Pontifications: Assessing the advantages Boeing, Lockheed Martin-Airbus have in KC-Y tanker competition

 Fourth in a Series

By Scott Hamilton

Jan. 3, 2022, © Leeham News: As the US Air Forces gears up to solicit bids for its KC-Y aerial refueling “bridge tanker” competition, Boeing is now the incumbent tanker supplier.

Having won the KC-X competition against Airbus, Boeing is supplying a total of 179 tankers based on the 767-200ER. The KC-46A, however, has been plagued with problems, delays, and cost overruns.

As the incumbent, Boeing would seem to have an advantage in the KC-Y competition. But on the other hand, the problems that Boeing has had in technical compliance categories, failures, and delivery delays, and foreign object debris issues, could work against it.

Sean O’Keefe was the president of EADS North America, Airbus’ parent when Boeing won the KC-X contract. He also worked for the government as the NASA administrator and on The Hill. He was friends with Bob Gates, the Secretary of Defense during parts of the Bush 43 and Obama administrations. This gives him a special insight from government and industry perspectives to weigh the advantages and disadvantages Boeing faces in the anticipated KC-Y contest that will likely pit the incumbent against the Lockheed Martin-Airbus team that will once again offer the A330-200-based tanker called the LMXT.

Advantage as a legacy company

Sean O’Keefe

“I think Boeing’s advantages clearly are it’s a legacy company,” he said. “That was the same advantage they had in the last competition. This is a company that’s had a long-standing relationship with the Defense Department, with the Air Force in particular, with the Navy to another extent, as well in other areas. That’s where I dealt with them primarily. It was at the Navy Department. Certainly, at NASA, that was the case, but they also had a legacy position with the least capacity of rocketry.”

However, O’Keefe said, being a legacy company “never” was a deciding point for a contract award.

“It really did provide a track record that you could assess,” he said. “It was more having a deep visibility in what their capabilities were, knowing their advantages, as well as their flaws in terms of what to watch for.”

There is no question that this experience Boeing has had during the past decade on the KC-46 program is one that has a record, O’Keefe said.

“There’s a real legacy there. Their performance has been very challenged in this condition. They have had a year-over-year charge they’ve had to take for this program, and the very likelihood they may ever, ever make a dime on the KC-46 is much in doubt. That speaks to a performance record that transcends any legacy or any capacity to really have an institutional relationship. That’s going to be a factor. That’s the one that when you get done with it, it almost evens out in terms of the advantages and disadvantages they have,” O’Keefe said.

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Knowing the flaws vs advantages

The Air Force and Boeing can’t underestimate the significant advantages of their ongoing, long-standing legacy relationships that they’ve had because the USAF really does know what Boeing is capable of doing and what it’s not capable of doing, O’Keefe said.

“The Air Forces knows where their flaws are, as well as Boeing’s advantages. There’s a real plus to that, but at the same time, on this program, it’s been a real challenge. There’s no getting away from that.”

Airbus Group, and before that as EADS had defense work with the Pentagon, the helicopters, and CN-235 and CN-295 procurements by the Coast Guard and some National Guard units. But it doesn’t compare with the level of Boeing’s supplier relationship. But the Airbus/EADS relationship with the Pentagon was successful.

Airbus delivered more than 70 on Aerial Scout Program, the UH70, helicopters. It was a successful program for the Army. It was provided to the Navy for some test programs to the National Guard. The Coast Guard has been a continuing customer going forward on a number of different rotary wings, as well as fixed-wing programs. That’s an advantage,” O’Keefe said.

The experience, though on a small scale and with fewer programs compared with Boeing, allowed EADS/Airbus to grow its understanding of dealing with the Pentagon and the challenge of doing business with the government.”

Selling to the government must factor in all kinds of other things not done for a commercial market. There are requirements for small and minority-owned businesses. There are all kinds of different features that go into government procurement, O’Keefe says.

Broader requirements

“There is any number of provisions of law that require plenty of labor surveys, all kinds of stuff that goes into this that no commercial company would have to deal with, and no commercial customer would impose,” O’Keefe said. “At the margin, it runs you, from what I could calculate at the time, easily 15% more to do business with the government for the same airframes, for the same assets, for the same capabilities, in some cases going forward.”

Airbus Group built all kinds of commercial helicopters, and they just didn’t require anywhere near the compliance with regulations required by the government, O’Keefe said.

“That’s something that was new really to EADS at that time. That was not a real deep experience,” he said. The Coast Guard legacy programs turned out to be a bigger Army Helicopter program. The Army purchased the choppers for training purposes. “That really gave Airbus a much deeper appreciation for what it is they have to do in order to do business with the United States government.”

For the KC-Y competition, Airbus teamed with Lockheed Martin, which, O’Keefe said, is “built for this stuff. They’ve done it on multiple fronts, so that’s something that is not new to them.”

O’Keefe said that teaming with Northrop Grumman for KC-X required some internal salesmanship. Doing so met with resistance.

“The time I had to spend really dealing with an awful lot of colleagues and counterparts in the commercial side of the house of Airbus to say, ‘Look, folks, here’s why we got to do this. They aren’t just doing this to be heavy-handed, they’re doing it because it is a compliance requirement, it is a unique set of characteristics, the government, and there is a good and present reason for why they do it. Let’s get over whatever anxiety you got here and stop dealing with that.’”

The final part of this series: Lockheed Martin and Airbus going forward.

More about the tanker competition

Read more about the KC-X tanker competition in my book, Air Wars, The Global Combat Between Airbus and Boeing. Some excerpts:

The 2005 tanker fight became mean and nasty, very quickly. It was clear very early on that Boeing’s communication team was out for blood. They attacked Airbus for its illegal subsidies; its inexperience in building tankers; for illegal subsidies; inexperience in building refueling booms; for illegal subsidies; being French; for illegal subsidies; tying up with Northrop, which also didn’t know anything about building tankers; for illegal subsidies; proposing a “greenfield” assembly site in Mobile; for illegal subsidies; and the Mobile workforce being incapable of building tricycles at Christmas.

Boeing was obsessed about the subsidies. As an after-thought, Boeing also said the KC-767 was a pretty good airplane. Except it wasn’t all that good: Only eight were built, there were flight control flutter and structural issues, all were delivered late and large write-offs were taken for the losses incurred.

For its part, Airbus and Northrop guffawed over biting cartoons by J. D. Crowe of the Mobile Press-Register. Crowe drew the Boeing tanker, which used the fuselage from the 767-200ER, wings from the 767-300ER and the cockpit of the 767-400 and labeled it the Frankentanker. Another cartoon mocked Boeing’s tricycle characterization of the Mobile labor talent.

The USAF, by all appearances, tried to stay above the fray. However, it emerged that the USAF changed the parameters of the procurement in a way that favored the Northrop-EADS KC-330 offering. They thought it appropriate to give EADS credit for the extra capabilities of their aircraft. When the time came to announce the contract, Boeing, its employees and supporting members of Congress gathered for a celebration, anticipating the win. Northrop, EADS and Airbus were consigned to losing.

Thus, when the USAF gave the contract to the Northrop team, everybody—on both sides, in the media, consultants, everybody—reacted with shock and disbelief.


50 Comments on “Pontifications: Assessing the advantages Boeing, Lockheed Martin-Airbus have in KC-Y tanker competition

  1. I see this in other domains too.

    Aren’t the compliance requirements coming up in recent decades
    nothing but nefarious schemes to advantage a preferred side?
    increase entry level hurdles ..

    Announced purposes are nothing more than cloaks to hide the real meat.

  2. Airbus has delivered 470 UH-72 Lakota’s by now. Airbus says at schedule, within budget. Now the fenestron UH-72B is taking over.

    Lets hope fixed wing isn’t going where helicopters went. For decades Sikorsky, Bell, Boeing, Hughes, MD dominated the industry.

    Endless upgrades of existing platforms, increasing reliance on DoD and short term results focussed strategy, let to US civil helicopters being slowly being sidelined by Eurocopter /Airbus and Agusta Westland / Leonardo.


    Great machines, JetRangers, Blackhawks, Chinooks and Apaches, but programs in their 40s-60s and totally reliant on continued
    congress/DoD funding.

    In Civil Aviation, Bell, Boeing and Sikorsky all are increasingly moving into DoD infusion modes, financing all R&D from US government defense programs.

    • So lucrative and risk free is the US defence market that BAE systems, tired of dominating (and closing down) huge sections of the UK defence sector, decided to back out of it and turn themselves into a US company.
      I have been prompted by this saga to look at the mega procurement disaster that was the VH71. “what is a socialist company and a socialist country going to teach us about completion”, Sikorsky programme manager Nick Lappos. Our old friend and Lockheed Martin employee Loren Thompson put up a brave defence of LM and the USA.

      • Note: Thompsom is not a Lockheed employee, but his think tank, the Lexington Institute, does receive money from Lockheed.

        • keesje:

          Well, its off topic but the Aussie threw away the Tigers and the NH90s (failure to perform, no spare parts)

          Was it not the Super Puma (mil version) that threw a rotor?

          Germany is looking at Chinook and the CH-53E not an Airbus product.

          I think the Sweedes are dumping the NH90 for Blackhawks.

          And its not like Airbus (better known as Eurocopter) does not make some nice machines, the Army seems happy with their UH-72.

          That said, one training machine carrying two pilots does not eradicated a whole industry

          • Chinook CH-47 and CH-53K ( the E version is long out of production) are in a whole lot bigger weight class than any Airbus or Leonardo helicopter
            The biggest H-225 chopper Super Puma is around 11 tonnes MTOW, The AW101 ( and VH-71 Kestrel project) is around 15 tonnes while the CH-47F is 22.5 tonnes and the CH-53K is 33 or 39 tonnes.
            The very recent Boeing/Leonardo MH-139 Grey Wolf is 7 t

    • While I agree with what you said the Tiger helicopter is a disaster unfortunately. It hardly works in Europe and Australia is replacing theirs with Black Hawks after only a few years. Why was it never fixed and why is it seen as hopeless?
      There is a lot to be said for having a refined maintainable product. Obviously some of the European Light/Medium helicopters have immense capability such as the HH145.

      • Don’t ignore politics.
        Look at the backstabbing sub (re)deal in context of AUCUUS

  3. I wonder if the LMXT will have the same issues as the KC-46 with the remote vision refueling and what aircraft it can refuel, or maybe they have worked out all the bugs a little better than Boeing?
    Is it a lot of picky details on a DOD punchlist that will trap the LMXT too, or is the KC-46 so unfixable in a timely manner? Hard to tell from the outside.
    Second, when do deliveries start on the KC-Y? 2030? 2035?

    • @Ted, I don’t know whether it was tongue in cheek or a real idea, but Airbus told me they’d be happy to help Boeing on the remote vision technology, so I gathered they were successful with theirs.

      Flight testing for the KC-Y is targeted for ~2029.

      • Ted:

        There were no reports of issues with the Airbus vision system. Boeing would be well served (as would the USAF) to rip out existing and use the Airbus system. There is a temp fix being implemented with a complete re-do to follow on the KC-46A.

        Airbus is working towards automated fueling which is impressive.

        As far as I know the A330MRT is fully cleared to boom fuel F-35 and maybe F-22. Those are the diciest due to the stealth coating.

      • The current Airbus MRTT-330 tanker is cleared to refuel most USAF and USN aircraft including the F35 and F22 and it has an automatic refueling system that has just been certified and operational used in the latest tankers being delivered to Singapore.


        At this point in time, I believe the Boeing KC46 tanker is not cleared to refuel any of the stealth fighters in the US inventory (I stand to be corrected).

        • Branaboy:

          You are correct on KC-46A though they could in an emergency. I think the A-10 was one that had the boom pressure (or pressure relief) issue.

          I don’t know any aircraft the A330MRT can’t fuel. F-22 was ?? as its a US only aircraft and was not sure it had been tested.

          Keeping in mind, this is all boom. If it has a drogue the KC-46A should be able to fuel some F-35 variants (UK) USMC maybe the F-35C though I don’t know the US ops have been tested.

          • All KC-46 have a fuselage drogue fitted just like they have a boom fitted.
            The outer wing drogues are the optional pods to be fitted where extra drogue refuelling required …like 2 at same time

        • I am both amazed and unsurprised that the USAF didn’t mandate automated refueling capability with manual fallback.

          amazed because there is no question it could be done better automated than man in the loop and completely unsurprised because of the USAF obsession with fighter pilots.

          • Bilbo:

            Boeing could not get the vision right so that would be a leap to far.

            Kudo to Airbus for not only vision success but automated as well. I don’t know how long it takes to get it a trusted method.

  4. O Keffe keeps throwing out chaffs and flares, but the bottom line was 10% Cheaper by Boeing.

    The USAF has cleared the KC-46A for 70% of its fueling missions. The one restriction was a USAF caused issue (spec on the boom relief pressure). And no, that is not a diversion, its a fact.

    If required right not the KC-46A could do all the missions (yes they would have to adjust some flight paths at certain times of day in regards to sun orientation)

    All the flaring about Boeing track record can easily be handled with a few clauses (FOD penalty for one example).

    The reality is this is a cost shootout and a we are in production, its should be noted the vast majority of the US tanker fleet is something called a KC-135R.

    Spare parts, common air-frame , engines, maint. Future on addition applies to ALL aircraft. If you find a problem, the one fix applies to all.

    The real uncertainty now lies with A330MRT that has NEVER been built to USAF specifications.

    USAF might add some to the existing spec package, those would be adders not an all new for the KC-46A.

    The question returns to why Airbus is linking in with LM when all it does is add more costs to an aircraft that is not cost competitive to the KC-46A.

    And the reality is that the KC330MRT does not add enough of anything to give it bonus points on offset.

    It carries a bit more fuel but not a KC-10 class.

    It offers more cargo in the belly but not a main deck pallet system and cargo door. Yes that can be added, at more cost.

    I would have zero problem with Airbus winning KC-Y, I would as an American tax payer, have an issue with two different aircrat doing the identical mission (close enough for Government work as we say over here)

    Is 95% good enough in this case? Take the gain and we have other needs.

    • “…but the bottom line was 10% Cheaper by Boeing”

      Yeah, well, you get what you pay for, don’t you?
      Thrift store pricing –> thrift store quality.

    • “The USAF has cleared the KC-46A for 70% of its fueling missions. for just 10% less money. Nothing to see ..”

      Imagine roles reversed and the full flow of dissing statement directed at Airbus, the EU and the non US world in general …

      Ha! what fun ..

  5. The current Airbus MRTT-330 tanker is cleared to refuel most USAF and USN aircraft including the F35 and F22 and it has an automatic refueling system that has just been certified and operational used in the latest tankers being delivered to Singapore.


    At this point in time, I believe the Boeing KC46 tanker is not cleared to refuel any of the stealth fighters in the US inventory (I stand to be corrected).

      • IMU there is an (unsolved) caching issue generated by cloudflare apparently.
        .. and I rarely get the expected and proper response after posting. my content tends to appear 20..90 minutes after posting.and reloading. rarely do I see that edit nn minutes feature. a bit broken.

    • There’s a Defense One article from last July. The Pease KC46s were “cleared” to refuel Vermont ANG F35s with some restrictions. And, the KC 46s have also been fully cleared to refuel F35s in wartime.

  6. I think Boeing just needs to price at 15% over cost for the KC-Y comp., “take it over leave it” AF. Given Airbus’s performance on the A400, this’ll probably “bury” the AF and Airbus, if LMAB then “wins” the competition. As I recall the AF has very complex EMP resistance requirements that I’m skeptical LMAB will meet. BA’s objectives here should be to win the competition at a reasonable profit, or be hype-aggressive with a battery of lawyers and lawsuits to protect their IP and sandbag the competition if they lose! My two cents.

    • Amusing: get all worked-up about EMP, rather than concentrating on developing a counter to the incoming hypersonic missle that will cause the EMP in the first place…

      Why woundn’t a US defense supplier like LM be able to to satisfy USAF “special requirements”?
      Do those “special requirements” include empty tequila bottles hidden in the fuselage? 😏

    • MO:

      I don’t know that Boeing has any IP involved in this. They clearly do not provide the defensive electronic warfare (or jamming if that is on board) suites.

      But I do agree that Boeing can be aggressive on pricing though maybe shooting for even.

      It would be a hoot to see the Airbus LM scramble trying to make a to spec KC-Y and establish a production facility in the US.

      We saw how well the A400 worked under Airbus Commercial vs a military contract. They sure had to wake up and smell the expensive roses!

    • It also needs to be noted, the is a USAF specific Com and control suite, the Electronic Warfare suite (jamming and other protections) as well as the ballistic protection spec, wiring separation and probably some we simply do not know about.

      • As if other air forces in the world don’t have their own “suites” that they somehow manage to include when they buy a product from abroad…

        • As you can see, the UAE is having to add that.

          That is where knowing how these get specified comes in.

          Each entity has some or no specification other than being able to talk to their aircraft (and likely US/Brit/French/Aussie aircraft if they expect to participate in coalitions.

          Do the South Koreans have an reason to think their tankers can be targeted by NK? Those MIG15 have not been considered a threat for lo many years.

          So no, none of them have the USAF specification kit. That means US sourced equipment.

          As allies spy on each other (fact of life) you don’t want them to slip in a chip that sends out the info on your ops.

          Even segregation from Airbus control system could be an added spec for the A330MRT to keep spill over or security issues controlled.

          None of it is simple and that is why (sorry, just the way it is ) its so complex and not driven by throw outs.

      • The production of KC-30/LMXT would probably be split like Boeing does.
        The commercial side does the airframe and the defense side does the special mission and air refuelling equipment.
        Lockheed wont have any problems fitting the USAF specific comms , electronic warfare, refuelling and such on an Airbus produced airframe
        You keep assuming its an ‘all Airbus project’ when the evidence is that Lockheed is program lead.

        • Duke:

          When LM has the lead name, yes.

          LM would know how to manage a Government contract to this depth Airbus does not.

          Of course it would cost 4x as much if we are lucky but there it is.

  7. I think I read above that due to technical problems and cost over runs Boeing is not expected to make any $ on its recent tanker program (KC-46A?).
    So if we make a conplete list of current production programs on which Boeing will not make a nickel we have:
    1. 767 tanker
    2. 787
    3. 737 Max
    My question is, what program do their profits come from? The 777? Production rates are anemic now, something like 2 per month, right? But somehow the company is still able to credibly project strong earnings moving forward? What is the cash cow, legacy military programs? F-18?
    I understand that for accounting purposes they amortize their fiascos (787, 737 Max) over the life of the program, but I think most of those expenses need to be paid now even if it is amortized.
    You put new roof on your house and you might amortize the expense on your taxes, but the roofer wants to be paid now, not over the next 20 years.
    So what programs still generate the profit? Are legacy defense programs overcharging the Pentagon to cover the losses of the 737 & 787 fiascos?

    • John:

      The KC-46 assumes two things.

      1. Boeing never makes a profit on the run of 179 for the KC-Y.
      2. Boeing does not make a profit on support of the KC-46A

      3. Boeing does not win the KC-Y and offset those losses with another 170 air frames.

      4. Boding does not make a profit on support if they win KC-7

      AP should weight in, I believe if Boeing declares the 787 a loss and the MAX a loss they can then make a profit but not my area.

      There would be a comparison to what program accounting does in making sure there is no profit and Boeing does not have to pay taxes.

      • The total production run of the 787 has been projected to just pay for the known development costs. Their accountants can do whatever they want, but the fact is the 787 will not earn a nickel.
        Similarly, the Max fiasco has dug a hole of $20 billion in payments to the government and airlines. The profits of the entire projected production run of the Max have been swallowed up by this $20 billion hole.
        I am less familiar with the tanker program, but it has also suffered huge losses from what I read.

  8. An Example of Equipment Specs:

    20 years ago, a 747 sized hangar was built in Anchorage.

    The door system selected with something called Megadoor (Sweeden)

    I had a discussion a USAF colonel who had to deal with Megadoor (Shimya AFB out in the Chain), great system, contactors and relays are awful as they are IEEC (that is a European electric standard and its awful, barely will carry rated current, dies when, well you have a start up load like a motor).

    Ok, spec door with NEMA (US electric spec and extremely robust and reliable no matter which US mfg makes it). Sigh, the did not put in a larger cabinets (contacts are much larger which is why they are robust). Phew, tight city. No fun to trace circuits.

    The Mullions came with no safety, yep, they sucked one into the overhead and yanked the drive motor out of the catwalk. This happened in a 100 mph windstorm. We had a pneumonia hole in the door system until we got the mullion (fell down and twisted badly) straightened and then a temp hoist system to raise and lower the door.

    I built a new operating control setup vs the slidy plastic thing that failed. Never an issue (we did get the backup over-travel safety limit system they had come up with after the door was put in, apparently not the first time the ops controls had failed)

    Change the oil in the motor gears yearly. Hmmm, no drain, have to split the motor from the gear drive. Have to take the whole thing off the catwalk , 9 of them, out of service for a month (better have lots of spare gaskets)

    Low 20 years latter, the whole assembly is obsolete (really? The new ones look identical ). So, lots of spare hoist units now at least. Yep, replaced all of them.

    Took us years to get the bugs out of the interlock system.

    Great idea, great function, never failed unless abused. Best door system out there concept wise and a lot of the hardware (did I tell you about the bearing guy yelling at me that we were using the wrong bearings? – well, you assume the door mfg knows what bearings to use? right?) sigh.

    But, the specs needed to be changed to make it usable and safe.

  9. I still feel like the optimal split for KC-Y would be LMXTs to replace the KC-10s with a similar size, and more KC-46s for the remaining KC-135s that would come due. Each seems to have disadvantages when pressed to cover both markets. As others eluded to, I wouldn’t doubt there will be some type of requirement that comes up that makes any LMXT different from other countries for no other reason than “because”.

    • There a two flawed assumptions:
      1. USAF needs the same fleet as decades ago. – Why did they ordered the KC-10 in first place and not something more 707-like?
      2. USAF needs to replace its KC-135 with the same kind of aircraft? – No. The KC-10 showed that an airlifter that can also refuel sometimes is far more useful and economical.

      I got a feeling according to Lockheed’s specifications that this time an A330neo will be offered. Maybe “more” is honored this time. What will Boeing offer then? A 777-classic, an uncertified 777-X or a 787 with an huge delivery delays and issues? Why is there an A350F in preperation now?

      It will be very entertaining as last time.

      • If it were the Boeing MRTT and Airbus KC-46, this process would probably be quick & straightforward. Performance, support, capability, flexibility, environment, build quality, track record… and we have a winner. But this is all different.

      • It has to be an in production tanker, rules out the larger newer B777 or A350 types. Not only that they are in a completely different weight class while the KC-46 and KC-30 have very similar fuel weights available for tanking

        • Not sure about that. LM says that at 2,000 nautical miles from its departing base the LMXT can offload 60% more fuel than the KC-46A and at 3,000 nautical miles the gap grows to more than 150-percent.

          That’s a big difference for the warfighters defending the free world, values and interest out there. 😉

          I think for the next 50 years, a 251t, GENX powered LMXT, with even more additional fuel (lots of space available lower deck) and a cargo door /horizontal deck like the A330F would offer vastly superior (capability/ efficiency) tanker/ transport capability for the USAF. And all technology is already certified, flying around. But this process / competition just doesn’t allow..

          • My guess is a 242t speced A330 as base.
            probably not a neo.
            242 t MTOW
            110 t integral tankage
            118 t OEW
            14t max in an added aux tank.

          • Project says it has to be an in produion Tanker.

            Ergo, there will be NO A330NEO as that has not even a hint of being certified (nor is Airbus going to incur the costs to do so, forever more you have the A330MRT CEO.

            There will not be a split contract, its all in one.

            The DC-10 was mostly for being able to do a full fuel of a C-5 or a B-52 – C-17. Nice but not a have to.

            The Cargo could easily have been replaced by the CRAF.

            USAF just gave the DC-10 crews a vacation to the middle east.

            While the KC-135R had to group up to fuel the big 3. There was no gain and probably a loss.

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