Nov. 29, 2021, © Leeham News: A conservative think tank believes the US Air Force must invest not only in another round of aerial refueling tankers. It must also invest in infrastructure and future, innovative designs.
The Hudson Institute in Washington (DC) issued a study earlier this month in which it analyzed the Air Force’s global refueling requirements. The study may be downloaded here.
While perusing the website and looking at who’s involved with the institute makes it clear this isn’t just a conservative think tank but an overtly partisan one as well, the study appears well thought out and even-handed. It relies on well-reasoned data. The study is unlike Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, whose latest column about the next round of tanker procurement returns to the tiresome and expired whining about illegal subsidies for the Airbus A330-200.
Breaking news to Loren: the WTO case is over. Additional breaking news: subsidies and the WTO aren’t considered in military procurements. The Lexington Institute gets funding from Boeing. It also previously received funding from Lockheed. Thompson did not disclose in this latest missive if it still does.
Hudson received funding from Lockheed in 2020, the most recent information available on its contributors. But the authors say Lockheed had no role in creating this study.
Hudson’s study, by Timothy Walton and Bryan Clark, suggests that the Air Force’s requirements for “surface architecture” are so great that money should be invested even at the expense of purchasing some tankers in the KC-Y round.
KC-Y was intended to be a replacement for the aging McDonnell Douglas KC-10s. But this is now called a bridge tanker program. The Air Force intends to purchase between 140-160 more tankers to replace more ancient KC-135 tankers. KC-X, the first round, is a contract to buy 179 tankers. After three efforts, two of which were marred by scandal, Boeing won the contract for what was named the KC-46A based on the passenger 767-200ER model.
KC-Y competition is going to be between Boeing’s KC-46A and a revised version of the A330-200 Multi-Role Tanker Transport. Airbus joined with Lockheed Martin, which will be the lead in the new competition. Lockheed dubbed the airplane the LMXT.
“Enhancing the capacity and surface architecture should be a top priority for the US Air Force—even if it comes at the cost of tanker procurement,” Hudson’s study says. Long-term, improving the infrastructure means more tankers and more fuel for more missions.
The executive summary sets the even-handed tone in Hudson’s analysis of the two tankers.
“The LMXT provides greater offload capacity than the KC-46A, which could allow it to support missions with fewer aircraft, thus saving operating costs on some missions during peacetime…and reducing operational complexity during crises…,” Hudson concludes.
But “the smaller KC-46As generally higher fuel offload to ramp space ratio means that for a given airfield, the KC-46As may be able to deliver more aggregate fuel capacity and booms in the air than the LMXT, and the US Air Force could avoid incurring some costs by selecting the KC-46A and increasing commonality throughout the fleet.”
Hudson goes on to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each tanker in a dispassionate way that contrasts favorably to Thompson’s entirely political approach to the looming competition.
Hudson doesn’t ignore Boeing’s struggles with the KC-46A. The Boeing tanker has been beset by problems and delays. The USAF received only 47 tankers through August instead of the planned 143 by year-end.
“Furthermore, continued problems with the KC-46As aerial remote vision system and other systems mean that those aircraft that have been delivered may not be certified for full operations until 2024 or later…,” Hudson writes.
Several statistical tables present easy-to-compare data between the LMXT, KC-46A, and future tanker concepts. The LMXT needs 1.29 parking spots compared with the KC-46A’s 0.88, using the Boeing C-17 as the baseline. The empty weight of the LMXT is 23% more than the Boeing but carries only 21% more fuel for off-loading. Hudson calculates that the KC-46A costs $191m and the LMXT will cost $225m, or 16% more—a greater spread than between Boeing and Airbus in the KC-X competition that Boeing won. (There will be more on this in a coming series on the KC-X competition that begins next week.)
There is much more data in the study that is instructive for reporters who will be covering the competition.
Hudson concludes that “Overall, significantly fewer LMXTs are required than KC-46As…to accomplish the same missions; although, as the LMXT is larger, more ramp space is usually required to support the same number of receiver aircraft.” Hudson says that up to a third fewer LMXTs could be required because of the larger capacity and greater range.
But “When ramp space limitations are accounted for, groups of KC-46As can offload more fuel than groups of LMXT tankers,” offset in part by a need for more ground equipment and personnel. Also, Hudson writes, the KC-46As can operate from shorter, less firm runways when fully loaded. But if carrying the same payload of fuel, the LMXT has a thrust advantage to operate from the same or even shorter runways than the KC-46A.
In contrast, Loren Thompson not only ignores this kind of data in his advocacy for Boeing, but he also ignores Boeing’s own miscues, blaming the $5bn in write-offs the company has made so far entirely on Airbus’ illegal subsidies.
If this line of reasoning is the best Boeing can argue for KC-Y, it deserves to lose the next round.
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