Program Dossier: A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT)

[Editor’s Note: This program dossier is excerpted from the full program profile, which is available to Aviation Week Intelligence Network subscribers at awin.aviationweek.com.]

[Editor’s Note: This program dossier is excerpted from the full program profile, which is available to Aviation Week Intelligence Network subscribers at awin.aviationweek.com.]

The Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker-Transport (MRTT) is a European air-refueling tanker derived from the widebody civil airliner bearing the same name. MRTT is typically powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent 772B high-bypass turbofan engines supplying 71,100 lbf. (316 kN) of thrust each, and its centerline boom refueling system is capable of offloading 3,600 kg (7,937 lb.), or 1,200 US gal (4,542 L) of fuel to a receiving aircraft per minute.

Program History

The A330 MRTT’s originated as a larger application of the A310 MRTT. The A310 MRTT was itself a development of the A310 MRT, which was originally considered in 1994 as a replacement for older tankers. Airbus believed a market for 110 aircraft existed, and with A310-300s already in service with a number of western air arms a tanker conversion was a logical step.

In 1996, Airbus began marketing the A310 MRTT. The aircraft would be fitted with two underwing refueling pods and could be equipped with a boom, and its main deck was reinforced for cargo-handling purposes. On July 21, 1997, Airbus and Lufthansa Technik AG signed a contract with the German Air Force to convert two A310s to the MRTT configuration. The service had already acquired two A310s in 1996 from Lufthansa. Two more aircraft followed.

The A310 conversions were not as successful as expected in the 1990s. Only six were performed—four for the German Air Force and two for Canada. The MRTT concept proved to be much more viable when applied to the larger A330. In December 2004, Australia became the A330 MRTT launch customer when it awarded EADS (now Airbus) a contract for five aircraft.

An A310 was used as a testbed for the boom system, which was ideal because of the preceding MRTT integration work and the similarities between the A310 and A330. Both aircraft have the same fuselage cross-section and the same APU configuration. The first A330 MRTT intended for Australia rolled out of the EADS CASA (now Airbus) facility in Getafe in June 2007. The remaining four were modified to the MRTT configuration in Brisbane by Qantas Defense Services starting in June 2008. Australia expected to take delivery of the first aircraft in late 2008, but Australian airworthiness requirements delayed deliveries until May 2011.

Fortuitously, Australia specified a boom capability on its MRTTs, which would be required to refuel the Lockheed Martin F-35A as it entered service to replace Australia’s force of Boeing F/A-18 Hornets. It would also extend the operational range of Australia’s Boeing C-17 Globemaster III airlifters. This ensured that boom integration aboard the A330 was well underway by the time the KC-X program kicked off in the U.S.

 

KC-X Program and Recompete

In cooperation with Northrop Grumman EADS offered the A330 MRTT to fulfill the U.S. Air Force’s KC-X requirement for 179 tankers. These would replace the service’s fleet of KC-135s. An RFP for an initial batch of 80 aircraft was issued in January 2007.

The Air Force had previously attempted to lease Boeing KC-767s starting in 2002 to replace some of the KC-135s. By late 2003 this had become a proposal to acquire 80 aircraft and lease 20 more, but the program was terminated in January 2006 over allegations surrounding a procurement official seeking employment at Boeing while working on the program. The scandal led to the firing and prosecution of both the former official, by then a Boeing vice president, and of Boeing CFO Michael M. Sears, and the resignation of Boeing CEO Philip M. Condit.

Boeing’s KC-X offering was based on the 767-200LRF, a new 767-family aircraft incorporating the doors, floors, and wings of the 767-300F and the cockpit, tail section and flaps of the 767-400ER. It was an evolution of the earlier KC-767 proposal for the Air Force, which is distinct from the 767-200ER-derived tankers sold to various export customers.

To fulfill U.S. industrial requirements Airbus would establish a facility in Mobile, Alabama, to modify A330s to the MRTT configuration. The MRTT was selected to fulfill the requirement in February 2008. As the winner it became known as the KC-45A. Boeing filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which the GAO sustained on June 18, 2008.

The GAO recommended a new source selection, and on July 9, 2008, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered an expedited recompetition run directly by the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD AT&L) instead of by the Air Force. Northrop was ordered to stop work on the contract and a draft RFP was issued in August 2008. Proposals were initially due in October and for a source selection to be made by the end of 2008, but this quickly proved to be overambitious, and the second iteration of KC-X was canceled in September. Gates anticipated a third recompete after the new administration took office.

A year later, in September 2009, Gates announced the resurrection of KC-X. This time the program would be run by the Air Force, with OSD oversight. The contract would cover 179 aircraft and make up the first stage of a three-stage effort to recapitalize the U.S. tanker force. A new draft fixed-price RFP focused on 373 mandatory requirements, with 93 non-mandatory requirements that would decide the competition if the proposals were within 1% on price.

The new requirements immediately aroused controversy, and Northrop threatened to not bid on the RFP in a December letter to USD AT&L, the Deputy Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force. The letter emphasized the need for a competitive process to preserve the “credibility” of the source selection and held out a Northrop withdrawal in an effort to pressure the Air Force to modify the draft RFP. Its position was supported by the Alabama congressional delegation and by EADS. The Air Force put out a final RFP in February 2010, with deliveries of four test articles to begin in FY 2015. Initial Operating Capability (IOC) would come in 2017.

Northrop withdrew from KC-X on Mar. 8, 2010. EADS submitted an independent bid on April 20. It marketed the MRTT as the KC-45, with a proposal largely similar to the one it had offered with Northrop’s cooperation. This included assembly at a new Mobile, Alabama Airbus facility. Following months of delays and a dark horse bid from Antonov offering an An-70 derivative with U.S. engines, Boeing’s proposal was selected on Feb. 24, 2011 and designated the KC-46A. The contract covered 18 aircraft to be delivered by 2017, including the four preproduction examples. EADS refrained from submitting a protest, citing Boeing’s “very aggressive” proposal and the high degree of financial risk it was assuming on the fixed-price contract.

Features

Overall Design

The A330 MRTT is based on the Airbus A330-200 widebody commercial jet with additional equipment to perform aerial refueling as well as military transport and aeromedical evacuation missions. The A330-200 itself is a shortened variant of the A330-300 fitted with a new center wing fuel tank for additional range. Powered by a pair of either General Electric CF6-80E1A3 or Rolls Royce Trent 772B turbofans, the aircraft has a maximum cruising speed of Mach 0.86, a ferry range of 8,000 nm (14,800 km) and a maximum takeoff weight of 514,000 lb. (233,000 kg). The glass cockpit holds a flight crew of two, each with side-stick controllers for the aircraft’s fly-by-wire control system. An optional Defensive Aid System (DAS) can protect the aircraft in medium-threat environments with systems including a missile warning system, infrared (IR) laser jammers, cockpit armor and fuel tank inerting systems.

With 245,000 lb. (111,000 kg) of fuel in its standard internal tanks, the A330 is the first aircraft adapted for aerial refueling that did not require installation of extra fuel bladders, enabling it to carry its full load of fuel while reserving all of its main and lower decks for passengers and cargo. If required, the A330 MRTT can be equipped with a Universal Aerial Refueling Receptacle Slipway Installation (UARRSI), allowing it to receive fuel in flight from boom-equipped tankers at 1,200 gal/min (3,600 kg/min).

Overall Design

The A330 MRTT is based on the Airbus A330-200 widebody commercial jet with additional equipment to perform aerial refueling as well as military transport and aeromedical evacuation missions. The A330-200 itself is a shortened variant of the A330-300 fitted with a new center wing fuel tank for additional range. Powered by a pair of either General Electric CF6-80E1A3 or Rolls Royce Trent 772B turbofans, the aircraft has a maximum cruising speed of Mach 0.86, a ferry range of 8,000 nm (14,800 km) and a maximum takeoff weight of 514,000 lb. (233,000 kg). The glass cockpit holds a flight crew of two, each with side-stick controllers for the aircraft’s fly-by-wire control system. An optional Defensive Aid System (DAS) can protect the aircraft in medium-threat environments with systems including a missile warning system, infrared (IR) laser jammers, cockpit armor and fuel tank inerting systems.

With 245,000 lb. (111,000 kg) of fuel in its standard internal tanks, the A330 is the first aircraft adapted for aerial refueling that did not require installation of extra fuel bladders, enabling it to carry its full load of fuel while reserving all of its main and lower decks for passengers and cargo. If required, the A330 MRTT can be equipped with a Universal Aerial Refueling Receptacle Slipway Installation (UARRSI), allowing it to receive fuel in flight from boom-equipped tankers at 1,200 gal/min (3,600 kg/min).

Refueling System

The MRTT is designed for multiple fuel offload systems. It can carry:

The Airbus Defence & Space (ADS) Aerial Refueling Boom System (ARBS) to refuel receptacle-equipped aircraft, at a rate of 1,200 gal/min (3,600 kg/min).

Two Cobham 905E underwing pods to refuel probe-equipped aircraft at an offload rate of 420 gal/min (1,300 kg/min). The pods are permanently installed at the hardpoints already available on the common A330/A340 wing, where the outer engines reside on the A340.

Some A330 MRTTs also are equipped to carry a removable Cobham 805E Fuselage Refueling Unit (FRU), which is installed at the aft centerline near the boom, to refuel large, probe-equipped aircraft (such as the A400M or C295) at up to 600 gal/min (1,800 kg/min). The 805E can also offload a type of fuel different from the under-wing pods. It is not compatible with the ARBS and is directly integrated into the fuselage.

Airbus and operators have described multiple refueling mission profiles for the MRTT:

Remain on station 1,000 nmi (1,852 km) from base for 4 hr. and 30 min. while offloading 110,230 lb. (50,000 kg) of fuel.

Remain on station 500 nmi (926 km) from base for 5 hr. while offloading 132,200 lb. (60,000 kg) of fuel.

Deploy 3,600 nmi (6,700 km) with four Eurofighter Typhoons, refueling them en route.

Deploy 2,800 nmi (5,200 km) with four fighters while carrying 44,100 lb. (20,000 kg) of cargo or 26,400 lb. (12,000 kg) of cargo and 50 passengers.

Unlike in earlier tanker designs, the A330 MRTT’s air-to-air refueling (AAR) systems are controlled remotely at a console in the cockpit, rather than at the rear of the aircraft, allowing better coordination with the flight crew. This requires an optronics system since the operator cannot directly view the refueling stations from the tail as on the KC-135 or KC-10.

Situated behind the pilots, the Air Refueling Operator (ARO) console provides visibility aft of the aircraft through the Enhanced Vision System (EVS). EVS incorporates a set of high-definition cameras that feed 2D/3D digital displays—one large display with three smaller ones above it—to provide a 270-deg. view behind the aircraft in day, night or adverse weather conditions. The console monitors the refueling equipment and records refueling operations. Another console is available for an instructor or mission coordinator. AAR and mission data, along with video of the AAR operation behind the aircraft, also are provided to the flight crew’s displays to enhance their situational awareness.

Engines

Like civil A330-200s, the MRTT is offered with three engine configurations, the GE CF6-80E1A3 / 1A4B, the Pratt & Whitney PW4168A and the Rolls-Royce Trent 772B. Most MRTTs are delivered with the Trent 772B.

The GE CF6-80E1A3 is a high-bypass ratio axial flow turbofan engine capable of supplying 72,000 lbf. (320 kN) of thrust at takeoff. The CF6-80E1A4B, which Saudi aircraft are equipped with, is very similar to the E1A3 and is rated for the same takeoff thrust. The Pratt & Whitney PW4168A is a high-bypass ratio axial flow turbofan engine capable of supplying 68,600 lbf. (305 kN) of thrust at takeoff. The Trent 772B is a high-bypass ratio axial flow turbofan engine capable of supplying 71,100 lbf. (316 kN) of thrust at takeoff.

Cargo and Passenger Handling

In the transport mission, the A330 MRTT can carry up to 300 troops or a payload of 99,000 lb. (45,000 kg). The upper deck is offered in a variety of passenger configurations. A single class configuration yields the 300-troop capacity, but more typical is a two-class configuration accommodating 266 passengers, with 30 in business seats and 236 in economy. The maximum certified capacity is 380 passengers. VIP cabin configurations also are offered.

Even with all AAR systems installed, the A330 MRTT provides as much cargo volume as a C-130 and as much payload weight as the A400M. The A330-200 fuselage includes three lower deck cargo compartments (forward, aft and bulk) with a maximum usable volume of 4,200 ft3 (120 m3). This lower deck can accommodate a variety of pallet loads including eight 463L (88 x108 in.) NATO pallets plus one LD3 container and one LD6 container; or 25 LD3s. While configuring the main deck for cargo stowage would yield another 11,830 ft3 (335 m3) of contiguous space (enough for 26 NATO pallets), none of the A330 MRTTs currently in service or on order have cargo doors installed on the main deck, and the current decks are not capable of handling large pallets or containers.

Capability Compared to the KC-46A

The MRTT’s primary competitor, the KC-46A, carries two underwing refueling pods capable of offloading 400 U.S. gal of fuel per minute and a cockpit-controlled fly-by-wire refueling boom offloading 1,200 U.S. gal of fuel per minute. These rates are comparable to a similarly configured MRTT. The KC-46A can carry up to 212,300 lb. (96,300 kg) of fuel, more than 30,000 lb. (13,610 kg) less than the considerably larger MRTT.

Unlike the MRTT, the KC-46A does not feature a cargo bay underneath the cabin; it has space for a maximum of 114 passengers (FAA certification for only 58) and three pallets. In a pure cargo configuration, it can handle a maximum of 18 463L pallets. Its aeromedical evacuation configuration includes 24 litters and space for 30 ambulatory patients. The airlifter-like cargo and passenger capacity of the MRTT gives it added versatility and has made it successful in a market where many countries are seeking to replace a portion of both their tanker and airlift capacity with a single fleet.

Production and Delivery History

As of January 2022, the MRTT was serving in the national militaries of seven countries and with NATO. Fifty-one are in service and another 13 will be delivered over the next decade under existing commitments. India and Spain have selected MRTTs to fulfill their tanker requirements.

MRTTs are converted from “green” A330-200s at Airbus’ Getafe, Spain, facility. Getafe has three hangars for MRTT conversions. Iberia Maintenance’s facility in Madrid has another two hangars that can be used for overflow capacity under an agreement with Airbus if required.

Australia

Australia’s initial fleet of MRTTs was procured under Project AIR 5402, which yielded a source selection in April 2004 for five aircraft. All five would be equipped with the wing-mounted pods and the centerline boom option. A contract was signed in December 2004.

Australia currently operates seven A330 MRTTs, which it calls the KC-30A. Deliveries for the first batch began on June 1, 2011, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2012. In August 2014, the country’s defense minister announced plans to convert two ex-Qantas A330s as part of the 2015 Defence White Paper review. This program was dubbed AIR 7403 Phase 3, with $914.4 million AUD ($785.12 million USD in 2021) budgeted for the program in 2015. Conversion efforts for both aircraft were underway in May 2016. The sixth was delivered on Sep. 18, 2017, and the seventh and final Australian MRTT was delivered in mid-2019. The final aircraft features a VIP cabin.

The Royal Australian Air Force lists its KC-30A as capable of carrying 270 passengers and 34,000 kg of cargo pallets and containers. The aircraft are powered by General Electric CF6-80E1A3s and carry Link 16 datalinks, military communication and navigation systems, and the Large Aircraft Infra-Red Counter Measures (LAIRCM) system.

France

On Nov. 20, 2014, France announced it was ready to order 12 A330 MRTTs under an agreement valued at €3 billion ($4.4 billion in 2021). Under the agreement, Paris would order one aircraft in 2014, eight in 2015 and the remaining three at an unspecified future date. The first entered service in late 2018. France took up the option for the last three aircraft in September 2018, with all 12 to be in service by 2023. At this time France was also considering procuring an additional three, to bring the total to 15. These were contracted by December 2018.

As of January 2022, six aircraft are in service. Deliveries terminate in 2025 under current plans. The fleet of 15 MRTTs is replacing 14 KC-135Rs, two A340s and three A310s. The A340s and A310s have already been withdrawn, and the KC-135 drawdown will be complete in 2023.

The contract covered development and qualification of the specific French configuration, which includes Trent 772B engines, Thales avionics and a passenger capacity of 271. For medevac missions, the French MRTTs are outfitted with the MoRPHEE (Module de Réanimation pour Patient à Haute Elongation d’Evacuation) intensive care module carrying up to ten patients and 88 other passengers.

India

India released a tender in 2006 to acquire six new tankers in addition to the service’s six Ilyushin Il-78s, which were delivered in 2003 and 2004. Both the Il-78 and A330 MRTT were considered for the requirement. On May 28, 2009, India selected the MRTT. The tender was subsequently terminated by the Indian government in January 2010. Under the procurement regulations of the day, the government was obliged to procure the cheapest capability meeting requirements.

A new tender was launched, and in November 2012 the Indian government designated EADS as its “preferred vendor” for the program. In early 2013 the Indian Ministry of Defense (MoD) once again selected the A330 MRTT. Final negotiations ensued for the sale, estimated to be worth more than $2 billion, with Airbus officials pre-signing a contract in the hopes the Indian MoD would sign in 2014. However, the procurement process was put on hold after the deal was referred to the MoD’s vigilance department for clearance after allegations of financial irregularities were levied against Airbus by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). As of May 2015, the contract had not been signed but New Delhi’s defense minister stated the process was “still on track.” The Indian Air force had hoped to induct the tankers starting in 2017. In July 2016 the tender was canceled due to the “high operational cost” expected for the aircraft.

A new RFI was launched in January 2018; the first aircraft were expected to arrive in three years. The MRTT, KC-46A and Il-78 were all considered before the Il-78 was disqualified. The RFI included provisions for bidders to submit offers for both new-build and used aircraft, but the vagaries of the Indian procurement system caused more delays. By March 2020 the acquisition had morphed into a wet lease with quotes sought quotes from Airbus and Boeing. To expedite the process, India intended to procure 1-2 aircraft to start and either lease or buy more thereafter.

In April 2021, reports suggested the Indian government was in talks with France for a ten-year wet lease on a French Air Force MRTT. This would be followed by a lease of four to five more aircraft provided by Airbus and operated by AirTanker.

MRTTs marketed to India carry under-wing pods and the FRU but not the ARBS, yielding a three-point hose-and-drogue system. At present India does not operate any tactical aircraft that would require boom refueling, but this could change in the unlikely event India selects the Boeing F-15EX to fulfill its outstanding requirement for 110 fighters.

NATO Multinational MRTT Fleet

At the 2012 NATO Summit, NATO members agreed to establish a multinational tanker force to augment the alliance’s non-U.S. air refueling capability. Ten European countries signed a letter of intent agreeing to move the effort forward: Belgium, France, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal and Spain. The aircraft are equipped with a refueling boom, the two under-wing pods and the Trent 772B engine.

In December 2014, the Dutch defense minister indicated that the Netherlands, Norway and Poland would partner on the Multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF), or what NATO now calls the Multi Role Tanker Transport Capability (MRTT-C). The four new tankers would effectively replace the Netherlands’ two McDonnell Douglas KDC-10s. In July 2016, just prior to the signing of the MMF contract, Poland withdrew, reportedly over cost and industrial offsets.

On July 28, 2016, the Netherlands and Luxembourg signed an MOU agreeing to move forward with a contract for two aircraft and an option for five more. The contract with Airbus was signed shortly thereafter, and the first deliveries were expected in 2016. Germany and Norway formally joined the MMF program on Sep. 25, 2017. Their admission included the exercise of the option for the additional five MRTTs. It also added a new option for four aircraft to be exercised as more countries joined the program in the future. Belgium’s admission in February 2018 converted one of these options to a contract. The Czech Republic joined in October 2019, though another option was not exercised until September 2020, a few months after the first MRTT was delivered to Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands on June 29, 2020.

Saudi Arabia

On Jan. 3, 2008, Riyadh confirmed it had selected Airbus (then EADS) to supply three A330 MRTTs. On July 27, 2009, Airbus announced it had received a follow-on contract to double the order to six. The first MRTT entered service with the Royal Saudi Air Force on Feb. 25, 2013. All six were in service by the end of 2015. Riyadh’s aircraft are powered by General Electric CF6-80E engines, carry the boom and under-wing pods and have the two-class 266-seat cabin.

Singapore

The Republic of Singapore Air Force ordered six A330 MRTTs, of the enhanced A330-200/300 version, in February 2014, announcing the deal on March 6, 2014. The aircraft were bought to replace the country’s four ex-U.S. Air Force KC-135Rs, and all six were delivered by January 2020. A Singaporean MoD fact sheet states the nation’s aircraft are powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 772B engines and have the two-class, 266-seat cabin configuration. Singaporean MRTTs will receive Airbus’ A3R automated refueling capability after it achieves certification.

South Korea

On June 30, 2015, South Korea selected the MRTT over the KC-46A and a KC-767 proposal offered by Israel Aerospace Industries to fulfill a requirement for four tankers. The Airbus proposal was priced at that time at $1.3 billion ($1.5 billion in 2021). The first two aircraft were delivered in January and March 2019. The second pair arrived in the latter half of the year. South Korea’s MRTTs are equipped with the boom system and use the Trent 772B engine. They also feature the AN/AAQ-24(V) LAIRCM countermeasures system.

Spain

In 2016, Spain expressed interest in acquiring three MRTTs. The plan stalled for years until 2020, when the Spanish government committed to the program in an effort to bolster Airbus in Spain to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on industry. Spain’s previous tanker capability, the Boeing KC-707, was retired in 2016.

A contract was finally signed on Sep. 21, 2021, to convert three A330s formerly serving with Iberia (Spain’s flag carrier). The first MRTT conversion for Spain will be completed in 2024 under current plans. Spanish MRTTs will have the hose and drogue refueling pods and the aeromedical evacuation cabin configuration.

United Arab Emirates (UAE)

The UAE ordered three A330 MRTTs in February 2008. Deliveries ran from Feb. 6, 2013, to Aug. 6, 2013. In November 2019, the UAE opted to acquire another three MRTTs despite the previous request for three KC-46As in May 2019. On Nov. 14, 2021, the UAE selected two more A330s. It is not clear whether any of these five aircraft have been contracted yet. Emirati A330 MRTTs are equipped with a boom, under-wing pods and the UARRSI. They are powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 772Bs and have 256 passenger seats.

United Kingdom

The UK operates its A330 MRTTs (known as the KC2/KC3 Voyager locally) under a leasing arrangement with AirTanker, a private consortium of Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Thales, Cobham and Babcock. The company has 14 MRTTs in service. These aircraft took over the Royal Air Force (RAF) refueling role from the Vickers VC-10 and Lockheed Tristar, which were retired in September 2013 and March 2014, respectively.

The RAF operates two versions of the Voyager: the KC2 with two under-wing pods and the KC3, a “three-point” tanker with the two under-wing pods and the FRU. Neither version carries a boom. The fleet of 14 includes seven KC3s, with five fitted with the FRU at any given time.

The leasing arrangement began when the UK MoD awarded AirTanker the Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA) contract in March 2008. This “private finance initiative” contract runs until 2035 and is valued at £10.5 billion over 27 years. Other than for inflationary increases (which is tied to the Retail Price Index), costs are fixed for the duration of the contract. However, the UK’s National Audit Office has reported the cost of the program may reach £12.3 billion.

RAF service members pilot and crew the Voyagers on all military missions. However, Air Tanker owns, manages and maintains the aircraft and also provides infrastructure, support and training facilities. RAF personnel in the two Voyager squadrons can also be supplemented by 14 RAF “Sponsored Reserve” pilots who are also civilian employees of AirTanker.

The AirTanker A330 MRTTs are designed to be converted to and from tankers, an operation that is part of the consortium’s business plan and key to reducing costs of the FSTA program. The conversion back to civil configuration is carried out by AirTanker engineers using facilities at Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, the company’s base where it carries out most of its activities.

Nine of the 14 Voyagers form a core fleet that is constantly available to the RAF. At any one time, at least one of these nine aircraft flies without its military equipment on the Civil Aircraft Register. This aircraft can personnel around the world, including to the Falkland Islands, without the clearances required for military flights. The remaining five Voyagers (all KC2s) form a surge capability for RAF but can be released for use by other nations as tankers (with the U.K. MoD’s agreement) and for use in the charter market without military equipment aboard.

United States

The MRTT is again in contention in the U.S. as the Air Force moves ahead with its KC-Y competition to procure a “Bridge Tanker” to fill an emerging gap between the KC-46A and the future KC-Z tanker. As with KC-X, the competition will pit the KC-46A against the MRTT. The Air Force wants to acquire 140-160 new tankers at up to 15 per year starting in 2029.

Airbus is partnering with Lockheed Martin on its KC-Y offering, marking the MRTT as the LMXT. It is expected to have improved range and fuel offload capability compared to the MRTT, to incorporate an open systems architecture and to have networking features viewed as desirable to support the Air Force’s ABMS concept. Lockheed has also stated the LMXT will feature U.S.-made engines. In January 2022, Lockheed confirmed A330s offered for the program will be built in Alabama and converted to LMXTs at the Lockheed facility in Marietta, Georgia.

Air Force officials have recently thrown cold water on the program; in March 2022 Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall indicated that the service was likely to sole source modified KC-46s. Kendall said that the “likelihood of a competition has come down” as the service matured its requirements. Nevertheless RDT&E funds for KC-Y were included in the Fiscal 2023 President’s Budget Request, so KC-Y remains a live issue in the short term.

Unlike the MRTT, the KC-46A does not feature a cargo bay underneath the cabin; it has space for a maximum of 114 passengers (FAA certification for only 58) and three pallets. In a pure cargo configuration, it can handle a maximum of 18 463L pallets. Its aeromedical evacuation configuration includes 24 litters and space for 30 ambulatory patients. The airlifter-like cargo and passenger capacity of the MRTT gives it added versatility and has made it successful in a market where many countries are seeking to replace a portion of both their tanker and airlift capacity with a single fleet.

Prepared by Sterling Richmond, sterling.richmond@aviationweek.com

Sterling Richmond

Sterling tracks military aircraft fleets in Sub-Saharan Africa and writes military aircraft profiles.