(L-R) Anne Marie Aanerud, Norway's State Secretary (Defence); Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General; François Bausch, Luxembourg Deputy PM, Defence Minister; Thierry Breton, European Commissioner; Kajsa Ollongren, Dutch Defence Minister; Credit: MAEE

On Thursday 23 March 2023, Luxembourg's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, François Bausch, participated in the "Initial Operational Capability" ceremony of the Multinational Multi-Role Tanker and Transport (MRTT) aircraft unit in Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

With aerial refuelling being one of the capability gaps identified within NATO and the European Union (EU), the Netherlands and Luxembourg launched the Multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF) programme in 2016. Germany and Norway joined the programme in 2017, with Belgium and the Czech Republic following suit in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Delivery of the unit's first A330 MRTT aircraft took place in June 2020 and in the meantime, seven aircraft have been delivered. The Multinational MRTT Unit (MMU) operates the aircraft of the MMF, belonging to NATO and under the operational control of the European Air Transport Command (EATC), relying mainly on the air base of Eindhoven and that of Cologne-Wahn (Germany). The NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA), based in Capellen (Luxembourg), provides in-service support for fleet aircraft.

The Initial Operational Capability (IOC) ceremony formalised the entry into operational service of the MRTT capability and the MMU. Although the MMU has been flying successfully since 2020, particularly in the context of the Afghanistan evacuation and the war in Ukraine in order to ensure the air supply of fighter planes on the Eastern flank of the Alliance, the IOC formal declaration is a milestone in the establishment of a new unit. With this declaration, the military authorities are formally notified that the MMU can fulfil the entire spectrum of its missions, with certain restrictions. The IOC ceremony last Thursday was held in the presence of Minister Bausch, his Dutch and Belgian counterparts, Kajsa Ollongren and Ludivine Dedonder, respectively, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commissioner Thierry Breton, as well as political and military representatives of all states participating in the programme and MMU and EATC representatives.

In 2016, the Luxembourg Defence Directorate committed to funding 200 annual flight hours for the MMU. In 2020, an initial law was amended, allowing Luxembourg to increase this number to 1,200 flight hours from 2025. Luxembourg's contribution is capped at a maximum of €598.4 million over 30 years, of which €259 million are planned for MRTT acquisition costs and €339.4 million for operational costs. This increase in Luxembourg's participation has enabled the programme to place an order for a ninth MRTT aircraft.

"Through its significant participation in the Multinational MRTT Fleet programme, Luxembourg contributes very concretely to the security and defence of the Euro-Atlantic air space. It is an exemplary programme for the joint development of NATO and EU defence capabilities," said Minister Bausch.

Following Belgium's decision to commit to 1,100 additional flight hours under the MMU, the programme will acquire an additional A330 MRTT aircraft. Thus, the MRTT fleet will count ten aircraft from 2026. The memorandum of understanding formalising this development of the programme was signed during the IOC ceremony.

On the sidelines of his trip to Eindhoven, Minister Bausch visited the headquarters of the EATC, a command centre established in 2010 by France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Luxembourg joined the EATC in 2012, followed by Spain and Italy in 2014. The EATC operates by pooling and sharing the air capacities of the participating countries. It currently groups 150 transport aircraft (about 20 different types), stationed at fourteen national bases. Luxembourg participates with the A400M of the Belgo-Luxembourg unit, as well as with Luxembourg A330 MRTT flight hours, under the authority of the EATC. Luxembourg has also made medical evacuation capacities available through Luxembourg Air Rescue (LAR) since 2017. Since 2020, freight transport capacities have been made available via Cargolux and since 2022, passenger transport capacities have been made available from Luxair.

"I firmly believe that pooling and sharing through the EATC offers effective and efficient operational opportunities in Luxembourg, as well as to partner nations," concluded Minister Bausch.