The Smart Tanker

Nigel Pittaway brings AIR International readers up to date with one of Europe’s most important military programmes – the A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT)


A Royal Australian Air Force KC- 30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft awaits its next Operation Okra mission at a base in the Middle East Region.
Cpl David Cotton/Royal Australian Air Force

With its A330- based MRTT now in full operational service with four air forces around the world, including the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force, and ordered by seven others, Airbus Defence & Space is now looking for the next-generation tanker.

Most recently, Germany and Norway became the newest MRTT customers, with the announcement in June that the two countries would join with Luxembourg and the Netherlands to pool aircraft under the European/NATO Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport Fleet (MMF).

As of early October 2017, 29 of the 51 aircraft on order had been delivered and the first of what the manufacturer calls the new standard definition or second wave of aircraft, including the first aircraft for the Republic of Singapore Air Force and France’s Armée de l’Air, were already flying, with deliveries set to begin in 2018.

Over and above the improvements incorporated into the new standard aircraft, Airbus Defence & Space is working on a range of technology insertions into the basic tanker airframe. These are intended not only to enhance capability in the core air-to-air refuelling role, but also to add additional communications and data-sharing capability, making the MRTT an important node in the networked battlespace of the future.

At the Australian International Air Show, held at Avalon in March 2017, Airbus D&S head Fernando Alonso announced that the first four of these technologies were being bundled together under the ‘Smart Tanker’ programme.

New Standard Definition tankers

The first New Standard Definition aircraft has begun certification testing of the upgraded configuration in Spain, prior to delivery to the Republic of Singapore Air Force. All MRTTs delivered after this aircraft will be to the new standard.

The new configuration takes advantage of the upgrades made by Airbus to the green A330-200 and will incorporate structural and aerodynamic changes to improve efficiency, as well as adding new computers and displays.

In addition to the structural and aerodynamic upgrade packages, the changes include an increase in maximum take-off weight (MTOW) and a flight management system based on the current ‘Power 8’ computers.

The MTOW of the new variant is increased to 242 tonnes (529,100lb), up from 233 tonnes (513,677lb), resulting in structural enhancements to the wings (including a load alleviation feature) and main landing gear. The fuselage is beefed up by the addition of doublers to the existing structure in strategic areas. Aerodynamic improvements include the reshaping of the No.1 Slat inboard of the engines and shortened flap track fairings, which Airbus D&S says together reduce fuel consumption by up to 1%.

Mission equipment enhancements include: wideband satellite communications (SATCOM); an air-to-air refuelling capability software upgrade; IFF Mode 5 transponder, compatible with ADS-B Revision 2; and new mission computers, which Airbus D&S calls the Tanker Integrated Mission System (TIMS).

TIMS is based on the Intel Core 17 processor and incorporates new software to allow in-flight mission replanning, as well as a Link 16 datalink management system and a mission debrief capability, which allows mission debriefing to be undertaken onboard the aircraft using the boom operator’s console on the flight deck. Airbus D&S says the new system has a growth capability for secure IP network (chat) connection via SATCOM.

The system is based on the company’s Fully Integrated Tactical System currently integrated into maritime patrol aircraft such as the C295 MPA aircraft Airbus D&S has delivered to Chile, Oman and Portugal and the upgraded P-3AM Orion maritime patrol aircraft of the Força Aerea Brasileira (Brazilian Air Force), albeit optimised for the tactical nature of a tanker mission.

An electronic flight bag will be added to the flight deck and the fly-by-wire Aerial Refueling Boom System (ARBS) will receive the latest software upgrades, as well as a new operator’s control stick that the company says has “improved behaviour”.

Some of the features of the New Standard Designation, such as the IFF Mode 5 capability, will be incorporated into a retrofit kit that Airbus D&S is currently developing for the first-wave aircraft.

Smart Tanker programme

Although Fernando Alonso used the Avalon Air Show to launch the Smart Tanker formally, the company has been working on the idea for some time and one of its key partners in the development of the concept is the Royal Australian Air Force, which was the launch customer for the A330 MRTT back in 2004.

Four new initiatives have been bundled together into the initial Smart Tanker package, but it is intended to be an evolving programme that will see other technologies added as time goes on. Included in the initial four are an automatic air-to-air refuelling (A3R) capability for the ARBS, initiatives to transform the MRTT into a command and control (C) node, with enhanced communications, using Airbus’ Space Data Highway programme, and a big data system aimed at predicting failures in critical mission systems and therefore increasing mission success rates.

Alonso said: “We will not launch all of the four elements at the same time. The Smart Tanker configuration is not exclusive, technology is moving very quickly and this is not a closed concept. We will be developing them all at the same time, but what is important to note is that this is an openended concept; as technology gives us the opportunity to add more capabilities to the aircraft, we will do so.”

He said Airbus D&S has been working across its product portfolio to leverage digital technology and provide higher levels of situational awareness and connectivity and noted that the strategy closely aligned with the Royal Australian Air Force’s Plan Jericho concept to deliver what the Australian Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal ‘Leo’ Davies calls the “fifth-generation Air Force”.

Speaking at Avalon, Alonso said: “I see here that two stars have aligned themselves: our strategy at Airbus D&S and Plan Jericho. [The Royal Australian Air Force] wants to incorporate additional capabilities into its aircraft and it wants rapid prototyping and rapid testing to introduce these technologies quickly.”

Following the announcement, Alonso and Air Marshal Davies signed a research agreement to cooperate on the development of the first of the Smart Tanker initiatives, the A3R capability.

Air Marshal Davies said: “It is a combination of real-world operational experience, industry experience and the exploitation of technology, and it is an indication of joint thought – the reason why we need cooperation between air force and industry to realise Plan Jericho.”

A3R refuelling capability

Airbus D&S says the A3R concept will reduce crew workload during boom refuelling missions by day or night and in all weather conditions, by allowing consistent and accurate contacts with the receiver aircraft. The system uses a series of 3D cameras, together with image processing software, to determine the precise location of the receiver’s refuelling receptacle in space and then automatically direct the boom to a point directly above the receptacle. The telescopic portion of the boom can be controlled either manually by the air refuelling officer (ARO) or via a number of automatic modes, including a relative distance-keeping mode and a fully automatic mode, to perform the contact.




Australia was the launch customer for the A330 MRTT programme with an order for four aircraft (later increased to five) under Project Air 5402 in 2004. The first aircraft was converted by Airbus at Getafé and the remaining four by Qantas Defence Services in Australia. In Royal Australian Air Force service the aircraft are designated KC-30A. The first aircraft was handed over in July 2011 and the acquisition of a further two aircraft (ex-Qantas A330-200s) under Project Air 7403 Phase 3 was announced in June 2016. The sixth aircraft arrived in Australia in September 2016 and the seventh will follow in 2018. The latter aircraft will also be fitted with a partial VIP interior and the Australian Government has foreshadowed an order for a further two aircraft in the second half of the next decade.

Saudi Arabia

The Royal Saudi Air Force became the fourth MRTT customer with an order for three aircraft (later increased to six) announced in January 2008. The first aircraft was delivered in November 2011, but retained by Airbus D&S (then Airbus Military) for crew training. The MRTT first entered service with the Saudis in February 2013 and all had been delivered by early 2015.

United Arab Emirates

The United Arab Emirates Air Force announced the selection of the MRTT in February 2007, becoming the third customer for the aircraft behind Australia and the UK. The first aircraft was delivered in February 2013, followed by the second and third aircraft later that year.

United Kingdom

The UK formally became the second MRTT customer in June 2007, with the announcement that the government had approved a private finance initiative solution with the AirTanker consortium, under the RAF’s Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft programme. AirTanker subsequently signed a contract with the UK Ministry of Defence in March 2008 for 14 aircraft, to be known in RAF Service as Voyager and comprising seven in two-point tanker configuration (Voyager KC2) and seven three-point aircraft (Voyager KC3). The first aircraft made its maiden flight after conversion in September 2010 and the final aircraft was delivered in 2016. In 2015, it was further announced that one aircraft would receive a partial VIP interior and this aircraft entered service in May 2016.



In late 2011, France announced that it would replace its ageing C-135FR fleet with the MRTT and announced in late 2012 that it would order 14 aircraft the following year. In the event this was reduced to 12 aircraft, to be acquired in three tranches of one, eight and three, but at the present time only the first nine are funded. To be named Phénix in Armée de l’Air service, the first aircraft made its maiden flight after conversion to MRTT configuration at Getafé in September this year. Deliveries are due to begin in 2018.

Germany and Norway

Germany and Norway became the most recent MRTT customers in June, when they officially joined the European/NATO MMF programme. The MMF is managed by Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement (OCCAR) and the aircraft will be pooled with those already ordered by Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Five aircraft will be ordered by the two countries and there are options on a further four.

Luxembourg and the Netherlands

Luxembourg and the Netherlands became the first members of the MMF with a memorandum of understanding in July 2016 for the acquisition of two aircraft, with options of up to six more as further nations join the grouping.


The Republic of Singapore Air Force announced an order for six MRTTs in March 2014, becoming the sixth MRTT customer and the first for the second wave of New Standard Definition aircraft. The MRTT beat the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus for the order and the first aircraft began conversion in Getafé in October 2015. The first aircraft will also be the certification platform for the new tanker configuration, with deliveries to Singapore to begin in 2018.

South Korea

South Korea selected the MRTT in June 2015, after also considering the KC-46A and the IAI 767-300-based MMTT. Four aircraft will be acquired for the Republic of Korea Air Force, with all aircraft to be delivered by the end of 2019. The first green aircraft for Korea was delivered to Airbus D&S in May 2017 and is currently undergoing conversion at Getafé.

A Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18F Super Hornet and a KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport aircraft taxi for a mission in support of Operation Okra from a base in the Middle East.
Cpl David Cotton/Royal Australian Air Force

The imaging technology behind the system had originally been developed by Airbus’ Space division to study the possibility of refuelling satellites in space and the feasibility of removing space debris; it has been further developed by Airbus D&S for the A3R role.

The world’s first automatic coupling was made between an Airbus D&S’ A310 MRTT testbed and a Força Aérea Portuguesa (Portuguese Air Force) F-16A off the Portuguese coast on March 21, 2017. The 90-minute test included six contacts at an altitude of 25,000ft (7,620mm) and a speed of 270kts (500km/h).

In a press release some time after the trials, Airbus D&S provided comment from the Portuguese F-16 pilot who fiew the receiver aircraft. Identified only by his call sign ‘Prime’, he said the test mission was uneventful and was accomplished with no unexpected issues: “From the moment that the boomer [ARO] accepted the contact, the boom was immediately in the correct spot. For the contact itself, it was very precise and expeditious. He said. “You can notice the difference. The less that you feel in the cockpit, then the more precise you know the tracking is.”

Further testing will include the use of an MRTT as a receiving aircraft and, as part of the development agreement signed with Australia, a Royal Australian Air Force KC- 30A will be used alongside the A310 testbed. Airbus predicts that the A3R system could be installed on current A330-based MRTTs, including the Royal Australian Air Force’s KC- 30As, as early as 2019.

Communications node

Another initiative included in the initial Smart Tanker proposal is the development of the aircraft as a C2 node. This project is considering a range of connectivity proposals that can be added, together with the upgrade of existing communications capabilities such as the Link 16 Tactical Data Link.

Included in the proposals are the addition of Link 16 Joint Range Extension functionality, which allows the existing Link 16 system to act as a data relay, to make the data available to a Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence network and/or access information from networks that are at beyond-line-of-sight ranges. A further initiative may be the installation of an airborne laser terminal that, as the name suggests, uses a laser communications system to transmit and receive large amounts of data to or from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit. Airbus D&S is already testing this latter system aboard its A310 testbed.

The company says the intention is to capitalise on the MRTT’s size and performance and the fact that it typically operates close to the operational area.

Fernando Alonso explained: “The communications node activity is a wideranging concept to enable the MRTT to operate in an intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance/Cfirole in addition to its AAR role. The concept has generated considerable interest among current A330 MRTT operators and development work continues, informed by our conversations with customers.”

Space Data Highway

The Space Data Highway concept uses laser technology to transfer high volumes of data via SATCOM to provide an extremely secure means of transferring data at rates up to double those possible using today’s systems. In simple terms, it is an airborne fibre-optics system that could enable the transmission of very large quantities of, for instance, highde finition video between multiple platforms. The Space Data Highway is a wider Airbus D&S programme to improve communications infrastructure and in the Smart Tanker context it is also due to be tested on the company’s A310 in the near future.

Big data

Big data makes use of the commercial A330’s central maintenance computer philosophy, but expanded and enhanced to enable the capture of data from the MRTT’s mission systems. In the airline world, this information is used to improve technical despatch rates (and therefore increase profits) by anticipating component failures and allowing preventative maintenance activity to be scheduled in advance.

Fernando Alonso said: “It is about combining the data from the aircraft systems with big data algorithms to develop predictive maintenance plans and take action before the actual failure happens, so we can increase the operational reliability and availability of the aircraft.”

At Avalon, Alonso also mentioned Airbus D&S’ covert tanker operations initiative, a concept aimed at enhancing night AAR operations in a hostile environment by reducing the visibility of the tanker. Although he was unable to release any further details, it is understood that the concept will involve the means of conducting AAR without the tanker using its current external lighting system.

He said: “All of this actually fits in beautifully with Plan Jericho. It is important because we have launched the project internally and we’re delighted that the [Royal Australian Air Force] is supporting us as we move in this direction. I’m sure that together we will be able to convince the other [MRTT] users that giving additional capability to this aircraft is moving forwards.”