Airbus Defence and Space’s A330 MRTT (multi-role tanker transport) will become capable of performing automatic air-to-air refueling (A3R) in 2021, the maker says. Airbus has already conducted tests of the system using a company-owned A310 MRTT testbed, beginning on March 21, 2017, when trials were conducted with an F-16 receiver, including contacts at night and in adverse light conditions. In June 2018 the system was tested with a large receiver—an A330— for the first time.
Tests with a customer are due next year, leading to certification and service entry in 2021. The customer has not been revealed, but it was the Royal Australian Air Force that provided a KC-30A for the June 2018 trials.
For now, it is not intended that A3R replaces the air refueling operator (ARO) but acts as an aid to refueling while reducing risks. A3R offers more accurate and quicker contacts, increasing operational efficiency by reducing the time needed to complete rendezvous. The capability is easily retrofitted to existing aircraft.
A3R is one of a number of developments being planned to enhance the A330 MRTT’s effectiveness and versatility. Drawing on experience with the airliner fleet, Airbus is working on the introduction in 2021 of predictive maintenance based on big data analysis.
More roles are planned for the A330, including VVIP transport. Talks are already underway with a customer for an aircraft with VVIP cabin that retains its refueling capability. Airbus asserts that the refueling boom and pods can be easily removed and reinstated on an as-required basis. Airbus also notes that it is technically feasible to add a boom to the RAF’s wingpod-only Voyager aircraft, which may become an issue as the RAF begins to operate an increasing fleet of boom-refuelable aircraft types
More importantly, the company notes that the size of the aircraft and the nature of its operational employment make it an ideal platform to handle stand-off ISR tasks with signals intelligence sensors and to act as a command and control node in a wider comms network. In June the company demonstrated its “Network for the Sky” concept, in which data from ground forces was uplinked to a fighter, then on to the A310 testbed equipped with cyber-secure communications systems that relayed the data via satellite to a distant command post receiver. Such capabilities have resulted in Airbus now talking of a “Smart MRTT.”
Both A3R and networking have obvious applications for the forthcoming Future Combat Air System (FCAS) being developed by France, Germany, and Spain. The A330 MRTT would not only be a key node in FCAS’s “Combat Cloud” but could also refuel the larger remote carriers envisaged as part of FCAS.
In the meantime, Airbus has notched up a number of MRTT achievements in recent months. Since 2018, deliveries (to France, Korea, and Singapore) have been of the latest Weight Variant 80 version of the A330-200. This has a number of improvements, including an enhanced vision system for refueling and improved cargo loading system. The wing pods have been improved, and the aircraft has new flap-track fairings and reshaped leading-edge slats. The avionics computers are upgraded, and a new mission-planning system significantly decreases planning time and facilitates inflight replanning.
Elbit’s direct infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) system has been certified for use as an alternative to the Northrop Grumman DIRCM and will be included in the aircraft for the multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF) being procured by a group of European nations. Link 16 connectivity has also been added.
A new set of refueling boom flying control laws was approved for service in early 2019, development of which was spurred by the heavy ARO workload encountered while refueling the F-15 Eagle, which is the primary fighter of three A330 MRTT operators (Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Singapore).
In France, the A330 MRTT, locally named Phénix, was declared fully operational on October 3, and the air force has taken delivery of the first full medevac kit for the upper deck of the aircraft. A standard kit comprises two intensive care units, 16 stretchers, and seating for 21 medical staff plus 96 passenger seats.
Airbus has now delivered 41 A330 MRTTs of 60 currently on order for 13 nations. The latest country to sign up is the Czech Republic, which joined Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Norway in the MMF in October. Other users comprise Australia, France, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the UAE, and the UK.
Discussions are ongoing with a number of other nations and also existing operators. One opportunity on the horizon is the U.S. Air Force’s need to replace its KC-10 Extender fleet. Airbus has teamed with Lockheed Martin to pursue U.S. opportunities and is expected to offer the A330 MRTT for this requirement. The company is confident that the aircraft could meet the KC-10’s offload figures while carrying less fuel, simply because the A330’s own fuel requirements are that much less than those of the older aircraft. There is also the option of adding extra fuel on the lower deck, which at present is available in its entirety for cargo carriage.
Currently, Airbus has no immediate plans to offer an MRTT based on the A330neo version, despite the production of the A330ceo airliner running down. The existing version is deemed more than adequate for MRTT operations, and a move to the A330neo may be detrimental to potential follow-on orders from existing customers.