WASHINGTON – Boeing and Airbus could find themselves clashing as early as next year to supply air refueling planes to the US Air Force, rekindling a bitter battle between Boeing’s KC-46 and the A330 Multi Role Tanker Airbus transport.
The Air Force on Tuesday issued a request for information regarding a non-developing tanker aircraft known as the KC-Y that would bridge the gap between the KC-46 and the next-generation KC-Z tanker.
The Air Force is looking for companies that could deliver up to 15 commercial derivative tankers per year, with the new bridge tanker operational in 2029 – the same year the last KC-46 is due to be delivered.
The service plans to purchase 140 to 160 KC-Y to continue replacing its aging fleet of KC-135s, which will be 70 years old when the deck tanker goes into service, the tender said. The competition could start as early as 2022, when the service issues a final call for tenders.
The Air Force provided few details on the difference between the KC-Y and the KC-46, saying only that it was still finalizing its requirements.
“However, the baseline for aircraft capability will be based on the requirements of the first phase of tanker recapitalization, with subsequent and emerging requirements as defined by the Air Force,” the service said in its solicitation. .
While the Air Force insists that suppliers should provide non-scalable planes that can be deployed in less than a decade, competition between Boeing and Airbus is all but assured.
Mike Hafer, who heads global sales and marketing for the KC-46 at Boeing, said the company looks forward to offering the KC-46 for the KC-Y program.
“We have learned a lot and we will focus on the needs of the Air Force, fulfilling the requirements of the contract and providing exactly what the Air Force wants,” he told Defense News in an interview. exclusive. “We are ready to compete.
Airbus, which partnered with Lockheed Martin in 2018 to bring the A330 MRTT to the United States, also plans to participate in the program, said Lockheed spokeswoman Stephanie Stinn.
“We are responding to the US Air Force’s wanted source notification for the Bridge Tanker program, providing a mission-ready solution to meet future Air Force refueling needs,” she said.
The KC-X competition ultimately resulted in a $ 4.9 billion contract awarded to Boeing in 2011, but it was preceded by years of contention.
The Air Force awarded Airbus – then called EADS and partnered with Northrop Grumman – a contract for the program in 2008, but Boeing’s legal protest was successful and overturned the award. Northrop then withdrew from competition in 2010, and Airbus’ solo offering with the A330 was ultimately successful.
Since winning the KC-46 program, Boeing has suffered more than $ 5 billion in losses as technical issues accumulated and required costly repairs. (The terms of Boeing’s fixed-price contract with the Air Force require it to pay all costs in excess of the original award of $ 4.9 billion.)
However, Hafer was convinced that Boeing’s struggles on the KC-46 would not influence his chances of winning the KC-Y.
“It’s a lot of risk that has been removed. These are identified problems that we have solved and that we close very quickly with the others, ”he said. “It was an investment that the US Air Force paid for [and] gets the capacity they want and need.
However, some lawmakers have expressed interest in canceling Boeing’s KC-46 contract and transferring that business to Airbus.
During a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday, Representatives Rob Wittman, R-Va., And Mike Rogers, R-Ala., Expressed frustration with the KC-46 and asked Air Force executives to consider resetting the contract due to Boeing’s poor performance.
Republican Representative Jerry Carl – who represents Mobile, Alabama, where Airbus currently manufactures commercial aircraft – argued that US Air Force fighters operating in Europe are regularly supplied with fuel from the A330 tanker.
“Knowing that we have an airplane that can be built in America, that could already be delivered because we go out of Mobile about three a month right now – not this particular plane, but basically on the same scale – why not Are we not putting that back in place for an offer? ” He asked.
Acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth said the service currently sees no cost benefit from the reopening of the KC-X competition.
“I understand your point of view in terms of contact history,” he said. “But … we are concerned that if we tried to get into a new contract vehicle, it would cause further delays in the program that we just don’t think will work for us.”
The Air Force intends to purchase 179 KC-46s during the record-breaking program, concluding the purchases in fiscal year 2027. On Wednesday, Boeing announced the delivery of the 46th KC-46, which was traveled to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, that afternoon.