SINGAPORE – Singapore will be the launch customer of a series of enhancements for the Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport, or MRTT, and will collaborate in the development and certification process together with the European aircraft manufacturer.

The collaboration will see one of Singapore’s six A330 MRTTs take part in the ongoing development, flight test campaign and final certification program, and will make the small southeast Asian island nation become a key partner for the new automated aerial-refueling capabilities that are being developed, according to Airbus.

The flight test campaign for the improved aircraft, which Airbus calls the Smart MRTT, has already started and certification is targeted for 2021, according to a press release issued at the ongoing Singapore Airshow.

Johan Pelissier, the head of Asia-Pacific for Airbus Defence and Space, also confirmed during a roundtable at the show that deliveries of Singapore’s six MRTTs have been completed.

The Smart MRTT will boast automatic air-to-air refuelling, or A3R, as well as enhanced maintenance solutions for the standard A330 tanker. Airbus says that its A3R system requires no additional equipment on the receiver and is intended to reduce air refuelling operator (ARO) workload, improve safety and optimize the rate of fuel transfer in operational conditions to maximise aerial superiority.

Once the A3R system is activated by the operator, the Boom Flight Control System becomes fully automated and progresses to transfer fuel upon contact with the receiver. During this process, the operator simply monitors the mission. In the event of an anomaly due to receiver stability deviations or malfunctions on the tanker, the A3R system is able to disconnect and clear the boom away from the receiver safely, according to Airbus.

The pilot of the receiver aircraft closing in to the tanker will take visual cues from the automated Pilot Director Lights (PDL). This feature allows for more efficient operations, with smoother transitions, and minimizes time during the coupled state. Airbus expects A3R development to pave the way towards a fully autonomous aerial refuelling operation.

The Smart MRTT project was launched in 2017, with an A310 tanker belonging to Airbus making the first automated contact with a refuelling boom system in 2018. The A310 performed a total of seven automated contacts with an Australian MRTT as part of a joint study into how to add capability to the tanker.

Australia’s and Singapore’s involvement in the Smart MRTT project is another avenue of potential defense cooperation between both countries, which enjoy close military ties with each other. Singapore, which lacks adequate training areas at home, has an extensive military training footprint in Australia, training troops, helicopter and aircraft pilots there.

Both countries are also regular participants of bilateral and multilateral exercises, which include both air forces conducting air-to-air refuelling training with each other’s tankers and receiver aircraft.

Defense News understands this program will expand later this year, when Singapore’s Boeing F-15SG Eagle multi-role fighters are planned to carry out air-to-air refuelling from Australian MRTTs for the first time when both types take part in Exercise Pitch Black over northern Australia in August.