Performance, delays will be factors in KC-X rebid

The US Air Force is gearing up to issue a new request for proposals, perhaps as early as July, for Round 3 of the KC-X aerial refueling tanker competition. Pentagon officials hope to award a contract by year end.

The contest is widely expected to be a rematch of the battle between the Northrop Grumman/EADS/Airbus KC-30 and the Boeing KC-767AT. Although nobody knows what specifications will be in the RFP, the belief is that it will largely reflect the technical requirements of those in the Round Two RFP won by Northrop.

Boeing successfully protested the award, saying the USAF gave extra credit to the larger KC-30 while telling Boeing that it would not—thus prompting Boeing to stick with its KC-767 proposal. Boeing hinted that had it known of the USAF preference for a larger airplane, it might have offered a tanker based on the 777-200F.

In Round 3, Northrop and EADS are concerned that Boeing obtained confidential pricing information about the KC-30 during its protest with the GAO, putting the firms at a disadvantage because they don’t know Boeing’s pricing—and neither the USAF or the GAO  so far will provide it to even the playing field.

Boeing’s tanker spokesman Bill Barksdale told us June 9 that Boeing has used the year since it lost the contract to undertake research and development for tankers based on the 767-400 and 777, as well as continuing work on the KC-767AT. The latter is based on a concept called the 767-200LRF, or Long Range Freighter, an airplane that exists only in design. It has the wings of the 767-300ER and combines features of the 767-200ER, -300ER and -400.

While parties wait for the RFP, Boeing has delivered three of four KC-767J tankers to the Japanese defense air force, and after some training issues, these are now operational. The first tanker was delivered a year late and the fourth tanker is to be delivered next year, which Barksdale said will be as scheduled.

The KC-767Js have only the refueling boom—not the centerline drogue and wing pod refueling stations that the USAF wants and which are also on the Italian KC-767I. Nor does the KC-767J have its own refueling receptacle, unlike the Italian model and the USAF requirement. The Japanese model can carry cargo or passengers but not both; the Italian tanker and the USAF requirement are to be able to carry cargo and passengers at the same time.

Thus, the Italian KC-767 is more closely designed to USAF requirements than the KC-767J. And Boeing has had more problems with the Italian model than with the Japanese tanker.

Boeing was supposed to deliver the first KC-767I in 2005; this is now scheduled for delivery some time this year.

FAA certification of the KC-767I’s cargo barrier has proved challenging. Smoke, by regulation, can’t get through rigid barrier, affecting either passengers or crew, and meeting this requirement proved to be one of the challenges faced by Boeing.

The combi challenge comes as a surprise because Boeing has a long history of building combi airplanes, and so does McDonnell Douglas, which merged with Boeing in 1997. But Boeing’s Integrated Defense Systems unit does not, and there is the rub. Boeing’s business model for the eight Japanese and Italian tankers called for building passenger airplanes on the Everett, WA, 767 production line and then flying them to Italy or Wichita, KS, for conversion. Italy’s Alenia couldn’t perform and the Italian airplanes came back to Boeing for cargo conversion. This is part of the delay in the Italian tankers.

But Boeing has been especially challenged by flutter of the wing pods and of the hose-and-drogue as these are extended. These aerodynamic issues proved especially vexing to fix.

With an order for only four aircraft, Boeing has only one airplane to perform all tests. Contrast this with plans to have six airplanes flying in the 787 test program, each assigned specific testing tasks.

“We should not have put all testing on one airplane,” Barksdale acknowledged. “We need multiple test assets. We did not lay out a schedule that was realistic.”

We were told about six weeks ago that these issues remain and the KC-767I has to fly at 400 knots to avoid flutter. Barksdale declined to comment on these specific issues, saying only that by the time the first KC-767I is delivered this year, the pods and drogues will work just fine.

“We’re all very well aware of ‘past performance’ issues in connection to KC-X competition,” Barksdale said. ‘Past performance’ is a key criteria the USAF used in making its selection in Round 2, and Boeing did poorly in this category. “Once we delivered three tankers to Japan, our ‘past performance’ dramatically improved. We know this is critical for KC-X. The question is, ‘what’s gotten better than the last airplane;’ the answer is ‘delivery.’”

Boeing believes lessons learned will be important to Boeing’s submitted in Round 3. “We know what we have gone through with Italy has got to have some positive use in KC-X. We can say, ‘here’s what we delivered with the new systems you want. We are a little farther a long in the learning curve’” than Northrop.

Even so, Boeing may have unexpected challenges. Neither the KC-767J nor the KC-767I are the same airplane that was offered to the USAF in Round 2. The KC-767AT, based on the conceptual 767-200LRF, doesn’t exist. The flying boom Boeing proposed for the USAF is a generation beyond the boom on the Italian and Japanese models.

Still, Boeing pointed out in Round 2 that Northrop’s tanker wasn’t delivered, operational or on time, and that its flying boom is a from-scratch design that hasn’t been tested in flight passing fuel.

Northrop’s KC-30 is based on the KC-330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport, or MRTT, that has been sold to six nations, including launch customer Australia. But this airplane is going to be 18 months late when the first one is delivered in 2010.

EADS previously said that five months of delay was due to change-orders by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The RAAF confirmed this to us in an e-mail interview:

“As with any first-of-type developmental project, there are improvements that have been identified during the course of the design process.  One of the more significant improvements was an outcome of the human factors evaluation of the cockpit layout and functions of the new Remote Aerial Refueling Operator (RARO) Console,” an RAAF spokesperson told us. “There was a joint agreement between the Australian Department of Defence (DoD) and EADS CASA (now known as Airbus Military) in mid-2006 to implement a design change to the RARO Console which had consequential changes to the cockpit area and relocation of the forward lavatory.  To accommodate this design change, the program was restructured into two phases – Phase 1 to incorporate structural modifications for civil certification and Phase 2 to incorporate the military avionics and new RARO Console for military certification and qualification.  Schedule relief of two months to delivery of the first two aircraft was provided to effect this change.”

As for the Phase 2 delay, the RAAF had this to say:

“Completion of conversion took longer than scheduled due to delays in finalising the design and an underestimation of the complexity of the conversion that requires additional flight testing to ensure that the extensive changes introduced during the modification programs are completely safe and meet the contract requirements.

“Whilst there have been no “show stoppers” identified to date, the extensive conversion and test activities have taken longer than planned, resulting in delays to delivery and entry into RAAF service.  There were no further RAAF requests adding to delay beyond that outlined in the previous question.”

During the Round 2 competition, Boeing and its supporters tried to gain traction on the fact that up until then, EADS/Airbus had not tested and passed fuel through its newly designed flying refueling boom—which was true then, and as this is written, remains true with respect to not having passed fuel from the MRTT to a receiving airplane in flight. (Northrop and EADS responded at the time that Boeing’s 6th Generation flying boom hadn’t either, but this is probably more ‘Inside Baseball’ stuff than something Members of Congress really care about.)

But just as Boeing used the intervening year to deliver its KC-767Js and get them operational, Northrop is perhaps weeks away from doing an in-flight refueling test. As for the RAAF, here what it had to say about the EADS flying boom:

“Testing of the new Advanced Refueling Boom System (ARBS) on the A330 MRTT commenced earlier this year and has so far confirmed good correlation between the boom behaviour on the A310 demonstrator with the behaviour on the A330 MRTT.  This testing provides confidence that further testing of the boom, including dry and wet contacts, planned for later this year will lead to successful certification and qualification of the new ARBS.”

As described above, the KC-767I wing pods and hose-and-drogue have been vexing for Boeing. But carefully reading the RAAF response to our question about how well the MRTT wing pods and refueling system worked shows there were some challenges for EADS/Airbus as well.

“The first phase of flight testing, completed in February 2008, confirmed that the A330 MRTT, with boom and pods, is free of flutter throughout the flight envelope.  As risk mitigation, the aerodynamic behaviour of the hoses, during trail and re-wind, was also tested during the first phase of flight testing instead of the planned second phase of testing.  As an outcome of these tests, there has been optimisation of the pod rear fairing to improve hose stability.  These changes were successfully flight tested in early-2009; albeit with further testing to be conducted during the remainder of the flight test program.”

Boeing and its supporters were quick to criticize the proposed production and assembly method of the Northrop KC-30. As Boeing so eloquently put it in its GAO protest, initially KC-30 production will “hopscotch” across Europe and then be shipped to Mobile, AL, where the plane will be assembled in a new, yet-to-be-built factory with new, yet-to-be-hired and yet-to-be-trained worked who, in an inartful analogy, won’t be competent enough to assemble a tricycle at Christmas. Boeing IDS certainly had a point on the former but as to unskilled Alabama workers—this was incredibly ironic because IDS has a large workforce in Alabama and even recently relocated a business unit to this state.

(Boeing Commercial corporate communications cringed at the IDS criticism about the KC-30 production method because it is similar to that being used by the 787 team. But then, given the problems with the 787 production, maybe IDS knew what it was talking about.)

Airbus, which now has full authority over the tanker and A400M programs with a recent reorganization shift from EADS, glossed over the MRTT at its Innovation Days event in Hamburg. (Focus was on the A400M; Airbus did say that airborne refueling tests should begin next month.)

An interview request for this column was declined, with the response that anything it will say publicly will be said at the EADS Media Day on June 13 (we will be there).

The first MRTT is being modified in Sydney by Qantas Airways. Given the Mobile assembly plan, we asked the RAAF how the Qantas assembly is going. The response:

“Airbus Military is responsible for conversion of the first (prototype) aircraft in Madrid, Spain.  Qantas is responsible for the conversion of the remaining four aircraft, under subcontract to Airbus Military, in a newly refurbished Qantas facility at Brisbane Airport.

“Conversion of Aircraft #2 is itself a prototype in that it is the first A330 MRTT aircraft modified by Qantas, the first to be modified outside Europe, and the first to undertake a single phase conversion process.  There have been teething problems due to all three of these aspects and due to the concurrency between completion of conversion of the first (prototype) aircraft in Madrid and conversion of the second aircraft in Australia,” the RAAF said.

“These teething problems have required additional personnel, both within the Qantas workforce and temporary relocation of Airbus Military conversion specialists from Spain to complete conversion whilst minimising impact on schedule.  It is expected that conversion of Aircraft #3, commencing in mid-2009, will proceed more smoothly.”

Although EADS declined an interview in advance of its media day June 13, we know from previous conversations that officials believe there are substantial differences between Boeing’s KC-767 programs and the MRTT/KC-30 programs.

EADS believes, and Boeing concedes, that the Italian and Japanese tankers are very different airplanes than the Advance Tanker Boeing offered the USAF in Round Two and which may be offered in Round 3. In comparison, the Northrop KC-30 is the virtually identical to the MRTT. These fundamental factors, EADS believes, means that Boeing will be faced with having to prove its design and technologies all over again for the KC-767AT while the KC-30 and MRTT will have only minor customer-specific differences from the technology and testing that goes into the MRTT.

“It’s really important that people not gloss over the fact that there is a fundamental difference between two systems,” an EADS official told us previously. “The airplane we are testing for RAAF, airframe, refueling systems, and avionics are exactly what we bid for the US Air Force. What Boeing delivered to Japan and are still trying to figure out how to deliver to Italy are not the same planes offered to the USAF. It’s important to recognize that.

“The other thing important to understand is that Boeing continues to struggle with one part of the fueling system and that is the hose and drogue. The booms to Japan and USAF are also different.”

Although the MRTT has yet to pass fuel, by the time responses to the RFP will be required, EADS/Airbus should have completed this test for the RAAF.

We understand that Northrop believes Boeing will offer a tanker based on the 767-400 while EADS believes Boeing will return with a KC-767-200AT. Even rebidding with a KC-767-200AT puts Boeing “behind” the KC-30, EADS is known to believe, because the AT is different than the International tankers provided Japan and Italy.

Boeing previously told us officials there consider the KC-767AT to be a “minor modification” in aviation-speak, and from a certification standpoint, this is correct. Boeing has plenty of experience in “minor modifications” of existing product lines: the Boeing 737 Business Jet has mixed-and-matched the 737-700 fuselage with the -800 wing, for example, and there are previous examples of Boeing jetliners mixing-and-matching between sub-types within a series.

But as Boeing’s Barksdale acknowledged, the experience Boeing Commercial Aircraft has doesn’t necessarily transfer easily to IDS.

This story has lots of twists to come.

7 Comments on “Performance, delays will be factors in KC-X rebid

  1. Sort of like the third Ali-Frazier fight with two exceptions:

    Both contestants are arrogant loudmouths, and it will be the taxpayer getting his brains beaten out.

  2. Pretty even-handed article bringing us up on the story to-date. Thanks!

    Any bets this is going to be another tour where if you don’t want to know how sausage is made, you shouldn’t get on the bus?

  3. With the A330 much in the news of late, will that help or hinder?

    The legal battles commence anew as soon as the RFP is issued. There were a host of issues to consider (re-consider) as a result of the GAO’s report last June. Will these be addressed? I recollect the comments of one Air Force officer to the effect that writing an impartial RFP when the capabilities of both aircraft are relatively well known is virtually impossible.

    I note an article in DOD BUZZ where SECDEF may appoint his deputy to oversee the tanker procurement, thus taking the source selection authority away from the USAF. Very interesting development if this occurs.

    Any competition, or pretense at “competition”, will only drag this thing out. Politics are going to decide the eventual winner.

  4. As a relatively naive observer (I am a non-flying, life-long student of the aviation scene, not directly involved in any way in the business or the military or the politics that surround the business), I have an observation to make.

    With all those ex-airline airframes doing gathering dust in the desert, surely the wiser course would be for the USAF to cherry pick the ones with the least hours and convert them to tankers as a cost-effective interim measure until…

    a) Tankers based on the latest 787/A350 technology are available, or…

    b) UAV tankers are developed. You don’t have to be a gambling man to realize that, with the leaps-and-bounds growth in UAV technology and prowess, future tankers will surely be unmanned gas stations loitering in the sky.

    Perhaps some of Leeham’s more qualified readers would like to comment on or look down/shoot down my suggestion.



  5. Who cares about the technical issues?
    Lets move on to the really important stuff.

    So- ah-when are the congressional elections?

  6. @Len Preskow:

    Your proposal won’t work. Converting (outdated) civilian aircraft into militarily usable ones would be even more expensive than purchasing new ones properly built for the purpose from scratch.
    Not to mention the horrible maintenance costs of a patchwork fleet consisting of several different types of airplanes.

  7. Pingback: KC-777 ready to go? « Leeham News and Comment

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