SINGAPORE - The Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) next-generation A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) is now fully operational, able to carry out missions such as transporting personnel across large distances and extending the range of fighter jets.
Other than refuelling RSAF's F-16 and F-15SG fighters in mid-air, it can also refuel another MRTT, enabling the refuelled A330 to travel further or stay in the air longer on a single flight.
The MRTT is also now ready for aeromedical operations, including in the event of mass casualty evacuations or the transfer of patients with infectious diseases such as Ebola.
With the flexibility to be configured for different operations, the MRTT is meant to improve the Singapore Armed Forces' ability to take part in international humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions or peace support operations.
On Tuesday (April 20), a ceremony to mark the MRTT attaining full operational capability status was held at Changi Air Base (East), where the 112 Squadron, which operates the MRTTs, is located.
At the ceremony, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said that the MRTT marks another step up in efforts to extend the range of RSAF's planes.
He said the journey in mid-air refuelling started more than 30 years ago, and was given a boost some 20 years ago with the KC-135R Stratotanker, a plane which is now retired.
The MRTT, whose acquisition was announced in 2014 and delivered from 2018, replaces the KC-135R, which retired in 2019 after two decades of service with the RSAF.
"The MRTT's better endurance and its ability to do tanker-to-tanker refuelling - which the KC-135 could not - extends its operating footprint, and we're now able to reach all our overseas detachments without layovers," said Dr Ng.
"For our fighter aircraft, the MRTT provides the capacity to reach faraway parts of the globe, and correspondingly, assurance that we would be able to recover our assets from anywhere in the world when the situation warrants. That's a real source of assurance."
He noted that compared to the KC-135R, the MRTT can hold 20 per cent more fuel, has twice the cargo capacity, and can carry more than five times the number of passengers.
Dr Ng was accompanied by Permanent Secretary (Defence) Chan Heng Kee, Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Melvyn Ong, Chief of Air Force, Major-General Kelvin Khong, and other senior officers from the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) and the SAF.
Dr Ng also acknowledged the contributions of defence engineers from the Defence Science and Technology Agency (DSTA), saying their expertise and persistence enabled operational and technical problems to be addressed.
These included resolving issues with the air-to-air refuelling boom, which was not performing to the manufacturer's standards during flight trials, he added.
Mindef said on Tuesday that the RSAF's MRTT crew has undergone extensive training to operate and maintain the platform, and has validated the capabilities of the aircraft in local and overseas exercises and missions.
Manufactured by European plane maker Airbus, the MRTT has taken part in two overseas exercises: Forging Sabre in 2019 and as part of a two-month detachment to Base Darwin in Australia in end-2020.
The MRTT demonstrated its capability to receive fuel from another MRTT last Friday. Reporters observed such a mid-air manoeuvre in the receiving aircraft in the South China Sea airspace.
Reporters were also shown various set-ups in the MRTT to handle aeromedical evacuations, from patients who need light to moderate care to those in need of intensive care unit-support or have infectious diseases.
Instead of attaching stretchers to the floorboard, as was done in the KC-135, they are now mounted in the MRTT cabin, which is sturdier and mitigates air turbulence better.
Medical equipment in the MRTT is also now powered by the plane's power supply instead of portable batteries, which were used on the KC-135.
Commanding Officer of 112 Squadron, Lieutenant-Colonel (LTC) Victor Ong, 38, said the next-generation tanker aircraft has two main roles for Mindef and the SAF - to do air-to-air refuelling and transport passengers and cargo over large distances.
"So if you put those two things together, it means that 112 Squadron is operating a strategic enabler for Mindef/SAF," said LTC Ong, who is an MRTT pilot.
The MRTT is operated by a crew of three: a pilot, a co-pilot, and an air refuelling operator.
The RSAF's MRTT is the first in the world to operate with a crew of three instead of four - a result of efforts between DSTA and RSAF.
A fourth crew member - a mission coordinator who plans for and monitors mission requirements - is not required for all operations.
Ms Ang Wei Qin is a principal engineer with DSTA who worked on the MRTT programme.
The 31-year-old said the team had looked at the operational processes and the individual workload of the original four crew members, and identified specific tasks that could be reassigned from the four crew members to just three.
They also consulted other air forces that operated the MRTT, and proposed it to Airbus. "Today, it is a standard feature of MRTTs around the world," she said.
First Sergeant Lim Pei Zhen, 25, who is the first woman air-refuelling operator in the RSAF, was previously a boom operator on the KC-135R, but now operates on the MRTT.
To her, the MRTT attaining full operational capability means the squadron has proven itself capable enough to replace the KC-135R and is keeping up with technology, such as through the use of an electronic flight bag, a device that displays aviation data.