MELBOURNE, Australia — Airbus Defence and Space has completed the flight phase of refueling trials of the automatic air-to-air refueling system on the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport with Singaporean F-16 fighters.

Speaking to Defense News at the Singapore Airshow, Jeronimo Amador, head of marketing for strategic air mobility at Airbus D&S, said the next phase will see Republic of Singapore Air Force F-15SG Eagles and other tankers acting as receivers for the automatic air-to-air refueling system. The A3R system will then be certified by Spanish and Singaporean authorities once the second phase of flight trials is complete.

Amador said pandemic-related travel restrictions made it difficult to get the A3R system equipped to the MRTT aircraft — which is currently with Airbus in Europe — together with receivers to conduct trials.

Amador said the completed refueling trials saw Lockheed Martin-made F-16s in various configurations used by the Air Force successfully take advantage of the system. According to Airbus, the A3R system is intended to reduce the workload of air refueling operators, improve safety and optimize the rate of air-to-air refueling transfer in operational conditions.

The A3R system automatically flies the boom and maintains alignment between the boom tip and the receiver receptacle with an accuracy of a couple of centimeters. Alignment and receiver stability is checked in real time to keep a safe distance between the boom and the receiver, and to determine the optimum moment to extend the telescopic beam to achieve the connection with the receiver before fuel transfer is initiated.

Once the fuel transfer is completed and the disconnection is commanded between the two aircraft, the boom is cleared away from the receiver by retracting the telescopic beam and flying the boom away to keep a safe separation distance. During this process, the air refueling operator simply monitors the operation.

The A3R system is a key plank of the Smart MRTT program, for which Singapore became the launch customer in 2020 to equip its Air Force’s six MRTT aircraft. Other features of the program involve an enhanced vision system for nighttime covert operations involving the hose and drogue; improved sensors to capture more data; and predictive maintenance.

Amador told Defense News that the A3R system will be an option for new-build MRTTs and as an upgrade for existing operators, with the only significant piece of hardware being a computer needed for high-resolution image processing of video feeds from cameras monitoring the boom.

Several existing and future operators of the A330 have shown interest in the A3R system, according to Amador, who noted that any receiver aircraft that uses the boom and receptacle refueling method can be qualified for the system.

Australia, which operates seven MRTTs, locally known as KC-30As, remains interested in the A3R program. It was the first country to sign an agreement with Airbus to develop the A3R system in 2017. The company is awaiting a decision by the country on how to introduce the Smart MRTT enhancements into its fleet.

Airbus also sees potential for more sales of the MRTT to new and current Indo-Pacific customers, with Amador noting that the aircraft has performed in strategic transport missions in addition to that of a tanker.

South Korea also flies four MRTTs. The aircraft type from all three Indo-Pacific operators took part in the evacuation of Kabul as the Taliban were taking back control of Afghanistan in August 2021.

Elsewhere in the region, India and Indonesia also have outstanding requirements for large tanker aircraft. Airbus has kicked off development of fully autonomous automatic air-to-air refueling, or A4R, operations for the MRTT.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.

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