MOUNTAIN HOME - As an air refuelling operator previously on the KC-135R aerial tanker, First Sergeant (1SG) Jonathan Paul Augustine was among the second batch of operators to convert to the newly-acquired Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT).
For the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) airman, the new tanker aircraft is a significant upgrade over the KC-135R, which was acquired second-hand from the United States and has ceased operations after more than two decades in service.
For instance, instead of having to lie prone and look through a window on the back of the KC-135R to refuel fighter jets, he now does so sitting in the MRTT cockpit while wearing special glasses that allow him to see a 3D model of the situation at the back of the plane.
The Airbus A330 MRTT, which has replaced the KC-135R, is taking part in its first overseas exercise at Exercise Forging Sabre, held at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho from Sept 30 till Thursday (Oct 10).
It was the first time air-to-air refuelling was done as part of the integrated strike exercise involving around 600 soldiers from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
Such refuelling allows the RSAF's fighter jets to take on longer missions in a single flight.
Reporters witnessed one such airborne refuelling mission on board the MRTT on Tuesday, where five fighter aircraft, consisting of F-15SGs and F-16s, were refuelled in a three-hour flight.
1SG Augustine, 26, told reporters before the flight that in the KC-135R, manual adjustments might still be needed after the boom refuelling system is connected to maintain the alignment in mid-air.
In the MRTT, such adjustments are done automatically.
Despite the automation available, an operator's skill still matters, he said, especially during the critical part where the fighter jets move in to connect with the MRTT for fuel.
"While there are visual aids to help us, when you going in for the contact, it's all on you control-wise. You have full control when you're going for the contact," he said.
The RSAF currently operates four MRTTs, which offer improved endurance, cargo and passenger capacity than the KC-135R.
The MRTT can carry a maximum weight of 245,000 pounds (111,000kg), consisting of fuel, cargo and passengers. The maximum capacity for cargo and passengers is 100,000 pounds.
MRTT pilot, Major Victor Ong, said: "Flying the KC-135R was like wrestling with a beast. To fly the aircraft smoothly you need to do a lot of controlling. You had to anticipate any changes to the aircraft.
"Now, the MRTT (control system) is fly-by-wire. It is more automated and smoother because your inputs are more calibrated," said the commanding officer of 112 Squadron, which operates the MRTTs.
In wartime scenarios, as the MRTT is considered a high-value target, it is usually deployed in a safe zone, said Major Ong, 36.
However, it is able to fly out with the fighters if the situation calls for it.
He added: "When we do that, there will be high-value unit protection procedures in place… If there's any detection of a threat, then we will have to carry out our retrograde operations where we move closer to a safe zone."
The single MRTT taking part in Exercise Forging Sabre flew in from Singapore, taking with it about 130 exercise participants.
The 20-hour flight included two stops - in Guam and Hawaii.
Major Ong, who is also detachment commander for the participating MRTT, said that among the reasons Exercise Forging Sabre was important was the opportunity to train in a vast airspace.
"When you have such a large airspace, your considerations are very different. Every pound of gas counts now, because you have a longer distance to cover.
"So you need to be more critical with your calculations, you need to be more critical with how much you're giving the receivers, unlike in Singapore where you always have extra to give," he said.
Fighter jet crew appreciate the increased endurance which allows them to fly longer missions.
F-15SG pilot, Captain Leonard Brandon Lim, 28, said the transition from being refuelled by the KC-135R to the MRTT was seamless, with the basic procedures being the same.
"In one mission we were tasked to employ live munitions at the Utah Test and Training Range, which is quite a distance away (from Mountain Home Air Force Base)."
"With the support of the MRTT, we're able to get there and employ our munitions, take some gas, and conduct additional profiles for more training in accordance with the exercise's tasking, which includes striking additional targets," he told reporters.
Weapons Systems Officer, Captain Jonathan Quek, 30, who operates the F-15SG, said having longer endurance through air-to-air refuelling gives the command post greater operational flexibility to give the fighters additional tasks.
"From the operator's perspective, we can be tasked or re-tasked for subsequent missions, so that will give the fighters a more pervasive presence in our area of operations," he added.