A Look At The Airbus A330 MRTT: The Military Version Of The A330-200

The Airbus A330 has been a staple aircraft of long-haul commercial air travel since Air Inter first flew it commercially in 1994. However, it has also proved a successful base for several further developments used in other areas of aviation. For example, Airbus based its enormous Beluga XL freighter on the type, making its first flight in 2018. Over the last decade, a variant of the type has also entered military service in various countries – the A330 MRTT.

UAE Air Force Airbus A330 MRTT Manchester
One of the three Airbus A330 MRTT aircraft owned by the United Arab Emirates Air Force. Photo: Riik@mctr via Flickr

What is the Airbus A330 MRTT?

Airbus designed its A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) to be a versatile, next-generation military transport aircraft. The aircraft are not newly built at the Airbus factory in Toulouse, France, like their passenger counterparts.

Instead, they are converted from existing passenger-configured A330 aircraft at the Airbus Military Conversion Center in Getafe, Spain. Qantas Defence Services has also converted some Australian examples in Brisbane.

This process takes around nine months. Having taken its first test flight in June 2007, Spanish authorities officially certified the MRTT in October 2010. Entry into active service followed less than a year later, in June 2011. It has since racked up more than 125,000 flying hours.

Airbus A330 MRTT Conversion Process
Converting an Airbus A330 to military specifications is a lengthy process that takes around nine months. Image: Airbus Defence

The aircraft’s primary purpose

Airbus markets the A330 MRTT as being capable of carrying out “three missions in one.” Its primary purpose is as an air-to-air refueling aircraft. It can carry up to 111 tonnes of fuel onboard, making it the world’s highest-capacity tanker. The capacity is bolstered by additional fuel tanks in the cargo deck. Air-to-air refueling missions utilizing the MRTT have a 97% success rate.

Up to 50 tonnes of fuel can be offloaded inflight to other aircraft over a four-hour period via various means. For example, the Aerial Boom Refueling System (ABRS) can refuel receptacle-equipped aircraft such as the F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ and the F-35A ‘Lightning II.’ This boom extends from the rear of the aircraft, and has a fast fuel flow rate of up to 3,600 kg/min, or 1,200 US gal/min.

Australian A330 MRTT Air-To-Air Refueling
An Australian A330 MRTT demonstrating its refueling capabilities. It is seen here with two F/A-18 ‘Hornet’ fighter jets at the Avalon 2017 Australian International Air Show. Photo: Andrew Arch via Flickr

The A330 MRTT can also simultaneously refuel two aircraft, such as the F/A-18 Hornets seen above, using its smaller under-wing pods. These can offload fuel at a rate of 1,300 kg/min, or 420 US gal/min, “allowing receivers to minimize refueling time and increase operation efficiency.”

The aircraft can also use its Fuselage Refueling Unit (FRU) to refuel large probe-equipped aircraft such as the Airbus A400M. This has an offload rate of 1,800 kg/min, or 600 US gal/min.

Other uses

Operators can also configure the MRTT for use as a transport aircraft. Its payload can take both a human and cargo form. With a capacity of up to 300 passengers, the aircraft is useful for large-scale troop deployment or evacuation operations. Some operators, such as the UK’s Royal Air Force, also use it for VIP transport. It can also carry up to 45 tonnes of cargo, or 130 NATO stretchers for aeromedical evacuation (MedEvac) operations.

The last of the “three missions in one” that the MRTT can carry out is the long-range deployment of fighter aircraft. These flights can be up to 5,200km long, carry crew members and equipment, and boost the range of the fighters in question.

Boris Force One
The British government recently spent £900,000 repainting one of the RAF’s MRTT aircraft. Alongside its refueling missions, it also provides occasional VIP transport. Photo: Getty Images

Which countries have ordered and received it?

Airbus reports that it has taken 61 orders for the MRTT. 45 of these have been delivered since its launch into active service almost a decade ago. The following countries have ordered and received the aircraft:

  • Australia – 7 delivered
  • Belgium – 1 on order
  • France – 3 delivered, 12 on order
  • Germany – 4 on order
  • The Netherlands – 1 delivered, 1 on order
  • Norway – 1 on order
  • Saudia Arabia – 6 delivered
  • Singapore – 6 delivered
  • South Korea – 4 delivered
  • United Arab Emirates – 3 delivered
  • United Kingdom – 14 delivered.

NATO will own the Belgian, German, Dutch, and Norwegian examples as part of its ‘Multinational Multi-Role Tanker Transport Fleet’ (MMF). On the whole, the MRTT is an impressive example of the versatility of modern airliners such as the Airbus A330.

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