Boeing KC-7A7 tanker briefing

This is the fourth in a series of reports from the EADS media day and the Paris Air Show. We will be off-line Wednesday while returning to to USA.

Source: Winds of Change. Rendering of the KC-767 and KC-777.

Source: Catch 4 All: Comparisons of KC-777, KC-30, KC-767, KC-135 footprints.

Boeing held a dedicated tanker briefing Tuesday (June 16) to add detail to the announcement Monday by IDS President Jim Albaugh, who said the company’s tanker program has been remained KC-7A7. This designation reflects the ambiguity of what airplane Boeing will offer: a 767-based or a 777-based aircraft.

Dave Bowman, Boeing’s VP-Tanker Programs, told reporters that the company evaluated basing a tanker on every sub-type of the two airplane programs. Boeing previously offered the KC-767AT, a model based on the conceptual 767-200LRF. This is not off the table, either.

There was clear skepticism by journalists whether Boeing could offer the KC-777 on a timetable that could beat the Northrop Grumman KC-30, which is schedule to enter service with the Australian Air Force as the KC-30 MRTT in 1Q10.

Bowman admitted that if schedule were the driving criteria, the KC-777 would be at a disadvantage. There is room at Boeing’s Everett (WA) plant to build this tanker, said Pat Shanahan, vice president of products and services.

Bowman said studies on the 767-300 and -400 were conducted as well. An illustration during his presentation showed a 767 with winglets, which typically improves fuel burn by 3% to 5%. Bowman said this illustration did not suggest Boeing was offering this feature but said that it was studied.

He also said that the new-technology GEnx engine could be offered on either the 767 or 777, or either Pratt & Whitney or GE engines on either the 767 or 777s.

As we reported earlier, the flexibility by Boeing to have several offerings, in our view, puts Northrop and EADS/Airbus at a great disadvantage if they stick with the KC-30, which is based on the Airbus A330-200. Theoretically a tanker could be offered on the somewhat larger A340 or the A330-300, but it’s unclear how much, if any, R&D has been done on either concept, and one based on the four-engine A340, regardless of sub-type, will be significantly more costly on fuel than any of the competition.

Airbus had previously studied putting the GEnx on the A330 for its first iteration of the A350, but we understand there are engine diameter challenges and perhaps weight/CG issues. Following the success Boeing protest of the USAF award to Northrop, there was speculation that Northrop/EADS/Airbus would offer the GEnx on the A330 in Round 3, but at the time we were told this was unlikely.

We believe the entire Northrop team now is in the position of playing catch-up to Boeing, which put the last nine months to good use in coming up with a variety of alternatives.

How many of these alternatives may be straw men or infeasible remains to be seen. Boeing may be deliberately ambiguous to keep the competition off-balance, with the intent narrowed already to two potential proposals. Regardless of the true state of affairs right now, we think Boeing has the upper hand in this beginning chess game. Whether the Northrop team can prevail again is the $40bn question.

33 Comments on “Boeing KC-7A7 tanker briefing

  1. “Bowman said studies on the 767-300 and -400 were conducted as well.”

    Did Mr. Bowman say if taller landing gear were part of the 767-400 studies? Back during the previous KC-X competition, the 767-400 was not an option because of the longer fuselage on same height landing gear, causing refueling boom strikes during short field takeoffs.

    • Bowman did not talk about this, and in fact made it a very specific point to be very ambiguous about any detail. He cited “competitive” information (a valid point) and “we don’t know what the RFP will be,” also a valid point.

  2. Hi Scott,
    I don’t quite see how Boeing has the upper hand, unless you include the political factor or unless the RFP is written with a Boeing product in mind. To me, those are the 2 most significant factors in this “competition”.

    A few”studies” over the past 9 months might have yielded some info but it truly sounds like Boieng only had 3 major options, short of developing a totally brand new aircraft.

    • Boeing is in the position to bracket the KC-30 now (whereas before it only had the KC-767AT) and is able to move in either direction should the RFP suggest this. Additionally, in theory Boeing can offer the existing KC-767 tanker (the Italian version is closer to the Round 2 RFP than the Japanese version), continue with the KC-767AT or even offer tankers based on the 767-300 or -400. Boeing can offer a 767 with winglets, decreasing fuel consumption by 3%-5% (based on the commercial version). It says it can offer the GEnx, further decreasing fuel consumption (though we think this engine might be a challenge on the 767, physically–we have to check this out a bit before knowing for sure.

      The 777 practically is going to be limited to the -200ER/-200LRF; the -300 would clearly be a monster tanker.

      What does the Northrop team have to offer? The A330-200 and the A330-300 with existing engines or one with the GEnx, with consideration for what we described in the post.

      Boeing acknowledges that Northrop will promote its plane as occupying the “sweet spot” between the 767 and 777. But until the proposals are submitted, Northrop won’t know what it is competing against. We find this to be a dandy mind game.

  3. You won’t see EADS offering up the GEnx on the A330 for this. That would require such massive changes to the wing that a new wing would have to be designed for the A330. Meaning that cost and schedule go through the roof.

  4. And as you said Scott, one that puts Boeing at huge advantage technically. Let alone the political advantage they’ve already had.
    Clearly there has been a decision at the highest levels of the company to do whatever it takes to win this competition. In the long run, maybe there will be a silver lining to this protracted mess where the American taxpayer will get the best bang for its buck, the Air Force will get the most technically advanced aerial tanker in the world and America will maintain its Defense Industrial base.

  5. The difficulty for Boeing is that the USAF thinks the KC-767 doesn’t carry enough cargo or fuel. The 777 carries more cargo and fuel than the KC-45, but it is going to be more expensive to acquire and run. The service would be able to afford fewer KC-777s each year. Northrop/Airbus is really in the sweet spot for the competition. The problem for the Air Force is that if they put out an RFP reflecting what they want, Boeing is going to drop out (rightly so, too) and Congress will go nuts. But if they write the RFP to include a different aircraft, we’ll just get a repeat of the last competition in which the service had to rig the selection process to exclude the smaller aircraft. The USAF needs to decide whether it can accept the smaller aircraft and know Congress is on board, or propose the KC-45 and run the gauntlet hoping to get the aircraft funded.

  6. Would someone please explain to me why the USAF is seriously considering buying hundreds of of old tech, all-metal (mostly) planes without GenX type engines to serve as tankers for decades, when in the wings there is evolving aviation tech which could make these planes obsolete by 2020? For example, by then we are likely to know what if any advantages composite construction will bring because the 787 and 350 will have been in service for years, and no do doubt major improvesments will have been made; ng Lockheed’s recent flight of a non-autoclave composite plane.

    There will also be new engines which will be hugely more efficient than the first genration GenX types now being tested (geared turbo fan, open rotor). Neither the 767 nor 330 will be able to use these new engines without incurring prohibitve re fit costs.

    Also, by the mid 2020s blended/flying wing type airframes will likely be practical and in use, with the tremendous increases in efficiecy they promise. I have read rumors even now that FedX and UPS are working with Boeing to design such craft as freighters.

    The best thing to do is cancel the whole new tanker program and rebuild the KC-135s and KC-10s to keep them flyng until a new tanker incorporating all of the most recent advances can be built. John Young, the recently departed Pentagon civilian procurement Czar, has said most tankers have low hours and can be kept flying for years. This plan has numberous practical advantages:

    1. It stops this purile competition between Boeing and EADS/NG based largely on half truths and lies which is wasting huge amounts of money. Neither of these companies will tell the truth about their products and we will only know the truth once they planes are in service, which is too late.

    2. It saves us billions which we do not have right now.

    3. It gives us time to evaluate how the rapid changes in the world’s balances of power affect what our real tanker needs are likely to be for the next 30-50 years, and to design a tanker accordingly. For example, will we need fewer manned fighters, and therefore fewer or smaller tankers? Cuts in the Navy’s and AF’s fighter strengths are going on right now in connectoin with the current budget and the coming QDR. What type tankers will we need for UCAVs? Large ones to refuel many all at once, or small ones to refuel groups of a few at great distances from one another? We will not know the answers to these and other questions for years.

    4. The KC-135 is the only tanker designed from the outset to be a tanker. We know that for some unspoken reason, it is outragiously expensive to convert commercial planes to tankers, or so the mfrs would have us believe. (It would instructive to know what it cost to convert the DC-10.) So we should use this opportunity to design from scratch a plane can be a tanker, a freighter, and a passentger transport, so that each type can be built on the same production line. This it seems to me is the best reason for delay.

    • Boeing told us that it cannot offer the 787 because (1) it isn’t certified (heck, it’s as of this week not even flying, let alone in service) and (2) the commercial backlog is such that no “KC” could be offered for years.

      The timeline on the A350 would be worse.

      The issues raised by Christopher are why USAF has a KC-X, KC-Y and KC-Z program to replace tankers.

      Although Young and the GAO suggest the KC-135s can fly for years, consider this: when Round 2 competition began, the number of KC-135s to be replaced was more than 500. Today this number is about 100 fewer. This is one heck of a retirement in two-three years.

      We concur that procurement needs to start sooner than later. As regular readers of this column know, we believe the KC-Y ought to be a KC-BWB. In the meantime, KC-X needs to move ahead.

    • Christopher, its been discussed here before but one option is to rehab the KC-135Es. It would be expensive, but its do-able. The USAF did a study concerning re-engining them with JT8Ds. This would require structural work to accept the engines but would result in around a 20% fuel savings over the JT3Ds. Upgrading to full “R” version, with the CFM-56 engines, would probably cost more.

      Of course the USAF wants a new aircraft and bristles at any mention of upgrading the old airframes. It would be expensive, but the way things are going with this procurement, they can either sole source or upgrade. As I noted on another thread, if this competition proceeds then its likely “war without end”.

  7. The KC-135 fleet will remain in service for a long time in sizable numbers due to the slow pace of the KC replacement effort. Despite the USAF’s talk about wanting to avoid having a split buy because of higher costs resulting from two separate logistics, training, maintenance tails, the service will have three tankers in its fleet for decades. Doing a split buy would raise that to four, I guess.

    It’s going to be a slow process. Amazing change from the original KC-135 acquisition, in which hundreds of new aircraft entered service in only about 6-7 years.

  8. Scot – Thx for your thoughts, but I cannot agree. The fact is that the program has become so disfuntional, crooked, and politicized, and regional antogonisms have become so hot that no decision is practically possible in any reasonable time frame. Also, it is not at all clear that from a military point of view we need these planes now, and MOST IMPORTANT we cannot afford them.
    It may even be that the regional antagonisms and feelings are running so high that the Obama administration will decide to make no decision at all instead of making one that will alienate the losing region.

    Regional disputes over military procurement will be with us for years. In fact, as Sec Gates has pointed out, they have been with us since the founding of the republic when our first six frigates we built in six different states. Neverthe less, we have shown that these disputes can be resolved responsibly. Witness Gates’ proposal for cancelling the DDG-1000 and splitting future DDG-51 work between Maine and La. Or the division of Virginia class submarine contruction between the northeast and Va. Or Richard Aboulafia’s recent suggestion that the US and Europe avoid a diplomatic confrontation over tanker selection by having the Europeans cancel the A400M and buy a mix 180 C-130s and C-17s made entirely in this country in exchange for our buying 180 KC-30s made in Europe.

    For the inevitable occasions when Congress proves too immature to resolve disputes like these, I propose the creation of an independent procurement commission like the Base Closing Commission. It would have the power to make, final unappealable decisions.

    Also, I am very skeptical as to whether we really need these planes now. Altho Boeing EADS/NG trumpet the warfighters’ requirement for these planes as part of their sales pitches, do we need them now if we will be out of Iraq no matter what by 2011? And do we need the tremendous increase in refueling/cargo capacity/range which these planes will provide over the -135s, especially the 330 and 777? I seem to recall that John Young also said that -135s typically take off with much less than their full fuel offload. And do we really want to use them as cargo carriers if the need for tankers is so pressing? These calculations need to be made before we can estimate whether the reduction of 100 tankers from 500 which you point out is a problem, or just a sensible draw down similar to the ones the AF is proposing for its F-15s and -16s?

    Nor am I convinced that keeping the -135s flying for another 10 years will be particularly expensive in comparson to the costs of buying new ones that will be gas hogs for decades as energy prices rise and rise, as they are likely to do. Also, the costs will likely be lower than one might think because we have already done a lot of the engineering and other prep work for the prior rehahb/mods, and we can seek competitive bids for the work.

    In addition, we know that the KC-X (first) tranch will be 179 tankers. Also, all tho we do NOT know what the full buy over the decades will be because technology and our world wide strategic interests are in such flux, we can reasonably conclude that the final full buy might be less than the 400 -135s presently in service. Put another way, those 179 old tech tankers could end up being as much as 1/half to 3/4s of the total buy, so the effect over the decades of the KC-Y and -Z may be far less than the AF now anticipates.

    Thus, it is badly short sighted to be stampeded by political considerations into buying planes that very shortly will be significantly less efficient than other aircraft. This is especially true in light of the fact that commercial airlines recognise this and are right now transitioning from these old tech to new ones.

    Finally, we must be clear about how broke we are. Our most important national security goal must be to put our financial house in order. this means that we cannot buy what we do not absolutely need, and the need for new tankers now is not clear.

    • With a bit of tongue-in-cheek, since when did whether we could afford anything become a deciding factor where Congress and military programs were concerned? (Or anything else, for that matter?)

      That aside, the MRTT (used here in the generic term, and not meant to mean specifically the KC-30) role is what is key. The C-5 is getting old and the C-17 production is to stop after 205. It first entered service in 1993, making the oldest one already 16 years of age. The MRTT can backstop these aircraft, and in the case of the C-5, perform some of these troop and cargo tasks as these airplanes retire.

      With the vast distances involved and the shrinking number of available air bases, long-legged tankers become more important just to get there and to remain on station for longer periods of times.

      KC-135Es are being retired in large part because of age and maintenance issues.

      • If we go the route of building a new fleet of tankers then I would also reduce the number of KC-767 planes from 179 to 150 and then Also replace the 59 KC-10 with 50 new KC-777 tankers.

        The USAF needs to standardize on one – two airframes !!
        Remember we also have E-3 AWACS built on the old B-707-320 airframe that also will need to be replaced.

        Let us split a Boeing KC-767 contract between Boeing & Northrop Grumman with the understanding that 100% is made in the USA.

        My Understanding of it, is if the contract went to EADS / Northrop Grumman that the plane parts would be made in Europe along with the engines and shipped here for final assembly.
        EADS would build the plant in Alabama and Northrop Grumman would run it for this project, giving EADS an assembly plant built by US taxpayers. It seems like a very loop sided deal for US taxpayer.

    • Hello Chris,

      Even tho I am a late reader to this blog, I must agree with all you say here. Lets use comon sense here in what we need vs what we want.

      Between all the KC-135 flying and all the E-3 AWACS flying I am sure we could improve them with newer engines & Electronics to keep them flying as has been done for B-52’s.

      Thanks for some comon sense

  9. For NG/EADS to not only win this competition, but also if they want to “prevail after the fact”, Airbus should not only move the entire A330 final assembly line to Mobile, but also more of the final assembly of the fusealge sections to the US. For example, the centre fuselage section could be built by Spirit AeroSystem and assembled alongside their new A350 facility in Kinston, North Carolina. The point here is to move as much assembly work to the US as possible. Also, because of the higher production rates of the A350, I’m sure that the unions in Toulouse would only make minimal “noise” of the fact that they would loose the A330.

    In order for this to be economically viable, many more airframes would need to be produced than the projected KC-45s and A330-200Fs. Therefore, Airbus should launch a significantly upgraded A330-200/300 programme which would compete head-on with the 787. The production target should be set conservatively at around 500 civilian passenger and freighter frames over 10 years.


    1) Redesign the forward fuselage using a slightly modified, all-metal version of the A350’s nose section. This will not only improve the aerodynamics of the vehicle, but give USAF a state-of-the-art cockpit to play with.

    2) Keep the wing, as it is, but incorporate most of the initial A350 mark-1 improvements.

    3) Re-engine the aircraft either with the Genx, or if the GE/Airbus relationship is “beyond repair”, ask P&W for a GTF based engine with a state-of-the-art core (similar to the one offered to Boeing for the 787).

    Target mid-2014 as the EIS for both the “new” A330-200 and the KC-45. The four KC-45 developmental aircraft could still be based on the current KC-30, as all of the systems/hardware aft of the cockpit-section would be identical on the production aircraft.

    Airbus should make this announcement some time before the re-bid proposal deadline. Also, if Boeing should offer a 767/777 combo, NG/EADS could counter with an A332/A345 combo where the A340-500 (10 percent greater fuel capacity than the 777-200LR) would have the same, but slightly longer fuselalge in addition to the new A350-style cockpit-section, and it could be using exactly the same engines (de-rated) as the “new” A330-200.

  10. A further note on a tanker based on the A340-500 airframe:

    Apart from the longer fuselage, larger centre fuselage section and bigger wings that would carry the under-wing refuelling pods mounteed on new points further outboard, all of the refueling hardware and military systems would be identical to the KC-30s. Therefore, such a tanker would be significantly cheaper to develop and produce than a 777-based tanker, because there is very little commonality between the 767 and 777 apart from the front fuselage section 41.

  11. Hmm, looks like I can’t write “fuselage” correctly. 🙂

  12. To the contrary OV-99.

    Your suggestions to Airbus are simply brilliant!

    But alas, there would be too much up front capital involved, both from an R&D and manufacturing point of view, There isn’t the political support to get the U.S taxpayers to foot those those bills, and frankly, I think Boeing has wisely used these last 9 months to do their homework, while NG/EADS has rested on the fact that they “won” the last time and can win again with the same proposal. They have already discounted using the A330-200F as a baseline because of cost.
    I isually don’t see things exactly as Scott does, but on this one he is dead on – Boeing has a given themselves a huge advantage by basically telling the Air Force they will effectively custom build an aircraft based on their specifications.

  13. Scott, you know I’m a big KC-777 advocate, but I think you and I can agree that a KC-767 based on a -300 airframe powered by GEnx engines with winglets would be a formidable contender.

    It sure looked great on the Presentation!

    • From what Boeing told us in Round 2 why the -300 wasn’t offered is that it doesn’t give that much more than the -200. Don’t know if Boeing has a different view now but that was it then. The -400 seems to be the “leap” that might be needed in the 767 category, absent going to the 777.

    • Excellent article. Notice who’s behind funding of this important research:
      “We need to protect those who are protecting us,” said Chuck Knapp, an adviser to *Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R, KS)*, who helped secure the money for the project.”

      We need to get on with this and start replacing these tankers.

    • Maybe the solution is a compromise. If cargo payload sufficient to supplement the C-5/C-17 over long ranges is one goal, then the 777F is a good place to start because, unlike any 330 or 340, all the cargo engineering is done and it is proven to be able to carry a huge payload by weight if not volume. On the other hand, all the larger tankers (A332, 333, 764, KC-10 and 777F) will be confined to larger airfields than the 767-200 and -135s, thus limiting severely where they can be based in the third world. For example, could any of them operate at MTOW out of Manas or Bagrum? So we need the -135s as well.

      Why not figure out about how much it would cost to keep 250 -135s going for another 10-15 years (certainly the B-52 can provide some precedent for this), and keep costs down by bidding the repairs out in tranches over time. Why not at the same time reduce the initial tranch to the absolute minimum the AF claims to need to supplement its C-5/C-17s? Say about 50-75 777Fs. This would provide the quick boost in planes the AF (and everyone in Ala and Wash swears on a stack of bibles) we need while preserving the bulk for the new tech KC-Y and -Z?

      On a different note, no matter how well Boeing is or is not now positioned in the tanker wars, in my view AB’s strongest card is its offer to produce its plane in the US. Boeing is also mumbling about putting the second 787 line in San Antonio or some place else as far south of Seattle as possible. It seems that the American south to air framers is a sort of third world country, labor wise. Our nation as whole would be very well served with an AB factory in Ala. We need the jobs and our future is intense competition world wide with cheap labor countries. An AB factory in Ala would tell the world that high tech production is a good deal the US. I note that Ala sent a huge delegation to Paris last week, and Wash did not.

      • Christopher, Airbus is certainly welcome to set up a plant in Alabama or anywhere else in the U.S. they desire. However, I do not think it is appropriate for them to be subsidized by the U.S. Government to do so. If they want to work a deal with the State of Alabama, or whoever, for tax breaks and other inducements, that’s fine. But it would be remarkably myopic and plain stupid for the USG to subsidize, via the second largest procurement contract in DOD history, the entry of a foreign competitior to the U.S. to cause harm to one of our largest exporters. One can rant on about the 787 outsourcing, but this was a commercial decision. If the government of Japan put money up it was to benefit their own domestic producers, not cause them harm.

        As for a mix of tankers that includes KC-135s, that will happen regardless of the outcome of KC-X. Many of the KC-135Rs will likely soldier on for another 20 years.

    • Jay, the article doesn’t say Gates is “softening his position”.

  14. Gates was adamantly against the idea previously and now he is listening and to quote the article: Murtha pulled a handwritten list of three or four items on which Gates was unwilling to negotiate out of his breast pocket, and said the tanker was not on it.
    This is a long way from “Over My Dead Body” attitude he had a couple of months ago. I think some serious lobbying is going on and the reason is anybody’s guest!

  15. Having been diverted from All Things Tanker to All Things 787 this week, we have been slow to revisit the idea of the GEnx topic.

    We are told the GEnx cannot fit on the 767. We believe the prospect of the GEnx being funded by the DOD for 179 KC-777s (based on the commercially-dead 777-200ER or niche 777-200LR or -200F) is not a financial proposition that is likely.

    Thus, we think the GEnx is a red herring.

  16. Scott – Is it a red herring for the 332 also? In any case, if I understand you, new tech improvements like GenX are for the KC-y and -Z, so current engines are acceptable for KC-X, or not?

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