Bjorn’s Corner: USAF Tanker program

By Bjorn Fehrm

By Bjorn Fehrm25 September 2015, ©. Leeham Co: When Scott Hamilton asked me to give my view on his article “Pontifications: Duelling refuelling tankers” I accepted. I was not involved in the project and was only following it casually over the years.

I will also not give my view on what would have been the most suitable tanker for the US Air Force. I simply don’t have the relevant military competence for that, having never operated my fighters with aerial tanking nor been in an aerial tanker aircraft.

Where I have relevant competence is in writing military specifications for important aircraft procurements and the excerpts I have seen from the tanker RFQ on key specification points don’t impress. Let me explain.

In my time in the Swedish Air Force I was involved in working on several aircraft programs, including the JAS 39 Gripen. I was part of the team of 10 who wrote the Air Force RFQ and Specification for the new fighter program. During that time we learned to write the specifications for maximum overall benefit for the Air Force and the taxpayer, not to write the simplest or most watertight specs from an OEM-contesting angle.

You get the aircraft you specify and this also apply for derivatives of an existing aircraft like for the USAF tanker program. In the case of the JAS 39 Gripen, we wanted to achieve a lot of “bang for the buck,” chiefly because there were not too many bucks. I think we succeeded. The Gripen gives a lot of “bang for the buck.” It is one of the most cost-effective military aircraft programs in recent times (which is the reason Boeing teams with SAAB for the USAF T-X trainer program).

Now to the USAF tanker program. The program was to replace the existing tanker KC-135 in Fig 1. It also lists the combatants and their key capabilities, including the larger, heavier tanker KC-10. It is an image from The Seattle Times which I have modified to include the KC-10 instead of a Boeing 777 tanker which never happened.

USAF Tankers lineup

Figure 1. USAF tanker program aircraft with key capabilities. Source: Seattle Times and Leeham Co.

A lot of debate has raged over the years about the requirements and how the different aircraft fulfill these. In my opinion, the requirements as they have been described have contributed to the low level of the debate. Let me explain what I mean:

As I understand it, the key requirement for the RFQ is to get a replacement for the KC-135 with the best operational value (value meaning not only capability but capability vs. cost). You then don’t write your spec like “the minimum fuel that shall be uplifted is 200,000lb” and give no credit for 220,000 or 250,000lb capability.  It is not only that additional capability must be credited, but an entry with 195,000lb capability and exceptional cost effectiveness would be discarded.

The USAF tanker program was a $40bn program engaging tens of thousands of people. The preparation time for the bidding and writing of the RFQ took years. It is not too much of an ask that a group of operationally savvy people sit down and formulate a relevant weight function for the key requirements for such a program. Instead we have had simple “shall” or “should” with simple, discrete values. Any one entry in the competition outside the value falls off a cliff. This is not the way operational capability shall be valued and the way to create value for the taxpayers’ money. Military aircraft programs are results of successful trades on hundreds of areas, then simple pass or not pass criteria for key operational capabilities is not the way to make an RFQ.

Let me take another example. It the quotes from the RFQ were correct, there were runway length requirements formulated like:

  • The tanker shall be capable to take-off fully loaded from 7,000ft runways (this was later modified to 10,000ft).

It is debated if “fully loaded” implies fully fueled tanker or that the tanker is at MTOW. Either way, it is a totally unacceptable way to specify what you want from the supplier.  The operational value does not come from “fully loaded at MTOW” or “fully loaded with max tanker fuel.” It comes from “relevant operation capability from 7,000ft or 10,000ft runways.” If a tanker that can take 250,000lb of fuel can only lift 230,000lb from a 7,000ft runway and that is better than the others can, then that tanker shall have a relevant evaluation benefit from this capability. It shall not fall of a cliff because it cannot lift 250,000 lb at 10,000ft runway when the other can lift its 220,000lb (or vice versa).

Once again a simple “shall” requirement is not good enough for this size of procurement. Let’s dig a bit deeper.

A USAF tanker fleet operate from hundreds of airfields. Fewer than 5% of these have runways of 7,000ft or less. It cannot be that a tanker that cannot load its fuel capability to the max and can’t take off from that runway is non-compliant in the procurement. This style of specs and procurements shall be behind us.

For all those that think I’m pedaling the higher capability of the Airbus KC-30 now, think not. As I stated, I have no relevant competence when it comes to the tanker force for the USAF. And I have done my homework well enough to understand it is not only about who has the highest fuel capacity. Operational considerations like how many tankers fill how many aircraft during how long a time and what is the operation and life cycle cost of it all comes into play.

This is no news to me. This the way you always have to judge military programs, quantity vs. capability and quality. For the key procurement criteria, you should spend the time and money to have something better than the spec points I pointed out above. For others, a hard “shall” can be justified as for example for the self-defense capability. If the tankers self-defense suite can’t neutralize a prevailing MANPAD threat, the casualty ratio quickly gets catastrophic.

But there is no catastrophe if the tanker can uplift only 195,000lb when 200,000lb is required, It should be valued in its context with an operationally relevant weight function.

71 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: USAF Tanker program

  1. Great analysis as to what should/could be versus what shall be. To add to your example, a shall be item would be air to air refuelling of the tanker. Takeoff performance as you have described it is a reasonable basic description. Shall be EMP hardened, etc

    Unfortunately- in our world- the legal issues and word parsing and way too many cooks- desk jockeys- and overpaid lobbyists run the procurement arms of our military.

    Dont see anything to argue over.

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  3. Bjorn,

    An excellent post, that gives a good insight to an aspect of the procurement process that isn’t often explored or understood.

    But then we also have to read between the lines: were these ‘shalls’ and ‘shoulds’ simply poor competence, or a means of directing the outcome?

    • “An excellent post, that gives a good insight to an aspect of the procurement process that isn’t often explored or understood.”

      I agree that this an excellent post, but I think Aviation Week has been quite clear over the years that the USAF procurement process is a farce.

  4. The tanker programme is a good example of what overbearing oversight of procurement does to projects.

    Taxpayers should read Ben Rich’s book about the Lockheed Skunk Works. What those guys managed to do was amazing. What was even more amazing was how cheap it all was. Rich said they spent $30million on the two Have Blue stealth fighter prototypes. Even in 1970s terms, that was amazingly cheap considering the aircraft’s novel specification. The production F117 was pretty cheap in comparison to what it could do. Why so cheap? Well, very little interference from above is the only explanation.

    Taxpayers should read that book and absorb its meaning and then start asking whether their politicians (for they are at the top of the oversight tree) are delivering value for money when it comes to procurement.

    Government departments involved in open procurement are obliged to account for public money pretty much to the last penny. That clearly isn’t delivering value for money to the taxpayer. Penny pinching, pound foolish. Holding departments to account in the way they do now is wasting a huge amount of tax payers money.

    I saw this happen here in the UK. As soon as computerisation made it possible to account for every last penny, we had to. However, the admin staff count went from about 2 heads per 50 scientists/engineers to around about 20, just to make the penny counting system work. Unsurprisingly that’s when project money started getting tight, despite the overall departmental budgets going up.

    It’s about time there was a change. There has got to be a better way.

    On the tanker program itself, this is a program to replace something they’ve already got. It shouldn’t be this hard, long, expensive or controversial. If they end up spending more per plane than the F117 cost (and I’ll be generous and allow the comparison to take account of inflation), then they will have failed miserably.

    Someone fairly high up needs to acknowledge that something is very wrong, and start doing something about it. In the USA though I’m not sure the political set up allows for that, unless a President aware of the issue manages to get elected with control of both Houses too. There would be a lot of political screaming. Same here in the UK, though at least we generally get 5 year dictatorships which makes it possible to actually do stuff (right or wrong) if the resolve is there.

  5. I think the decision to not credit additional capability was a political decision taken after EADS/NG won the second round, with both tanker specifications / offering known. With a predictable result.

    In any fair competition fully unacceptable. Moving the goal posts halftime.

    With a few good lawyers Airbus could have easily blown the 3rd round to pieces but decided it would anger congress and further frustrate the USAF. Not at all in their long term interest.

    • Bjorn,

      I find your comments highly curious. If you guys worked to put together the RFQ for a specific set of performance parameters, likely based on your data saying U,V,X,Y, and Z are things we need and A, B, C, D, and E are things your fighter doesn’t need nor do you have a requirement for it, why would you give credit for something you don’t need? If you specified in your RFQ that you need Mach 2 capability with a single engine light fighter, and a manufacturer shows up with a Mach 4 capable twin engine heavy fighter, surely you won’t give the win to the plane that didn’t meet your requirements, right? Of course not. That’s the same thing as showing up to a dealer to buy a Volvo V60 estate car with good fuel economy and a certain size, but the dealer rolls out a MAN commercial truck to you and says “you should take this because it exceeds all your specs; more space, more power, more towing, everything.” Because obviously, you should grant extra credit for its capabilities, right?

      I thought Airbus should’ve won, until I read this. Then I realized my error, and the big ones the USAF made in gaming the system to ensure Airbus won the first time. No wonder Northrop bailed out….their proposal didn’t meet specifications and of course the RFP favored a smaller tanker; THAT’S WHAT IT ASKED FOR.

      Of course, everyone blames the politicians, lobbyists, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny for the KC-46 selection. When you lose, it is always best to blame everyone but yourself, including blaming the referees, the fans, the stadium, the rules, the weather, the concessionaires, the ball, and the bus that brought you to the game. Never mind you played a bad game.

      • “The USAF made in gaming the system to ensure Airbus won the first time”

        An old trick. Stating the 100 % opposite of what happened (2 times), in the hope perception is both were cheating.

        GOA works for and financed by congress.

      • “. That’s the same thing as showing up to a dealer to buy a Volvo V60 estate car with good fuel economy and a certain size, but the dealer rolls out a MAN commercial truck to you and says “you should take this because it exceeds all your specs; more space, more power, more towing, everything.”

        – Woah, you’ve got to make your comparisons a bit more down to earth. If that’s what you saw comparing an A330 to a 767… or even worse if that’s what the USAF actually saw.

        • Okay…to make it a better comparison. You walk in and want a Volvo V60 (good fuel economy, can fit your garage, and since they are changing models, they throw in the extra stuff I mentioned) and the salesman pulls up a Volvo XC90: bigger, more cargo capacity, more fuel use, won’t fit your garage, has more capability than you need or asked for (you don’t need an SUV) and since it is popular, they have no incentive to throw in the extra stuff and you have to pay for the options. And it will cost you more….a lot more…over the service life of the vehicle.

          Better? Do you give the XC90 the extra points and decide it will replace your current old estate car? Or is it excess to your needs and, in reality, comes close to the capabilities you have in your other vehicle to be replaced at a later date, the 5 year old BMW X5 you have sitting at home for the “heavy lifting”?

          I think that is a better comparison.

      • Neutron,
        Thanks for the link. Someone around here may have previously posted it, but I had never seen it before. It is pretty clear that the USAF made several serious errors in its evaluation of the Boeing and NG proposals, and that Boeing’s protest of the award was warranted. My favorite is the following because it is a concrete example of the USAF “moving the goalpost” in favor of Airbus.

        “Fourth, we found that the Air Force conducted misleading and unequal discussions with Boeing. The agency informed Boeing during the procurement that it had fully satisfied a key performance parameter objective relating to operational utility. Later, the Air Force decided that Boeing had not fully satisfied this particular objective, but did not tell Boeing this, which would have afforded Boeing the opportunity to further address this. GAO concluded that it was improper for the Air Force, after informing Boeing that it had fully met this objective, to change this evaluation conclusion without providing Boeing the opportunity to address this requirement in discussions. In contrast, Northrop Grumman, whose proposal was evaluated as only partially meeting this requirement, received continued discussions addressing this same matter during the procurement.”

        So, even though the OGC Deputy General Counsel states clearly that there was no intentional wrongdoing by the USAF:

        “Second, bias, undue influence or other intentional wrongdoing was not alleged by Boeing in its protest, nor did GAO see any evidence of such intentional wrongful conduct by the Air Force in this procurement.”

        Perhaps it is just because GAO couldn’t find any hard evidence, but where there is smoke, there is usually fire (or at least a smoldering chemical reaction).

  6. “I think the decision to not credit additional capability was a political decision”

    You got that right.

    “With a few good lawyers Airbus could have easily blown the 3rd round to pieces but decided it would anger congress and further frustrate the USAF.”

    Couldn’t agree more.

    The acquisition of military equipment is a highly political process that is always tricky and slippery because there are ipso facto two customers/owners: the government and the military. And these two often have conflicting interests. One is the buyer and the other is the user. And the one who holds the purse always win, while the end user does not always get what he wants.

    • Rightly or wrongly it was not a political decision.

      And I don’t think the last round was going to be overturned.

      It was in the bid specs, clearly no credit given to exceeding specs

      You can argue that the spec favored 767, but you also can argue the previous spec favored the A330

      Reality was they tried to make a competition when there was clearly two different category of tanker.

      That said the USAF did get a very competitive price as Boeing clearly bid it beyond aggressive.

      • “That said the USAF did get a very competitive price as Boeing clearly bid it beyond aggressive.”

        … and the quandaries of selecting the “cheapest” bidder are entering the stage from the right. already.
        Afaics the KC46 will be a dear experience for Boeing and the US(AF).

        • Uwe:

          Boeing will overcome this just as Airbus overcame all the issue with the A330MRT. Its not rocket science and AF will get a fully capable platform there are the 8 767s tankers that Boeing did flying and doing fine (not that they learned anything form that obviously but there are no impediments to the 767 working as a tanker)

          What no one will ever know is how it would have gone if NG and or Airbus had gotten the contract and had to develop a whole new facility in US (Alabama) with or without a partner and meeting AF specs. You have no way to say what would have happened. Higher bid does not equate to better performance either.

          Congress wanted as low a cost tanker as they could get and it will serve every bit as well as the KC135s have.

          And the current KC135 fleet is doing fine (projecte4d to serve well into the 2030 era) so there is no panic.

          I often see someone say, this thing is maint heavy and we need a new one.

          Someone out there snaps up their so called maint heavy aircraft and works fine. The KC135s do need replacement but they are good for a long time (US does not wear out their aircraft so we can keep them for a long time (grin)

  7. A330-200 flight cycle is 40,000/ 60,000 hours. B767-200 flight cycle is 50,000/ 100,000 hours. We all know how long the U.S. Keep tankers and bombers. There is no comparison between the U.S Air Force and all the euro Air Force combine in breath, reach and sophistication.

    • Daveo, I think the latest A330 ESG moves service live far above 100.000. So of that is real important..

      Maybe it is hard to swallow the KC46 was selected on non technical grounds.

      Luckely IMO the second best will still prove a very usefull, efficient platform.

    • Daveo, I think the latest A330 ESG moves service live far above 100.000. So of that is real important..

      Maybe it is hard to swallow the KC46 was selected on non technical grounds.

      Luckely IMO the second best will still prove a very usefull, efficient platform.

      “USAF got what they asked congress for, lowest cost closest to the KC135. ”

      Let’s not rewrite history here. The USAF wasn’t asking this. Congress decided so, after USAF selected the KC-30 in round 2.

    • There is no comparison between the U.S Air Force and all the euro Air Force combine in breath, reach and sophistication.”

      Forex the German A310 MRTT see a lot more complex operations than any single purpose USAF item 😉

    • That is a violently red herring.

      Tankers, actually most military aircraft, are “stored to death” and not “flown to death”.
      A fact that should make dual/multi use attractive.
      move technological death and cycles death back together.
      Also, keeping outdated frames alive turns expensive sooner than later.

      • So, we have an air exercise in Alaska. Nearest underused tanker is in Spain. fly from Spain to Alaska. No freight going there, so it goes empty.

        In the meantime Libya goes hot and its, sorry we have to cancel that exercise we need the tanker in the Med.

        No freight from Ak but we can stop by in Georgia and pick up a load.

        Sorry, that load goes to Diego Garcia, you fellers are just going to have to wait for the tanker as its carrying freight.

        And so it goes.

        good thing we have lots of tankers with low hours.

  8. A330 foot print will match the replacement for KCX program. But I am sure Boeing will trump them again with the B777F. Airbus build good commercial aircraft that make lousy freighters.

    • @Daveo

      I’m not sure if Boeing would be able to trump Airbus again with a KC-777-8F – that is if the Pentagon wants the KC-Y acquisition process competitively-bid. If they do want a competitively-bid acquisition, IMJ it would be partly due to Boeing’s performance on the KC767 and the KC-46, and partly due to the performance of the A330 MRTT – which according to Air Vice Marshal McDonald of the RAAF is pretty good (“the results are there for all to see.”).

      I would assume that the KC-Y procurement process would follow closely that of the KC-X. AFAIR in the RFP, round 2, there were 372 mandatory requirements that both Boeing and Airbus had to meet before USAF would calculate the total estimated price for each of the two tanker offerings. If the bids were within 1 percent of each other, then and only then would the competition enter a second non-mandatory evaluation phase, where EADS would have been given extra credit for exceeding the mandatory fuel offload requirement in the KC-X RFP. I would assume that the fuel offload requirements in KC-Y RFP would not exceed the fuel offload capability of the KC-10; which is about 235,000 lbs at a 500 nm mission radius; 199,000 lbs at 1000 nm; 155,000 lbs at 1500 nm and 79,000 lbs at 2500 nm.

      This would imply, of course, that the extra fuel offload capability of a KC-777-8F would only come into play if Boeing’s KC-Y bid would be whitin one percent of that of the bid from Airbus. Hence, it’s not very likely, IMJ, that a KC-777-8F would be competitive on price with an A330-800 MRTT in a KC-X type of RFP.

      As for the A330-200 MRTT (i.e. MTOW of 233 metric tonnes), its fuel offload capability is around 153,000 lbs at a 1000 nm mission radius. Insert an A330-800 with a 242 metric tonn MTOW, and you’d have an A330 MRTT having about the same offload capability as the KC-10 at 1000 nm mission radius. Since the DC-10 has a much higher fuel consumption than the A330, it’s not too difficult to predict that an A330-800 MRTT would have a significant better fuel offload capability than the KC-10 as the mission radius is increased to 1500 nm and 2500 nm.

      The KC-10 can obviously load load a lot more fuel than the A330-200 MRTT at the ramp, but it has about a 41 percent higher fuel consumption per hour; or around a 60 percent higher fuel burn per hour than an A330-800 MRTT. In fact, an A330-800 MRTT should have about the same fuel offload capability as the KC-10 at a mission radius of 1000 nm, while having a dramatically lower fuel burn than the KC-10.

      Finally, it may look as if an A330-800 MRTT would have about a 4 percent greater fuel burn per hour than the KC-46A, which is not too bad considering the fact that the former is much bigger and far more capable.

      • I actually agree with OV99 that the only in production aircraft that matches up with the KC10 mission/specs is the A330MRT.

        While not an issue, I don’t know that a A330-800 is contemplated by Airbus or if they will keep making the -200 and existing engines.

        If Airbus assembled it in the US based in the KC? program it would have my vote (yes I am parochial but with few exceptions the US has to offer offsets to supply equipment to others)

        At that point you could have two programs going side by side.

        With Airbus established in Alabama with their own organization (a “partner”) it would have a higher probability of success.

        • AFAIK, Airbus will not continue producing A330-200s/-300s post 2019/2020. IMJ, the A330-200F will be replaced by both an A330-800F and an A330-900F. If the Trent-7000 engine would be upgraded to the same max thrust as that of the Trent-1000-TEN (i.e. + 6000 lbs of thrust) – on which it’s based – then, MTOW could grow by some 15 tonnes (i.e. from 242 metric tonnes). However, in that the case, the HGW versions of the A330-800F/-900F would have to use the center landing gear from the A340-300. Interestingly enough, a MRTT based on an A330-800 HGW would be able to carry upwards of 20 tonnes more fuel than the current A330 MRTT versions.

          • Center Landing gear would gobble up a significant part of that MTOW increase. And you have to carry that weight all the time and additionally it will have an impact on runway performance.
            Current A330 MRTT has an OEW of 125t. Plus 110t volume limited max fuel requires min MTOW of 235t.
            With the current max MTOW 242t you already have room for heavier put more efficient engines ( for more loitering time and more fuel offload ) … maybe snitching some more available fuel volume in the wings is possible?
            Engine efficiency me seemeth is at the core of tuning offload capabilities.

          • @Uwe

            I’ve been offline for a few days – sorry for the late reply.

            The fact of the matter is that the A330neo is getting an engine that is more powerful than the current engines on the A330ceo. It should quite easily be able to provide 78,000 lbs of thrust – or some 6,000 lbs of thrust more than what’s required for the 242 tonne MTOW of the A338/A339. An increase in MTOW towards 260 tonnes could IMJ make sense for both an A330-900F and an A330-800 MRTT. True, the centre gear will add some weight, but keep in mind that on the A342/A343 the centre gear is not a landing load bearing gear. In fact, without the centre gear deployed, the weights at which the A343 can operate at are more or less those of an A333 with a MTOW of 233 tonnes.

            As for fuel volume limits, an A330-800 MRTT (i.e. MTOW between 255 and 260 metric tonnes), could be outfitted with the same 19,930 litre rear centre fuel tank as that of the A340-500.


          • Hey.

            I thought a simple comparison of OEWs would give a hint on extra weights like the center gear. not conclusively:
            Type :: OEW :: max fuel volume
            A340-200 ~129t ~155kl
            A340-300 ~130t ~147kl
            A330-200 ~119.6 ~139kl
            A330-300 ~ 124.5 ~97kl
            For the A330 the OEW delta between types is much bigger than for the A340. And the A340 seems to leverage some more nooks and crannies for tankage than the A330.

          • The manufacturer’s empty weight for the basic A330-300 and A340-300 airframes (i.e. minus engines, nacelles and pylons) is much closer than what you seem to imply. 😉

            Like-for like, the engine dry weight for a Trent 700 engine is 4763 kg, while the dry weight for a CFM56-5C engine is 3990 kg. NB: Nacelle, fluids and aircraft build items will be added to the engine to result in a powerplant weight.

            2 x Trent-700: 4763 kg x 2 = 9, 526 kg
            4 x CFM56-5C: 3990 kg x 4 = 15, 960 kg

            Design strength required was apparently only one percent higher for the A343 wing than what was required for the A333 wing.* The addition of the centre-fuselage undercarriage leg was primarily required for the A343 in order to carry some 30 tonnes more fuel than the A333. Again, the A342/A343 centre gear is not a landing load bearing gear – hence, it’s only required for take-off. AFAIK, the centre landing gear weight for the A342/A343 – including structure, actuating system, and the rolling assembly consisting of wheels, brakes, and tires – is in the neighbourhood of 1,500 kg


          • “– is in the neighbourhood of 1,500 kg”

            for 30t more MTOW is okay.
            ( The use case is irrelevant. The dead weight aspect is of interest here )
            But still the offload capability probably doesn’t increase by that amount.

          • IMO, the “dead weight” issue is not that important for the applications that I’m talking about; a tanker based on the A330-800neo and a freighter based on the A330-900 – both of which you’d want to maximize MTOW capability for – thanks to the more powerful Trent-7000 engines. Depending on how much thrust growth potential there is left in the Trent-7000, I’d not be surprised if MTOW for an A338 MRTT and an A339F – using the A343 centre gear – could be raised to as high as 270 tonnes.

            Again, this is not what you’d want to do for the A330neo passenger versions, where an increased payload/range capability is obviously not what the market is looking for.

  9. First I want to thank Bjorn for his time as well as the information he presented. As usual its added aspect to this I had not fully understood (and maybe still don’t but I get the drop off the edge spec at the lower end now as well). I appreciate the graphic though I would like a comparison on range and loiter time as well.

    Second: I don’t think the A330MRT is a bad aircraft, once developed, like any converted civilian aircraft it seems to do its job as intended. Does it have longevity issues as a tanker Boeing does not? I don’t know. I would be interested in some analysis of that. It had teething problems but as Boeing has amply demonstrated, relatively miner , not as bad as they could have been (we don’t know how the KC30 would have done meeting USAF spec though either, noting that Boeing has put in a 787 cockpit that at least keeps that part of the aircraft up to current commercially available spares standards)

    It still get to be some value judgments. As noted, if you need a Mach 2 fighter and a Mach 4 is offered at a higher price, cost more to operate and does the mission no better is that Mach 2 worth it?

    Obviously the baseline was the KC135. So maybe falling below the 200k fuel limit was needed so that you did not get someone with a lesser capability (as I recall there was a wild Russian based aircraft thrown into the mix)

    Congress for better or worse enabled the program based on replacing the KC135, not the KC10. An Air Force general got “big is better” in his eyes and wanted the KC30.

    Please note, the AF also took the C27 away from the Army, committed to buy and support it and then killed it, the C130 supposedly was superior.

    Trying to make a competition between an A330MRT and a 767 (much closer to the KC135 baseline) virtually makes it impossible for one or the other to compete with each other. Realistically the A330MRT fits a is a KC10 spec not a KC135.

    Other life time factors like fuel burn, engine costs also weigh into this.

    Footprint is another issue and existing hangar facilities.

    One reason the thing was overturned on the next to the last round was the AF listed footprint specs (spacing) and then gave A330MRT no penalty for being larger when the contract specifically said there would be a penalty.

    I assume the spacing is a safety of operation issue (full tankers and lots of fuel) as well as war zone collateral damage. Regardless if you are going to waive it then its not a spec.

    In the end it really boils down to does the US need a lot of tankers at as low a cost as possible or does it need larger ones at higher costs?

    One thing to think about is the US with its Civilian Reserve fleet program has a third option. That option is required a minimum amount of use or the participants are not required to provide that capability.

    That program is utilize far more than the minimum.

    You have to wonder if that is used and is more cost effective, does the KC30 add any advantage? Use it more and use it up sooner when a number of comments were made by the same general about keeping airframe hours down.

    I can see small air forcec wanting to maxiumize what they have. However, most of those are coalition air forces and they can use the US tankers as needed.

    UK case in point where they used their Voyagers to haul people and freight to and from Afghanistan. Freight hauling is not a unique capability. Tankers are. Hauling freight and pax means it is not doing its unique mission. You can hire that out or buy a cheaper freighter.

    3 of the fleet are A330s supposedly to be converted “latte” So they bought a passenger aircraft (or combie and once is leased out)

    None of them have a boom, ergo they can’t refuel all US aircraft (actually a majority as the USAF uses boom on all theirs which I think is stupid but its a fact of life). Australia at least boomed theirs.

    So if anyone can draw a single conclusions that crosses all the pros, cons and in some cases silly (boom receptacle on fighters) then good luck.

    USAF got what they asked congress for, lowest cost closest to the KC135. The fact that Boeing is doing badly is costing Boeing a lot of money. Contract was written to reflect that it would not cost the taxpayers (well then there re those pesky write offs and not paying taxes but……)

    In the end Boeing will solve the problems. There is nothing unique about any of them, not cutting edge, not a game changer. It probably says a lot more about how far Boeing has fallen that Airbus can get a tanker project going and successfully without all the issue Boeing has had than anything.

    The A330MRT in its various versions will continue to sell, Boeing is fooling itself it will sell any 767s to other than Japan. S. Korea a case in point, a country that does not deploy, has very short range local needs, pax and freighter not a factor and choose the A330MRT. Probably as much as anything they wanted their tanker as soon as possible, not 10 years from now (Boeing having to fully commit to USAF and not meeting that schedule)

    • “I would be interested in some analysis of that. It had teething problems but as Boeing has amply demonstrated, relatively miner , not as bad as they could have been (we don’t know how the KC30 would have done meeting USAF spec though either, noting that Boeing has put in a 787 cockpit that at least keeps that part of the aircraft up to current commercially available spares standards)”

      I wouldn’t call the KC-30 teething problems even relatively minor. The boom problems were significant, resulting in a quasi-operational state that only recently has been upgraded.

      Also, the KC-30 would never have met all the USAF specs. The NG/EADS proposal was the KC-45. The USAF wanted additional “classified” capabilities that neither the KC-767, nor the KC-30 have. I think one of the reasons that the KC-45 lost out once NG bailed is that at the time EADS didn’t have the same credibility doing “classified” work for the USDOD as NG.

      • @Mike Bohnet

        “Also, the KC-30 would never have met all the USAF specs. The NG/EADS proposal was the KC-45. The USAF wanted additional “classified” capabilities that neither the KC-767, nor the KC-30 have.”

        Yes, Airbus would have been paid $4.9 billion for the contract – R&D for the classified stuff, armored cockpit etc. and deliveries of 18 initial operational KC-45 tankers by August, 2017.

        “I think one of the reasons that the KC-45 lost out once NG bailed is that at the time EADS didn’t have the same credibility doing “classified” work for the USDOD as NG.”

        EADS was classified as a US “prime contractor” by the Pentagon shortly after NG pulled out. Back in September, 2005, EADS partnered with NG as they didn’t have that qualification then.

        Now, what decided the outcome was that Boeing bid 10 percent lower than the offer from EADS.

        According to EADS, Boeing’s bid of about $31.5 billion, paid over 17 years of production, was $3.6 billion less than the EADS bid. And it was fully $7 billion lower than the figure that won the previous 2008 round of the competition for EADS.

        EADS estimated that the original 2001 tanker-lease deal awarded to Boeing, adjusted for inflation and for the larger number of tankers now ordered, was approximately $16 billion more expensive than the one now finalized.

        “I wouldn’t call the KC-30 teething problems even relatively minor. The boom problems were significant, resulting in a quasi-operational state that only recently has been upgraded.”

        I’d suggest that you read the update on the KC-30:

        “noting that Boeing has put in a 787 cockpit that at least keeps that part of the aircraft up to current commercially available spares standards.”

        No, the KC-46 will not have the 787 cockpit. For example, the KC-46 will not be a digital fly-by-wire aircraft – nor is the 767 one – and the cockpit will be outfitted with four of the 787 cockpit’s 15.1-inch diagonal LCDs (i.e. the 787 cockpit has five 15.1-inch LCDs).


        is not the same as this:

        • I take it the last part of your comment was meant for TransWorld and not me because I was quoting him.

          I’ve read the update. It’s great that the tankers are working good now. Getting there, however, was not without some serious problems and people making comparisons between programs would do well to remember that.

          Since we are talking opinions here (none of us have all the facts), my opinion is that the final selection was not just driven by Boeing’s 10% lower bid. There were many other things involved, one or several of which drove NG to pull out (before they knew that Boeing’s new bid was $7B lower than the first). When I mentioned “classified” work in my post, I didn’t just mean the infrastructure required to perform classified work for the USDOD, I was also including the technical experience needed to work on the particular systems that the USAF wanted. I know for certain that NG had the proper experience. I’m not so sure about EADS at the time, so I think the KC-45 bid lost something when NG dropped out.

          • “I take it the last part of your comment was meant for TransWorld and not me because I was quoting him.”

            Yes, you’re right. Sorry about that.

            “I’ve read the update. It’s great that the tankers are working good now. Getting there, however, was not without some serious problems and people making comparisons between programs would do well to remember that.”

            But the point is that the KC-30 is working very well now. It’s not surprising that Airbus encountered problems during the development. In fact, developmental delays and problems seems to be pretty normal in military programmes. However, one should keep in mind that Airbus had no real legacy programmes to base the tanker development on – apart from the A310 MRTT (6 built) – and the Airbus Military Aerial Refueling Boom System (ARBS) was all new. In contrast, Boeing has an enormous experience with tankers and booms – from two legacy companies.

            “I didn’t just mean the infrastructure required to perform classified work for the USDOD, I was also including the technical experience needed to work on the particular systems that the USAF wanted.”


            O’Keefe said the company’s bid would meet all of the Air Force’s 372 criteria. About 30 of those requirements necessitate handling of sensitive U.S. military technology, O’Keefe said. “We have all the clearances necessary to do that,” he said. The company may complement its expertise in the area with U.S. partners, he said.


            The A330’s chances appeared dead when Northrop Grumman bowed out of the contest March 8.

            The next day, EADS Chief Executive Louis Gallois said the Europeans would not compete alone. He said the Pentagon’s request for proposals (RFP) favored “the smaller, less capable airplane.”

            The RFP is structured so that any tanker meeting minimal conditions is a contender, after which it becomes mainly a question of price. “This is giving a huge advantage to the 767,” Gallois said then.

            But European Aeronautic, Defence & Space seems to have changed its stance.

            The industry sources familiar with EADS’ thinking both said the Europeans now believe that although the smaller 767 should logically be cheaper, the A330 may be able to undercut it.

            That’s a surprising expectation, given that Airbus plans to invest in building a new A330 assembly plant and tanker-conversion facility in Mobile, Ala.

            Yet EADS officials believe that expense will be compensated by lower development costs, because the A330 tanker for the Air Force will be very similar to the airplane, already certified in Europe, that has won tanker contracts in Australia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Great Britain.

            In contrast, EADS thinks Boeing’s development costs could climb because Boeing plans to offer a 767 tanker with key improvements — including a 787-style flight deck and a new refueling boom — from the tankers it sold to Italy and Japan.

            The calculus goes: If EADS can sell its larger airplane as not only more capable but also lower price, the A330 will be the next U.S. tanker.

            “It’s all about price,” the second industry source said. “The team that can put together the most aggressive package, meeting the basic technical requirements but driving a very competitive price, wins.”

            The Pentagon, eager to have a competition that ensures value for the taxpayer, must be tempted to let that scenario play out.

            EADS spokesman Guy Hicks said Monday “there has been no decision by EADS to bid on the tanker.”

            But Hicks laid out reasons why a bid without Northrop could make sense.

            EADS has already demonstrated success as a prime contractor to the U.S. Army on its Light Utility Helicopter program, he said. And it has built up its U.S. presence and acquired the clearance needed to work on classified defense projects.


          • Again, I wasn’t only talking about the necessary infrastructure to carry out classified work, necessary facilities, enough cleared employees, or being a US “prime contractor”, I was also talking about the level of technical experience with the specific systems that the USAF wanted that are classified.

            I find it telling that the CEO of EADS North America would say: “The company may complement its expertise in the area with U.S. partners” To me this can be interpreted as a subtle admission that EADS North America didn’t have sufficient experience with the systems that the USAF was interested in. Of course, this is not the only reason that EADS lost, as I said in my original post, but I think it factored in. The experience of the performers always plays a part.

            Of course, program cost is the easiest thing to point to after the fact because the winning bid had the lower cost, but I think Boeing still would have won had the development/program costs been the same. Not for political reasons, but because of the KC-46’s lower “most probable life cycle cost” which depended on many things, not the least of which was construction costs for base infrastructure upgrades (including support equipment).

          • @Mike Bohnet

            I find it telling that the CEO of EADS North America would say: “The company may complement its expertise in the area with U.S. partners”

            Not really. More than 50 percent of the tanker had to be US sourced – BTW, which other country in the world has those sort of requirements? France does, apparently. For example, Boeing could have made a bid for the French tankers if they’d decided to set up shop in France.

            With NG dropping out, EADS had to make sure that they would comply with the 50 percent + requirment.

            Interestingly, Sean O’Keefe made his comments before Norm Dicks & Co indirectly threatened every major American company choosing to partner with EADS.

            Gates’ remarks, made to reporters in London, were a reaction to U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., and chairman of a defense appropriations subcommittee, who has encouraged U.S. companies to refrain from joining forces with EADS against Boeing in the competition.


            As reports swirl that L-3, seen as the likeliest partner for an EADS tanker bid, may drop the idea of working with the European defense giant, Rep. Norm Dicks said he hopes the Franco-German company doesn’t place a bid.

            After saying that “this is a free country” Dicks said he hoped that U.S. companies would not partner with EADS. It’s not a direct threat, but you can bet that the Washington operations people and senior leadership of every major defense company will take that into account.


            Boeing portrays tanker rival as possible threat to national security

      • Mike B:

        By miner I mean solvable, lack of understanding for what they were doing and the learning curve. As the Aussies showed, you can get through it with a lot of work.

        Major would be an airframe that doe snot hold up, creates too much turbulence to tanker aircraft etc.

      • Reading over the full GAO report, the KC-30 was seriously deficient in several key areas that the USAF improperly glossed over that would have serious impacts on flight safety and refueling capability. In other words, the USAF was going to ignore several safety and performance parameters that are written and codified in order to select the KC-30, violating their own directives and training guidelines.

        But the KC-46 met all of them. They made the right choice in the 3rd go-round, unless the USAF was going to rewrite the book on air refueling, and force Airbus to make significant changes which would require a re-certification of the aircraft.

        • KC-30 is the Australian MRTT variant.
          Afair what was offered in the second last “competition” was a KC-30++ i.e. based on the KC-30 but with additional features as require for the offer.
          Obviously the Aussie KC-30 falls short of what the Airforce requested.

  10. “Best overall value” and “low cost compliant” can each be logical and defensible ways to procure. In this case, the US chose low cost compliant.

    That makes sense when what you are buying has a clear, pre-defined mission and you want to avoid letting the generals buy needlessly expensive toys with lots of bells and whistles that aren’t necessary to accomplish the mission – even if they present better value.

    A practical example is organisations that specify that their people fly the lowest fare that fits the timeframe of travel – they will not allow you to book Business Class – even if it is almost the same price as Economy (many here would say that in such circumstances Business is a better “value) – they’ve decided that the requirement is that you be transported from A to B within certain timelines. All that other stuff is “nice” but they aren’t willing to pay for it. Fair enough.

    Where the role of the purchase is less clear, then buying best overall value probably makes sense.

    In this particular case, it might be entirely logical for the US Air Force, based on its equipment capability to purchase lowest compliant, but have other smaller countries happy to offer bonus points and thus pay a bit more for the increased breadth of capability of the Airbus product. They may well both be right, given their differing circumstances.

    • I don’t know other countries structure their bid the way US did. I.e. bonus points.

      If so then they decided that any bonus is a desired aspect.

      The USAF decided it was not for the purpose of that bid spec.

      More or less they were after the lowest cost equal to the KC135.

  11. I was talking about 777 L/R tanker. Boeing will not build 777X tanker until 2027-2030.

      • Addendum

        And Boeing would, of course, have to develop a tanker version of the 777. How much would that cost?

        Meanwhile, the A330 MRTT is operational.

        Nuff said.

        • The USAF does not want and never will want an A330 MRTT.

          What I believe they could want would be something akin to the KC-45, which has the systems the USAF wants, but unfortunately does not exist yet. It might cost more to develop a 777F based tanker, but it will still cost a significant amount to develop something like the KC-45.

          • Add some classified stuff and armoured cockpit for $4.9 billion (inflation adjusted) developmental programme – to an already operational platform, should be a walk in the park.

            As already explained, a KC-777 would be DOA – IMHO.

          • Excuse me if I take your walk in the park cost figure with a grain of salt. I don’t necessarily disagree about a 777 based tanker. I just think the USAF couldn’t care less about the “the A330 MRTT is operational” mantra that EADS and Airbus fans like to focus on.

          • As I said up-thread, if USAF would decide to open up the KC-Y for a competitively-bid acquisition, I would be surprised if they were among the least interested in the status and record of the A330 MRTT.

  12. Respectfully, what should happen next? Kcy and z. What about a combo platform to replace c17 as well as kc10? With the primacy of the Abrams in us deployments decreasing over the next fifty years, and a commitment to the c5m in any case for that, what could/should be considered? Off the shelf (since kc46 was expensive) I’d say isn’t necessarily quicker or cheaper. Bwb? Would LM, NG, AIRBUS, AND BOEING really be interested?

    • I suspect the AF is in the mode of have to see and how much issue keeping the KC10 going now that its a sole fleet (FedEx dumping theirs)

      As for a combo platform, it would be a huge compromise doing nothing well.

      You can’t put a boom on a C17

      Drogues pods probably but then its fueling when supposedly it should be hauling freight.

  13. Well, the 3 hour and 55 minute first flight of of the first KC-46A with all of the important pluming just ended at 5:20 PM PDST. I wonder how it went?

    • They couldn’t have linked up the joysticks crossed
      as it is not an FBW aircraft.
      So what could have gone wrong on a bog standard 767
      with some additional passive external hardware under the tail?

  14. Uwe,

    No, your comparisons are way off. One of your cars is a coupe/sedan, the other a wagon. 2 different types of cars. for arguably 2 different uses (one for hauling the other as a commuter, fun car)

    You might as well begin complaining the USAF chose the KC-46 over the Eurofighter Typhoon for how badly you comparisons are dorked.

    At least in my case, both vehicles can be classified as “wagons” (in fact, they both are). You show a 2 door coupe and a 5 door estate. Not a good way to retort my point. Unless that 2 door pic you posted has the world’s weirdest hatchback…..

    • Funny how types that fill the same market slot only 20 years apart at their best times are “totally different types”. probably a US specific viewpoint.)
      ( and what you define as totally different types tends to be the same basic design with just the rear end changed. a “Combi” has significantly improves use over the lesser variants.
      One reason 3/5 door Combi style cars are so popular.

      Volvo V60, MAN commercial truck, Volvo XC90
      sit in three distinctly different use slots.
      Which definitely is not valid for 767 and A330.
      The A330 is just a better 767 like the passat combi is a much better VW 1600 😉

      Maybe it is different in the US … ?

  15. Using those comparisons the A330 is an A300 that upsized to avoid the much better 767.

    Maybe for Europe its a bit like the US Jetta moving up into the Passat slot and the Passat moving up into the Ford 500 aka Taurus.

    For my use I have a Passat wagon, right size, outstanding fuel economy and does the mission of the old Bronco (90%) ergo 767 Tanker

    The pickup takes up any excess large loads, aka KC10 and is well suited for that use.

    If I needed a pickup all the time the Passat would be useless. I don’t and neither does the USAF need an A330MRT all the time.

    • For those that do not know the latter Bronco was basically an F150 Pickup truck with a SUV cab on it.

      Same engine and tranny as the pickup, fuel economy as bad or worse.

      So, for something that did the mission of the Bronco at far less cost and a lot better suited (4 door) Passat was great.

      Think of the Bronco as the KC135, very solid, serviceable but more maint, all those engine and fuel use and maint etc.

  16. I would not be surprized if the french become the first A330 NEO MRTT with -F Nose landing gear operator.

  17. What amazes me is that neither the 767 or A-330 based tankers comes close to the KC-135 in terms of fuel load as a percentage of gross weight. The KC-10 is second in this regard.
    Why is the empty weight of these newer aircraft so high and the fuel weight relative to empty weight so low?

    • “Scope change” for the KC135
      it is an NB craft.

      Change of design detail weighing.

      DC10 and A330 have the same wing area but the 330 has 10m more span. The tankers have about the same empty weight @ 110t, KC10 has 30+t more MTOW.

      With the older less beefy frames lack in aero performance was compensated by burning significantly more fuel. No bother at the time and good for the tanker role.

      Where is the offload capabilities crossover between KC10 and A330 MRTT ?

      Afair remember someone did the math for an A340 based tanker ( 275t MTOW, ~10t more OEW than the A330 ) which would sit in a similar spot OEW/Fuel wise.

  18. Good question. Partly the A330 meets the spec and can carry freight and pax as well (not at the same itme as tanking of course unless a fighter drag)

    Other part has to do with missions, they talk about 1000 miles and 2 hour loiter time.

    It may be that its low altitude and not efficient.

    KC135 may also draw on all its tanks and the other not.

    Good question though, noticed that as well.

    Really good chart but need more details! (takeoff, landing, mission ranges and loiter time comparison at those ranges)

  19. Here’s an interesting analysis.



    The steady flood-let of announcements about Airbus A330 Multi-role Tanker Transport aircraft (MRTT) continues ….

    From the very end of June:

    “Airbus Group beat out Boeing Co. in a $1.33 billion race to supply South Korea with four aerial refuelling tankers, dashing the U.S. plane maker’s hopes of securing the first foreign order for a program beleaguered by budget overruns and delays. A spokesman for South Korea’s main arms procurement agency said Tuesday it plans to buy four of Airbus’s refuelling planes, called the A330 MRTT, for multirole tanker transport. The first delivery is due in 2019.”

    And then:

    “Airbus Defence and Space is to provide two more Airbus A330 Multi Role Transport Tankers (A330 MRTT) to the Royal Australian Air Force under the terms of a newly signed contract.”

    This brings to 62 the total number of A330 MRTTs either on order or delivered, with ten users – not bad, but one till needs to recall that the USAF’s KC-X programme is for 179 aircraft …;

    The Australian order will bring the RAAF’s MRTT fleet to seven aircraft.

    The UPC for the South Korean aircraft is, in round terms, $330-million. This is pretty much slap-bang on the average for all of the previous orders (where good enough data is known), which is $325-million.

    It should be remembered that this price includes a degree of support for the first three to five years of operations.

    Of especial note: apart from Japan, every Asia-Pacific tanker contest that has come about over the past five years has seen a win for the A330. Now, as the only serious rival, Boeing’s KC-46 is not in serial production yet, this might not come as a surprise.

    However, that staunch allies of the USA like Singapore and South Korea have decided that

    a) they aren’t going to wait for the KC-46,

    b) that it probably doesn’t really suit their needs,

    c) possibly that there is still a raft of risk in the KC-46 development programme is well worth taking in.

    Again looking at the Asia-Pacific region, is it not interesting that all of the orders for the A330 seem to have bought into the longer range and larger payload that have been touted?

    And bearing in mind the proximity of South Korea to both North Korea and China, is it also not interesting that it didn’t decide to opt for a “smaller tanker”, which could take off from smaller, divert air bases, less prone to ballistic missile attack?

    This tactical issue was one much bruited about by Boeing.

    It has to be said that as far as tanker/ transports are concerned, it is already game-set-match to Airbus in the Asia-Pacific region.

    The company seems to have won all of the arguments conclusively, and as regards the existing customer base, it would seem likely, especially in the aftermath of this top-up Australian order, that there will be follow-ons from countries such as South Korea and India. All of these customers are now off the market for

    Boeing for well over 30 years ….

    Creation of a New Market?

    Has Airbus Military stumbled upon a potentially great, and for them, virtuous market?

    If the RAAF deal shows that you can as easily use secondhand A330s as new-build ones, then the company might be in a position to offer current A330 users the option for conversions of older aircraft for their air forces.

    This would take un-needed aircraft from revenue service, but would provide a capable asset for the air force.

    Further, it would create an opening for Airbus to sell:

    a) A330 NEOs,

    b) A350s to the airline!

    The ability to “recycle” existing national A330s from commercial to military uses could allow Airbus to flex both its military and commercial arms to the best effect.

    In theory, it could allow the company to create a win-win in both markets, and as far as the military market is concerned, it could manage to sweep up at least 25–30 extra A330 MRTT customers over the next decade not a bad number.

    The “Real” Linkage Between Commercial and Military Markets?

    Probably worth putting into plain language why there are links between the commercial and military large aircraft market, and why the company that can maximise these linkages is likely to win more business.

    Many airlines are still state owned, or have significant state input into them. They also tend to have in-country maintenance facilities of some form – national pride often dictates this, even if economic reason don’t.

    As such, faced with a military aircraft based on a commercial platform, the default option will be to seek its basic support from existing commercial, in-country facilities.

    So, if you are an A330 using nation, where is the advantage in buying a 767-based option, if that means that you have to have it serviced back in the USA, in expensive US depots as opposed to in your own facilities?

    Further, the less resemblance a converted military aircraft bears to its commercial forebear, the fewer the opportunities to maintain it in existing commercial facilities.

    So if the KC-46 starts to diverge dramatically in design from in-service, commercial 767s, it will start to lose a key advantage – and the reverse of the coin is that in such a case, maintenance/support might well have to take place either in the USA, or is specially created support facilities, neither of which is as simple or convenient as using existing large aircraft servicing infrastructure.

    Airbus Military is getting some very serious momentum with the recent Asian A330 MRTT deals.

    Boeing, if the press reports are to be believed, had set great store in their chances in South Korea.

    But the mere selection of their rival shoots a massive hole in many/most of the sales pitch for the KC-767, which doesn’t bode well for the future.

    Knowingly or unwittingly, Airbus/Airbus Military have managed to leverage the fact that many of their customers have A330s in commercial service, so the military aircraft can use existing, in-country support facilities, which will keep costs lower than dedicated military depots.

    The options to maximise this in the future could bring many dozens of A330 MRTT orders onto the books, if this link is a strong and valid one.

    From an Airbus point of view, too, by now showing that it can take secondhand A330s, it can tie its commercial offerings into its military ones.

  20. The figure of The Seattle Times is rather outdated. According to the contest and official sources the figures are as follows (pallets / pax / fuel load [lb])

    KC-135 R/T: 6 / 53 / 180,000
    KC-10: 25 / 75 / 327,000
    KC-46: 18 / 114 / 212,000
    KC-45: 32 / 226 / 245,000
    Also interesting there “Table 10. Tanker Offload Capabilities”

    Figures for 1,000 nm for
    KC-46 : 117,000 lb
    KC-45 : 153,000 lb

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