Pontifications: KC-X aerial tanker competition becomes a pass-fail RFP

Part 4: The Boeing perspective

By Scott Hamilton

Feb. 7, 2022, © Leeham News: After Boeing lost to Northrop Grumman-EADS for the KC-X US Air Force tanker contract, Boeing filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The Air Force, Boeing complained, gave Northrop extra credit for the larger A330 MRTT’s fuel capacity and range. This possibility had not been in the Request for Proposals. Boeing, therefore, felt its tanker, based on the 767-200ER airframe, was properly sized for the USAF requirements.

The GAO upheld Boeing’s protest. For the third time, the Air Force now had to issue an RFP and run another competition.

Northrop decided to sit this one out. But, as previously reported in the Sean O’Keefe series of the Airbus perspective, Airbus elected to bid again.

This time, the RFP was tightened. It took a Pass-Fail approach.

Meeting minimum requirements

The new RFP was about meeting minimum requirements and then it was based on cost. The old Boeing KC-135 was set as the bar that Boeing and Airbus had to meet. Either their airplanes passed, or they failed each criterion.

Jim Albaugh

“In our estimation, the 767 being smaller than the 330 would win every time just because of the cost of the airplanes,” recalled Jim Albaugh, by then the president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Albaugh moved over to BCA from his role as president of Boeing’s defense in September 2009. Losing the contract to Northrop was, he said, the greatest disappointment of his tenure at the Boeing defense unit.

Under the third round of the competition, Boeing won the contract with a price about 10% below that offered by Airbus.

“We won it and really in pretty simple terms,” Albaugh said.

China’s A2AD plan

Boeing went into Round Three, however, discouraged by the Round Two loss. There was reporting at the time that the USAF considered the greater range and fuel capacity of the A330 MRTT because it was already planning for potential conflicts with China. China had a plan to deny the US access to the Pacific waters around China and as far as the US territory of Guam, a military base. Called A2AD (Anti-Access, Access Denial), US naval and air forces would be pushed back thousands of miles in a conflict. The theory was that the A330 MRTT’s greater range, great fuel capacity, and loiter time would be an advantage over the smaller KC-767.

It was clear to us they’d fallen in love with a larger airplane,” Albaugh recalled. “Why? It wasn’t fully obvious to us. The KC-10 was a large refueler that they had. The RFP, the way we read it and I think based on the model, wasn’t about China, it was really written around Europe and NATO.”

For Boeing and its supporters, operating cost was as important as procurement costs and airplane capabilities. Operating cost was important, but as part of the overall life cycle cost of the program—a measure the Pentagon takes into account for any procurement.

US Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democrat from Bremerton (WA), a naval base, and a huge Boeing advocate,  also persuaded the Air Force to look at a 40-year life cycle rather than the 25-year life cycle for the airplane. The move made sense. After all, the KC-135 entered service with the Air Force when Dwight Eisenhower was president and the last was delivered when Lyndon Johnson was president. Calculating the operating costs over 40 years instead of 25 further disadvantaged the A330, which as a larger airplane than the 767, already faced an operating cost deficit.

“I think the reason that that was pushed by Congressman Dicks was because that’s consistent with the way they valued all lifecycle costs on other programs. He was looking for consistency,” Albaugh said. “There’s no question in my mind and again [that] the smaller airplane generally equals smaller lifecycle costs. I would guess it would be to our advantage, but I think Norm was looking for consistency between this program and others at the Air Force had done.”

Airbus subsidies

Concurrent with the KC-X procurement were the trade complaints between Europe and the US over illegal subsidies to Airbus, and to Boeing. As with Round Two, Boeing and its partisans hammered Airbus for benefitting from subsidies that the World Trade Organization later found to be illegal. Airbus countered that Boeing, too, benefitted from illegal subsidies (the WTO agreed, though for a lesser amount) and that in any case, Airbus had since repaid those received for the A330.

But under WTO rules, subsidies are irrelevant to military procurements. This, however, didn’t stop the subsidy campaign on either side.

I think [the campaign] was trying to be consistent with the WTO suit that was ongoing at the time,” Albaugh said.

As I was covering all this at the time, I had a very distinct impression that Boeing spent almost more time talking about how bad the Airbus was and the illegal subsidies were than talking up how good the 767 tanker concept would be.

Next week, Albaugh discusses the campaign as it heated up.

48 Comments on “Pontifications: KC-X aerial tanker competition becomes a pass-fail RFP

  1. “The new RFP was about meeting minimum requirements and then it was based on cost”

    Pity (for the USAF and the US taxpayer) that the new RFP didn’t examine the *attainability* of those minimum requirements and the *sustainability* of the cost.
    The BA entrant was completely unable to meet spec, generated a loss for BA on price, and has now started to generate a loss for the US taxpayer on cost (the USAF is paying for the RVS revisions, despite warnings by the GAO). The “ready date” keeps slipping: just last week, we learned that it has now slipped *again* to 2026 (was 2024).

    What’s the point in having selection criteria that effectively amount to a “random wish list”, without any meaningful check as to how realistic the bids are?

    The same mistake was made with the F35: in Jan. 2021, the plane still had 871 unresolved hardware/software problems — and that doesn’t include the various problems that have surfaced in the meantime.

    • The assumptions to calculte the costs were rather faked ones. My favourite from KC-X RFP was the more than 7 toutch&go maneurvers on every flight a KC-X would ever do to calculate fuel burn. Due to training issus. There was also an RFP for full scale simulators…

      Risk was nowhere factored in. One year delay would cost maintaining several KC-135 and feed their old thirsty engines longer.

      Official result of the second competition also was NG’s offer had a low developmental risk but Boeing was rated moderate – no aircraft, no boom, no…

      Next factor not assesed was future maintanence cost. USAF will be the last costumer to receive a 767. A330 is still in production for passenger market.

    • That is the basic issue with all these “invitation to tender” style procurement processes ( on a global scale afaics.)

      They all work on “bliss of cheapest” while often times adding vast amounts of overhead the outcome in a majority of cases is dysmal,

  2. “Why? It wasn’t fully obvious to us. The KC-10 was a large refueler that they had. The RFP, the way we read it and I think based on the model, wasn’t about China, it was really written around Europe and NATO.”

    Sure! Your next upcoming threat is China so USAF will replace first its aircraft for Europe where the old ones still could do the job.

  3. “The new RFP was about meeting minimum requirements and then it was based on cost. The old Boeing KC-135 was set as the bar that Boeing and Airbus had to meet. Either their airplanes passed, or they failed each criterion.”

    The new RFP was written while fully knowing both Airbus & Boeings offerings. So setting the new requirements was deciding the winner. Everyone knew & also every knew the USAF was no longer setting the requirements, the USAF were overruled for other then operational reasons.

    • keesje:

      That is a twisting of the situation.

      First you have to accept the fact that the KC-46A is an Apple and the A330MRT is an Orange. Both are fine fruits, but they are not the same. If you want Vitamin C you won’t get it from an Apple.

      So, I ask you, how do you break the conundrum of two different Tankers ?

      Rather than do the twist, explain to me how you go about it, what the goal is and how you justify it?

      Complaining is easy, offering a true fix is where the real work is.

      • “So, I ask you, how do you break the conundrum of two different Tankers ?”

        Simple: you abandon the substandard junk and instead opt for the one that actually works (and is also more capable and versatile).

        See? Easy!

      • According to German Wikipedia an Orange just has 50 % more Vitamin C than an Apple. Try to focus on aircraft.

        Estimated total program cost for KC-X/KC-45: US$43.16 billion
        How many billions Boeing has already writen off for that program? Ad that to the costs for US taypayers. Still 10 % cheaper than the other offer?

        • I’ll be watching carefully to see how much
          the USAF *ends up paying* for the maybe-possibly-working-in-2026 Remote Vision System for the “darn good” KC-46A.

          follow the money.. not the “product”.

    • The KC-10 tanker is so much bigger than the A330. Its really is a 777 sized plane
      The A330 is only about 12% bigger than a 767 ( remember the A310 was its direct competitor) although the wing area is a bit bigger again as the A340 version with 4 engines was. designed for heavier weights and longer ranges.

      The smaller 767 certainly met the requirement best to match the KC-135 fuel load but for the next round is all ‘maxed out’ ( pun) as far as fuel goes and cant really become a longer ranged tanker with the same or higher fuel load.

  4. I wonder if the A321XLR would meet the (fairly low) bar of the KC-135 if the competition were to be re-run today.

    • no way.
      90t fuel!
      A321 airframe has 101t MTOW. give it a push and you have 105t max
      That would require an OEW <25t 🙂
      (A321 freighter OEW seems to be around 45t )
      How much does the boom weigh in at?

      • That would require an OEW <25t 🙁
        That would require an OEW <15t 🙂
        ( KC-135R has 143t MTOW )

      • The irony of the new tankers is that neither of them come close to the 135 in the percentage of the gross weight is fuel. The 135 carries 200k lbs. of fuel with a gross weight of 320k lbs. The 767 tanker is 25% heavier, 400k lbs. gross but only carries 10% more fuel 220k lbs. IDK about the A-330 tanker but I bet it is similar to the 767 in fuel as a percentage of gross weight.

        I say re-engine the 135s again using the Leap 1B or the mid size fan version of the PW1000 used on the A220 and E2-195. That would be a better tanker.

        Why the heck did Boeing get rid of the human boom operator lying down in the back of the plane. That has worked well for 60+ years on the 135.

        With all the aircraft Boeing has built it is nothing short of pathetic that they cant get this right.

        • The KC-135 is like an earlier 5 across version of the 707 and was crammed full of fuel including a large main deck fuel tank in rear fuselage.
          Its likely both KC46 and MRTT could carry much more fuel if that was a actual requirement.
          I think you missed the memo about the KC-135 being literally worn out and not really suitable for re engining- which can have it’s own problems . Heard of the Boeing Max?

        • The A330-200 MRTT could have had additional tanks placed in the hold. It didn’t need them to meet the requirement.

          • the A330-200 was introduced when use of the cwb tankage allowed to go beyond some magic range. It sold well till the -300 could grow more legs ( MTOW boosts ).

            The A340 pedigree allowed to tanker the A330-200 ( with its enabled cwb volume ) down to nigh zero payload.
            Only the 242t..251t MTOW versions allow functional expansion with aux tanks in the hold. ( there is one ready made design specimen available from the A340-500 )

        • > Why the heck did Boeing get rid of the human boom operator lying down in the back of the plane. That has worked well for 60+ years on the 135. <

          An excellent point. My guess is Intentional
          Complexity = More $$$; see under "F-35",
          "Ford-Class Carrier", Littoral Ship.. the list is long.

    • TW: nobody has bid yet. Only the RFI has been issued. The RFP is expected in 4Q and responses in 1Q23.

  5. I suspect a new A330 LMXT fitted with under floor fuel tankage (from the A340 program) and with A330-800 neo technology (Trent 7000 or GE GEnX) would have the ability to fly from CONUS, loiter over Taiwan and offload a substantial fuel load.
    An A330MRTT can get there but has to turn back immediately and has no signicantly offload capability.
    If done right an aircraft of fantastic performance can be fielded.
    Northern Australia is much closer but aircraft have to weave their way through the Indonesian archipelago. Of course one would hop the Philipines and Indonesia was assisting.

    • China has Sky-2 Mach-6 cruise missiles with a range of 800km.
      Don’t you think that a big, slow tanker loitering off Taiwan will be a sitting duck?

      Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missile has an even longer range — 2000km.

      One can seriously question the relevance of fighters/tankers in today’s strategic warfare. Fine for tactical situations, but becoming seriously irrelevant for strategic use.

      A stealth tanker might help — though there are relatively simple radar techniques to make stealth aircraft more visible.


      • According to my knowledge these are no air-to-air missiles. The aim of these fast missiles is to kill ships. There is still the option to defend a big aircraft against incoming missiles with missiles like IRIS-T.

        A big tanker could be used as a feeder for small unmanned stealth tankers like an X-47.

      • -I was envisaging refuelling up to the eastern side of the Taiwanese Coast about 350km from mainland china behind Tawian. This is an area below the radar horizon so targeting of long range SAM missiles of a standard such as S400 or S500 would be difficult if not impossible. Any over the horizon radar or satellite data suffers from accuracy and latency issues.
        -The reality is that KC-Y will be mainly refuelling transport and bomber aircraft midway across the pacific and will not be required to get closer than 1000km however the ability to provide refuelling services to USN carrier born combat aircraft or to Taiwan Air force and USAF fighters based in Taiwan might be very useful. P-8 maritime patrol aircraft etc.
        -Fighter aircraft and SAM missiles based in Taiwan and of aircraft carriers will also make it difficult to target and destroy a tanker, even one 400km from the Chinese coast. There will be losses.
        -There is probably no time to build a stealthy tanker.
        -The damage to Taiwanese runways may make it hard to bring in supplies by standard aircraft or even C-17 and smaller aircraft such as the C130 might be required to carry some of the load into secondary airfields.

        • Haven’t you heard that POTUS ruled out sending troops??

          Why DJT/Obama so eager to pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan??

          Defense is a job program! You always have to remember that.

        • What a nice plan!

          Any different from aiming your gun/torpedo at where your target is?? 🤣🤣🤣

    • @William

      The A330 wing is good for 276.5 metric tonnes (A340-300 MTOW). How would a 276.5 metric tonnes LMXT look like?

      1) Add the A342/A343 centre gear. MZFW remains the same but not the MTOW. The centre gear itself is not a landing load bearing gear and is therefore perfect for allowing MTOW to grow by 25 tonnes over that of the latest MTOW of the A330neo (251 tonnes).

      2) Increase fuel capacity from 141,500 litres by some 45,000 litres (36,000 kg) for a total fuel capacity of over 185,000 litres (145,000 kg). That’s a 50% higher fuel capcity than the KC-46. Now, the Rear Centre Tank (RCT) design would be based on the RCT on the A340-500, but fuel capacity would be increased to 25,000 litres (from 20,000 litres). Three additional auxiliary fuel tanks — with each tank having a capacity of 7,000 litres — would be installed ahead of the wing.

      3) Increase maximum take-off thrust on the Trent 7000 from 72,834 lbf to 81,028 lbf, which is the take-off rating of the Trent 1000-R. Coupled with the more efficient A330neo wing (i.e. increased span and higher aspect ratio; reduction in induced drag), the increase in thrust should allow for an increase in MTOW from 251 tonnes (A330neo) to 276.5 tonnes (i.e. same MTOW as the A340-300).


      • “The A330 wing is good for 276.5 metric tonnes (A340-300 MTOW).”

        needs load alleviation from the quad engine arrangement.

        Using the A330F OEW ( 109t, swap out roller floor against boom) as a cue you could go to 142t of fuel for the current 251t MTOW ( lower cycles could allow for slightly more MTOW?).

        • Well, increasing MTOW to 276.5 metric tonnes requires further structural strengthening in the outer and centre wingbox. Also, keep in mind that MTOW has already grown from 212 tonnes at EIS to 242 tonnes in 2015 and 251 tonnes in 2020 (A330neo).

          The LMXT is currently based on the 242 metric tonnes MTOW version (A330ceo). The fuel capacity is 123 tonnes (up by 12 tonnes over the standard MRTT). I’d guess you could go as high as 130 tonnes on the A330neo (251 tonne version). My 145 tonne fuel capacity estimation for a 276,5 MTOW is quite conservative. 150 tonnes should be doable (i.e. one additional 7000 litres aux tank in the rear cargo hold)


    • U.S. had the *Midas touch* in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. 😂

      To war monger: when you rush into a war, do you know when, where and how to end it?? Ready for W.W. III?

  6. I do find it a bit surprising that the Air Force prefers to use very “mature” technology for its tankers rather than gain the additional range and operational flexibility of using far newer, but still proven, technology (i.e. using the B787 or A330neo frames).

    I guess these older aircraft benefit from lower up-front cost by using older engine designs and since the tankers aren’t flown the same number of hours per year as a commercial airliner the fuel burn savings aren’t enough to justify the higher price (plus for bidders its lowest cost compliant, so they have an incentive/imperative to give the AF the cheapest rather than best solution).

  7. U.S. had the *Midas touch* in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. 😂

    When you rush into a war, do you know when, where and how to end it?? Ready for W.W. III?

  8. Hmm, what’s happened to the good doctor?

    The U.S. Air Force is in the midst of a multi-decade effort to replace its aging fleet of over 400 aerial refueling tankers.

    Boeing won the first round of competition for 179 aircraft in 2011 with a tanker now designated the KC-46A Pegasus, offering a militarized version of its 767 widebody commercial twinjet.

    In the next round of competition, which will likely see a contract award in 2024, Lockheed Martin has teamed with Airbus to offer an advanced version of the latter company’s Multi-Role Tanker Transport designated LMXT,

    LMXT is based on the A330 commercial twinjet airframe, which Airbus proposes to assemble in Mobile, Alabama (leveraging nearby port facilities), and then fly to Lockheed’s military aircraft facility in Marietta, Georgia for conversion to an aerial refueler.

    The Air Force says it wants 140-160 planes in this next round, which is sometimes described as a “bridge” to the final installment of tanker production in the 2040s.

    Boeing and Lockheed both contribute to my think tank; having recently published a commentary on the KC-46 state of play, I now offer an explanation of why Lockheed thinks it has a good shot at displacing Pegasus from the tanker franchise.

    As with my past commentaries on the subject, the thought process presented here relies in part on internal briefing materials provided by the company.


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