Today at the Singapore Air Show, Airbus announced that the Republic of Singapore Air Force is the launch customer for a new automated flight refueling system called SMART MRTT. The Singaporean air force and the European group Airbus have been collaborating for several months to integrate the SMART MRTT into the fleet of six Singaporean A330 MRTT tankers.
It has already been several years since Airbus has announced that it wants to develop an automatic refueling capacity for these A330 MRTTs. Automatic air-to-air (A3R) refueling technology has been in development at Airbus Defense and Space since at least 2017. A test campaign carried out in 2018 had also enabled an A310 MRTT test plane equipped with a pole A3R refueling station to make multiple automatic contacts with the F-16 refueling receptacle and thenan Australian Air Force A300MRTT.
From now on, Airbus and the Singaporean air force will work together on flight tests and the certification phase allowing to develop an operational A3R system on production A330 MRTTs. The automation of in-flight refueling should enable faster in-flight refueling, more safety and greater endurance for refueling operations. The latter are considered particularly critical for the island state whose air bases would be particularly exposed in the event of conflict and which deploys part of its air force on Allied territories.
Beyond the Singaporean needs, Airbus intends to offer an update to the SMART MRTT standard to all current users of the A330 MRTT but also to its future export prospects. This new capacity would in fact be mainly software, without major technical modification of the refueling operator's consoles. The latter would also remain on board the A330 MRTT as an automated refueling supervisor, ready to intervene if necessary.
In a way, what Airbus offers with its SMART MRTT is to generalize to the rigid refueling system "Flying Boom" an automation already possible with the flexible refueling system "probe-and-drug". The flexible system is used by aircraft on board aircraft carriers as well as by most European-designed fighters, including the Mirage 2000, Rafale, Gripen and other Eurofighter. The supply aircraft deploys a flexible tube fitted with a basket, and it is up to the pilot of the supplied aircraft to introduce his refueling pole in flight. The workload is therefore almost entirely carried by the pilot of the refueled aircraft, the operator on board the A330 MRTT simply settling and winding the flexible hose and ensuring that the procedure runs smoothly.
The rigid pole refueling system is very different: in this case, the refueled plane is content to maintain its position near the refueler; the refueling operator then remotely guides a rigid pole which he comes to plug into the refueling receptacle located on the nose or the back of the aircraft to be refueled. This solution is particularly practical for heavy and unwieldy aircraft that would not be able to easily connect to a "probe-and-drug". In addition, it makes it possible to transfer fuel much faster. It is therefore found quite logically on heavy bombers, but also on AWACS radar planes or on the nose of tankers, including the A330 MRTT. The American fighters developed for the USAF, which employs many heavy bombers, also use the rigid refueling system ... in particular the F-16 and F-15 used by the Singapore Air Force!
By automating the control of the boom and the connection procedure between it and the receptacle of the refueled aircraft, Airbus should allow faster refueling, with more precision and fewer handling errors. The operator's workload will also be reduced, which should make it possible to facilitate refueling operations over long periods of time, or even make it possible to refuel an aircraft simultaneously on the rigid central boom (for example an F-15SG) and or two airplanes on the flexible pipes deployed under the wings (for example F-35B recently acquired by Singapore).
Airbus Defense & Space hopes for a SMART MRTT certification from 2021, which will allow it to further increase the technological and operational gap between its A330 MRTT solution and the American proposal based on the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus. Indeed, the American plane, although smaller and capable of delivering less fuel, is today considerably more expensive than the European proposal while accumulating technical setbacks. So, while the refueling operator of the A330 MRTT performs its operations from multiple screens projecting the filmed image of the refueling boom and the approaching aircraft, Boeing and the USAF absolutely wanted to develop a system 3D visualization projected on a virtual reality headset. A solution which would thus tend to add pressure on the operator's shoulders, but which is today very far from being operational. In fact, while Airbus has delivered more than 40 aircraft to seven different air forces, not to mention the aircraft intended to equip a pool of five NATO nations, the KC-46 remains prohibited from outside operations.
With the SMART MRTT, Airbus responds to the same problems as the 3D visualization solution (reduce distance appreciation errors which lengthen refueling times) while circumventing the majority of its faults (display latencies, fatigue of the operator). The European aircraft manufacturer thus confirms its status as leader on the in-flight refueling market, even if the USAF's only internal market for the KC-46 represents more than half of modern refueling capacities in the world.
In a few years, however, Airbus does not despair of being able to establish itself on the American flight refueling market. The tanker needs are very real for the USAF, in particular to replace the KC-10 Extender whose withdrawal is imminent. Acting on the fact that the USAF will probably not have the budget to buy KC-46 and a new heavy tanker model simultaneously, Airbus has teamed up with Lockheed Martin to offer refueling solutions complementary to those of the KC -46. It could be possible to go through a leasing service or even through an operation through private companies, a solution under study by the USAF but already used by the US Navy. The presence on board the MRTT of an automatic refueling system that is more reliable, more efficient and less expensive than the solution proposed by Boeing would only be one more argument in favor of a joint solution of Airbus and Lockheed.