there are 7 member nations; Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. These nations pool their air transport and air refueling assets and make them available for who ever of those 7 nations might have a need for a certain asset or capacity. There are three main areas of employment; Air Transport, Air-to-Air Refuelling and Aeromedical Evacuation. The pooling and sharing system works with a virtual currency, so no money is exchanged between the participating nations. Although the asset planning is based at Eindhoven Air Base, the actual airplanes, at the moment around 170 of them, and personnel are based at 13 bases throughout Europe. Assignment and planning of assets is done by the EATC although member nations may pull out certain assets from the pool at any time might a need arise.
Since the organisation pools their assets and planning, it makes sense to also train together. To hone their air to air refueling expertise as well as to use existing assets more efficiently, that meant creating the European Air Refueling Training (EART) in 2014, attended by the German, Italian and Dutch air forces. Over the years this exercise has grown in scope and number of participating nations.
Since its first edition, EART has been executed in conjunction with Frisian Flag. Frisian Flag is a large multinational fighter exercise, organised by the Royal Netherlands Air Force, and flown from Leeuwarden Air Base in the north of the Netherlands. An exercise of this scale provides a good number of customers for aerial refueling platforms, so it makes sense to combine it with a aerial refueling training exercise like EART, especially when both bases of operation are situated near the ops airspace. All these different platforms and nationalities training together provide ample opportunities to share experiences, learn about each others techniques and protocols and set new international standards while gaining valuable experience.
In 2019 EART had five participating countries. Germany with an Airbus A310 MRTT, the Netherlands with a KDC-10, France with a KC-135, the United Kingdom with an Airbus A330 Voyager and the United States of America with a KC-135R. Italy provided a team of mentors. There was also a team from The Royal Australian Air Force as observers.
The exercise had a busy schedule, with two missions flown each day. In between those missions the flight crew was changed, while the ground crew prepared the refueling jets for their next mission. Which is not an easy task; preparing a big jet in around an hour, especially when using an old bird like the KDC-10 or KC-135. But they managed to fly all their missions successfully.
The missions focused on different scenarios, tactics and tasks, both in the air and on the ground. In the air formation flying between tanker was practiced, flying in stacked refueling tracks was honed and using the link16 communications suite for more situational awareness. While on the ground the (de)briefings were also used to evaluate the exercise itself. A new elearning system was used to provide additional learning material.
All this results in better cooperation between participating nations, new experiences for flight and ground crews, new and important insights and valuable data for EART and EATC they will use for future improvements and new protocols which streamline the operational deployment of assets throughout Europe.
Future editions of the EART exercise will revolve around experience and knowledge gathered. The elearning system will be expanded and new scenarios will be developed. During the media briefing, Deputy Commander of EATC, Brigadier General Francesco Saverio Agresti mentioned that the 2020 and 2021 edition might take place in a different European country. France and Spain were named as possibilities. This might be a welcome change of scenery, but also operational conditions and environments.
After the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 it became clear that without air refueling assets from the US, European NATO strike and air combat assets would have a hard time to complete their missions. There was a need for better cooperation, more efficiency, and more assets. Better cooperation and efficiency is already resulted from the EATC and EART initiatives. But new assets don’t just appear out of thin air and need to be procured. This happens both on an individual national level, as well as on a multinational level. The air refueling fleet will be growing over the next couple of years with a fleet of certified A400M Atlas transport planes coming online, bought by individual nations. A consortium of 5 nations will be buying a fleet of 8 KC-30’s (A330 MRTT) under the Multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF) progam, with the first delivery planned for May 2020 at Eindhoven Air Base.
All in all we see EATC and EART as the future of European cooperation. And that future is already here. Instead of having each country reinvent the wheel and carry the cost of that re-invention, pooling eachothers assets and knowledge, while procuring new assets together, gives Europe an edge in its air transport and aerial refueling capabilities. We hope NATO and the European nations will use this model for other aspects of their air forces and indeed other branches of their military.
Aerospace Archive would like to thank Eindhoven Air Base and Major Gilbert Stout and his Public Affairs team for the hospitality during the EART 2019 exercise.