Since the first trials carried out in the 20’s, refuelling has become an absolute necessity for armed forces wishing to increase the range of their military aircraft. Today, two new generation multi-role tankers are engaged in a trade battle.
The first, and in service since 2011, is European, built by the Airbus Group, the A330 MRTT (Multi Role Tanker Transport). The second is American, the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus, at present under development, and expected by the US Air Force in the summer of 2017; but are these two aircraft so different from each other ? To answer the question briefly, a quick comparison of some simple numbers should suffice.
Firstly, concerning the overall similarities : both these aircraft can refuel in flight, and carry equipment or troops. Whether in the A330 MRTT or the KC-46, the aerial refuelling ORVR (Onboard Refuelling Vapor Recovery) operator manages all operations via a three-dimensional video system. The cruising speed of the two tankers is also comparable, at around 850 km/h (530 mph).
Now regarding the differences : as this graph shows, the Airbus Group tanker can carry more fuel, and greater payload than the Boeing ; bearing in mind that the A330 MRTT fuselage is nine metres (30 feet) longer than that of the KC-46. The A330 MRTT also features an increased range of 2,500 km (1,550 miles) compared to the KC-46.
Finally, in terms of orders however, the US tanker is far ahead. Firm orders for the KC-46 total 179, thanks to the huge US Air Force contract, signed in 2011; whereas to date, the A330 MRTT accounts for just 35 units from six different countries, although several others such as Qatar, India and Spain are interested.