The Airbus A330 MRTT has become the first tanker to be certified for automatic aerial refueling in daylight, the manufacturer announced on July 19, 2022, at Farnborough Airshow. 

The certification was granted by the Spanish National Institute for Aerospace Technology (INTA). 

Called the Automatic Air-to-Air Refueling (A3R) capability, it aims to reduce the role of the air refueling operator (ARO) to monitoring the operation rather than carrying it out. The capability is part of a larger program called the SMART MRTT, a collaboration between Airbus and the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).  

The program also included the development of “enhanced maintenance capabilities...allowing faster resolution of ground tasks, while providing the means for maximizing the efficient use of spare parts,” the manufacturer explained in a press release. The RSAF, which operates 6 Airbus A330 MRTT, will be the launch customer of this upgrade.  

In April 2020, a flight test campaign carried out over the Atlantic Ocean involved an A330 MRTT tanker test aircraft equipped with the Airbus A3R system, and an F-16 fighter jet from the Portuguese Air Force acting as a receiver. According to the manufacturer, it was the world’s first automated in-flight aircraft refueling.  

Airbus refueled a Portuguese F-16 in flight using a fully automated procedure. It is the world’s first automated in-flight aircraft refueling, according to the manufacturer.

“Since then, we’ve achieved more aeronautical ‘world firsts’ thanks to the support of our customers, especially with the key participation of our partner the RSAF,” said Jean-Brice Dumont, head of Military Air Systems at Airbus Defence and Space. “The A330 MRTT continues to increase its technological advantage with superior air refueling capabilities.”  

Airbus will continue the development of automated refueling solutions. Through its innovation subsidiary Airbus UpNext, it has launched the technology demonstrator Auto'Mate, which will focus on automating the tasks of the receiver aircraft. Beyond extending the range of manned aircraft, these technologies will be necessary to operate unmanned combat systems for longer missions.  

While countries are still developing the 5th-generation fighter jets, the most advanced so far, manufacturers around the world are already outlining the future of combat aircraft. Let's take a look at the most promising ones to try and decipher what could be the 6th generation fighter jets.

Most sixth-generation fighter jets currently under development involve the deployment of a swarm of support drones to work conjointly with manned aircraft, extending both their targeting and striking range. Airbus was awarded the development of the so-called Remote Carriers as part of the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), a ‘system of systems’ contracted by the authorities of France, Germany, and Spain.