More than a dozen air forces rely on A330 MRTT strategic projection and in-flight refuelling capabilities

Saudi Arabia wants more MRTT "tanker" aircraft that Airbus Spain manufactures in Getafe

PHOTO/RSAF - La Real Fuerza Aérea Saudí quiere ampliar hasta diez el número de sus  A330 MRTT para ampliar las capacidades de su extensa flota de más de 350 cazas europeos Eurofighter y Tornado y F-15E Strike Eagle norteamericanos 
PHOTO/RSAF - The Royal Saudi Air Force wants to expand the number of its A330 MRTTs to ten to expand the capabilities of its extensive fleet of more than 350 European Eurofighter and American Tornado and F-15E Strike Eagle fighters.

The Riyadh government has signed a pre-agreement with Airbus for the purchase of four A330 MRTT long-range aircraft for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) to expand and upgrade its fleet of strategic airlifters and air-to-air refuelling aircraft in service. 

  1. With 111 tonnes of fuel in its wings 
  2. Chancellor Scholz lifts restrictions  

Details of the transaction are being kept under the strictest confidence, both by the Riyadh government and the Airbus management team headed by Frenchman Guillaume Faury. The Saudi authorities are seeking industrial returns for the purchase and SAMI, the state-owned military industries corporation headed by Walid bin Abdulmajeed Abukhaled, whose subsidiary SAMI Aerospace Mechanics is seeking maintenance, repair and overhaul workloads. 

PHOTO/CENTCOM - El jefe del Estado Mayor de la Defensa, mariscal Fayad bin Hamed al-Ruwaili (en imagen), y el jefe de su Fuerza Aérea, teniente general Turki bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, quieren ampliar las capacidades aéreas 
PHOTO/CENTCOM - Chief of Defence Staff Marshal Fayad bin Hamed al-Ruwaili (pictured) and his air force chief, Lieutenant General Turki bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, want to expand air capabilities

While negotiations continue, there is no doubt that the formalisation of the contract will have a direct impact on the Getafe factory, the European industrial corporation's major manufacturing centre near Madrid. Getafe is the birthplace of the MRTT or Multi Role Tanker Transport, aircraft based on the Airbus A330-200, a twin-jet designed as a transcontinental commercial passenger aircraft, whose production line is located in Toulouse, in the south of France. 

But Airbus Defence and Space in Spain was the entity whose engineers proposed, designed and carried out the technical work for the conversion of the A330s into MRTTs - known colloquially as "tankers" - and, consequently, is the prime contractor for the conversion. It is at the Getafe plant that the A330s undergo an intensive structural and technological reconfiguration that transforms them from passenger aircraft into military aircraft. 

Structural reinforcements are carried out at the Madrid facility. For example, a gondola equipped with a Cobham 905E hose is fixed under each wing, allowing two combat or tactical transport aircraft to be refuelled simultaneously in flight. It is worth noting that the fuel transfer rate reaches around 1,600 litres per minute.

With 111 tonnes of fuel in its wings 

At the Madrid factory, each MRTT is equipped with a control station to direct and supervise refuelling operations, which can be carried out automatically. The Getafe technicians also add military communications, active and passive defence systems, as well as 3D panoramic and infrared cameras to enable fuel transfer, whether during the day, in low visibility conditions or even at night.  

The special feature of the A330 MRTTTs is that they combine the capability for strategic projection of cargo and personnel, including casualties, with in-flight refuelling. With a wingspan of 60.3 metres, their large wing tanks can hold up to 111 tonnes of fuel, allowing them to carry 250 passengers or 30 tonnes of cargo, fly 10,000 kilometres uninterrupted - the distance between Riyadh and New York - and supply fuel to other aircraft without the need for additional tanks. 

PHOTO/JPons - En la planta de Airbus en Getafe, cerca de Madrid, se somete a cada A330 a una profundo reconversión estructural y tecnológica para convertirlos aeronaves militares polivalentes MRTT 
PHOTO/JPons - At the Airbus plant in Getafe, near Madrid, each A330 undergoes a major structural and technological conversion to become a multi-role MRTT military aircraft

The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), led by Lieutenant General Turki bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, has already acquired three MRTTs in 2007 and three more in 2010. The RSAF intends to acquire a fleet of ten so that its large and diverse fighter fleet of more than 350 aircraft has ample refuelling capacity and more than enough to move personnel and supplies over long distances.  

The A330 MRTT is a major commercial success for Airbus. It is a true multi-role aircraft that far outperforms its main competitor, the American Boeing KC-46, which along with the European aircraft was bidding for the Saudi Arabian contract. However, it has been ruled out because it does not meet the stringent technical and operational specifications defined by the Gulf country. 

The order backlog for the MRTT amounts to "78 units, of which 59 have already been received by their buyers and are in service in more than a dozen countries," confirms Airbus. In addition to its service in Saudi Arabia, it is also in service with the Australian Air Force, which was the first to opt for the new high projection aircraft concept, owning seven units. 

The latest formalised acquisition is that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government, which last July decided to purchase four new MRTTs and convert five more A330s as part of its Strategic Transport and Replenishment Aircraft STTC programme. It intends to replace its five small multi-role CC-150 Polaris aircraft - derived from the Airbus A310-300 - that its Royal Air Force has had in service since 1992.  

Chancellor Scholz lifts restrictions  

In addition to Australia, Saudi Arabia and in the coming years Canada, many other nations have acquired MRTTs: Korea (4), the United Arab Emirates (5), France (15), the United Kingdom (14), Singapore (6). Six NATO countries - Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium - have made a joint purchase of nine units for shared use under the Multinational MRTT Fleet partnership. 

PHOTO/Airbus DS - En la factoría de Getafe se dota a cada MRTT de un puesto de control para dirigir y supervisar las operaciones de reabastecimiento, que se pueden efectuar en modo automático
PHOTO/Airbus DS - At the Getafe factory, each MRTT is equipped with a control station to direct and supervise refuelling operations, which can be carried out in automatic mode

Margarita Robles' Ministry of Defence signed a contract with Airbus Defence and Space Spain in November 2021 for the conversion of three of Iberia's A330-200s, which already perform personnel transport missions, but whose final conversion to MRTTs is still in progress. France has 12 MRTTs and has expressed its desire for the three that Getafe has yet to deliver to introduce improvements defined by its Air Force and then upgrade those it already has. 

The Saudi government had expressed its intention to expand its fleet years ago to Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury, Airbus Spain President Alberto Gutierrez and the Spanish authorities. But the sale and purchase of new MRTTs and other Airbus weapons systems - Eurofighter fighters, A400M and C295 transport aircraft - for the Riyadh government has been blocked by Germany since late December 2018. 

PHOTO/Bundeswehr-Anne Weinrich - El canciller Olaf Scholz ha reconsiderado la postura de Alemania respecto a las ventas de armamento al país del Golfo, lo que abre la puerta al MRTT, A400M y C295, cuyas factorías están en España  
PHOTO/Bundeswehr-Anne Weinrich - Chancellor Olaf Scholz has reconsidered Germany's position on arms sales to the Gulf state, which opens the door to the MRTT, A400M and C295, whose factories are in Spain

As Airbus is a partnership involving companies and public entities from Germany, Spain, France and the UK, Chancellor Angela Merkel's government imposed a unilateral veto on the export of military systems and equipment with German products destined for Saudi Arabia. The allegations were the murder of opposition journalist Jamal Khashogi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and Saudi Arabia's involvement in the war in Yemen.

But the situation has changed. Saudi diplomacy's efforts to prevent an extension of the war in Gaza following Hamas's 7 October terrorist attack on Israeli citizens have led Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government to reconsider and ease restrictions on arms exports to the Gulf state.

PHOTO/BAE Systems - El Reino dispone de 70 Eurofighter y quiere más. Sus estructuras y tecnologías están fabricadas en Alemania, España, Francia y el Reino Unido, por lo que BAE Systems confía en el levantamiento total de las restricciones 
PHOTO/BAE Systems - The UK has 70 Eurofighters and wants more. Its structures and technologies are manufactured in Germany, Spain, France and the UK, so BAE Systems is confident that the restrictions will be lifted

In December, Berlin authorised the sale of 150 Iris-T missiles from the German company Diehl, and all indications are that it has given its approval for the export of the A330 MRTT and even the A400M and C295. Also a new batch of Eurofighter, which the British BAE Systems has in its sights, as Saudi Arabia is in the geographical area of its commercialisation within the framework of Airbus. All of these aircraft incorporate technologies from companies in the four countries that make up Airbus. 

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