• A UAE MRTT at Pitch Black 2014 in Darwin. (Nigel Pittaway)
    A UAE MRTT at Pitch Black 2014 in Darwin. (Nigel Pittaway)

Airbus Defence & Space revealed overnight that it is further developing the Automatic Air to Air Refuelling (A3R) capabilities of its A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) to include a fully autonomous refuelling capability.

Dubbed A4R, the new capability will allow air to air refuelling operations to be undertaken without a human in the loop. The present A3R capability, now in its final stages of certification, requires crew to monitor the refuelling operation.

Speaking during the annual Airbus Defence and Space Trade Media Briefing (TMB 21), Head of Military Aircraft Jean-Brice Dumont did not go into great detail, but promised a detailed briefing on A4R and its capabilities in the near future. However, Dumont said the concept is to enable autonomous refuelling operations without having to modify the global receiver fleet. 

“A4R is a kind of unmanned execution of the refuelling operation and for long-range combat missions we see the need for predictable, deterministic, reliable AAR capability. That’s what the MRTT delivers to our current customers and will deliver to our future customers,” he said.

“Our intent when we qualify such a function is to have the minimum impact. If you need to completely retrofit all receiver aircraft in the world to get this function to work, it doesn’t fly.”

The timeline for A4R development has not been disclosed, but the current A3R functionality has completed qualification testing and certification is expected in the near future. The RAAF and Republic of Singapore Air Force (AAR) have been closely involved in A3R development and Singapore became the launch customer for the capability during the Singapore Air Show in February 2019.

This latest news follows recent announcements of the sale of three MRTTs for the Spanish Air Force and two additional aircraft for the United Arab Emirates. Total MRTT orders currently stand at 68 aircraft from 14 nations, of which 51 have already been delivered. At the end of November, the global MRTT fleet had flown in excess of 250,000 flight hours and nine aircraft (from Australia, France, Singapore, South Korea, the UK and the European Union) participated in the evacuation of Kabul in August.

Looking to the future, Dumont said Airbus was talking to several customers and is the sole-bidder for Canada’s Strategic Tanker Transport Capability (STTC) project, which is initially looking for six aircraft. Airbus has also teamed with Lockheed Martin to bid an MRTT derivative known as the LMXT for the US Air Force’s emerging KC-Y tanker requirement, with the potential for up to 150 tankers.

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