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By Scott Hamilton
March 21, 2022, © Leeham News: Lockheed Martin Co. (LMCO) plans to submit a proposal for the US Air Force’s KC-Y aerial refueling tanker procurement. So does Boeing. LMCO joined with Airbus and will offer a tanker based on the existing Airbus A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport). Boeing will offer a follow-on purchase of the incumbent KC-46A, based on the 767-200ER.
These two aircraft faced off in the KC-X competition. Airbus initially teamed with Northrop Grumman and was awarded the contract. Boeing protested the award on procurement procedural grounds and prevailed. Northrop dropped out of the recompete, which Boeing won in 2011.
The two aircraft will be offered again, but this time, one party doesn’t view the aircraft as competitive. LMCO sees the Airbus airplane, which it brands the LMXT, as complementary to rather than competitive to the KC-46A. Lockheed explains why here.
Boeing, on the other hand, isn’t convinced the USAF will even seek a competitive bid—or that LMCO’s belief that the service wants a larger airplane than the KC-46A to fill a “gap” is correct.
Mike Hafer, senior manager of KC-46A Business Development, explains why.
Lockheed said that in reading the Request for Information (RFI) and in talking with the “customer,” it believes the Pentagon wants a plane larger than the KC-46A which has a longer range, more loiter time and more fuel off-load. The Request for Proposals (RFP) won’t be issued until later this year, so the firm specifications are fluid. It was this extra capability that won Northrop Grumman-Airbus the contract initially. These extra credits weren’t in the RFP, which Boeing protested and prevailed. The next competition, which Boeing won, didn’t provide for the extra capabilities.
Hafer reads the situation differently.
“As I look at those requirements, there are no requirements,” Hafer said. “Those have not been released. Within the RFI, they cited that the baseline requirements were set on the KC-X, basically the KC-46. There was no requirement, nothing pointing to a larger airplane. I think that’s purely speculative.
“As you look at it, the way the Air Force originally chunked out the program was the KC-X, KC-Y, and KC-Z. Each one is a block of about 200 airplanes,” Hafer said. “They decided since the institution set into it was that KC-X and KC-Y were solely targeted in being KC-135 replacements. It looks like they’re sticking to that.”
Hafer said that the RFI requirements document specifically said, “KC-Y requirements are baselined on KC-X.”
“It looks like they’re sticking basically to that, and that’s the way we’re focused. I need to deliver,” Hafer said. “I am focused solely on the customer’s requirements here. That’s what I look to deliver. I look to deliver that KC-X baseline capability to them.”
The KC-X competition that Boeing won became a Technically Acceptable, Lowest Price (TALP) competition. If KC-Y is not based on a larger capabilities requirement, will it be another TALP? Respected defense journalist Steve Trimble of Aviation Week thinks so, in which case Boeing should be a shoo-in. Even Lockheed already admits its airplane will be more expensive to buy.
But Hafer said this, too, is speculation at this point. “That’s up to the Air Force to determine how that all gets set out. I am craving that same information that you are on that.”
Boeing is the incumbent supplier with the KC-46A. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage in the view of former Boeing executive Jim Albaugh and rival Airbus (EADS) executive Sean O’Keefe. These two officials faced off in the KC-X competition won by Northrop. Albaugh moved to Boeing Commercial Airplanes from Boeing’s defense unit by the time the competition was rerun, the one Boeing won. Albaugh, while at Defense, worked with the Pentagon on other procurements. O’Keefe was an administrator for NASA before joining EADS and knows the government side of procurement.
The advantages, both agreed, are already having the foot in the door and knowledge by both sides of each other. This is also a disadvantage, both agreed. The faults are known to the Pentagon as well as the pluses. Boeing’s challenges with the KC-46A are well known by all interested parties. LMCO undoubtedly will make a point of these challenges, but the Pentagon doesn’t need reminders. Still, Boeing is confident all the challenges will be resolved by the time the KC-Y is delivered in 2029.
One especially troubling area is the Remote Vision System (RVS) that operates the refueling boom at the tail of the KC-46A.
“As I look at it, [incumbency] is an advantage for Boeing. As we are working through these Category 1 Deficiency Reports, we are working side by side with the United States Air Force,” Hafer said. “They’re embedded right with this. Our engineers are sitting side by side. Our scientists are sitting side by side. Now we’re getting to see exactly what they want. It’s no surprise to anybody that there was a miscommunication, whether Boeing translated the requirement wrong, or the Air Force didn’t dictate that requirement to us thoroughly enough, the Remote Vision System was not exactly what the Air Force wanted.
“Now we are sitting down together and we’re figuring that out together. Being the incumbent, we’re able to field the Remote Vision System, the refueling platform, making it the perfect solution for the United States Air Force. As a matter of fact, I harken back to the contract was let in 2011. We are now giving them technology that’s dated 2022 and 2023. We’re inventing technology that’s going aboard this airplane. Nobody else has the advantage of having the user, sitting next to the user, the warfighter, side by side, and building from scratch exactly what they want and need to fight the air war in 2030 to 2040. Knowing that requirement and building that requirement, at this point I see that as solely as an advantage.”
Hafer had one surprising outlook as the procurement unfolds. He’s not sure the Air Force will seek competition or, instead, simply place a follow-on order for the KC-46A. The RFI, Hafer said, is a document simply “shopping” to see what’s out there.
“The Air Force is basically right now doing market research. They’re taking a look at what they currently have and what potentially could be in existence out there in the future market. To presuppose that there’s going to be a competition makes a lot of assumptions,” Hafer said. “There’re other avenues. The first thing I’d say is, these are normal steps on whatever acquisition strategy that government follows that would prelude to making some type of acquisition decision.”
Hafer said there hasn’t been anything published by the Air Force that has formally announced or initiated a procurement. “They’re doing market research. I’m just trying to go from facts or a Sources Sought and an RFI. There’s nothing in the current Future Years Defense Program that shows any type of funding for a development program. There’s no acquisition strategy, and you have Congress even asking for it. They have insights that I don’t have.”
“Given that, I would say, why is the KC-46 the ideal continued replacement for the KC-135? As you’ll begin to see and as you probably already know, the tanker’s mission is more than just providing fuel offload to the warfighter,” Hafer said. “The KC-46 is designed to be able to deploy a unit, specifically a fighter unit to carry the fuel resupply the fighters en route, carry some of their cargo on board, carries the passengers on board as they deploy into the theater so that they can hit the ground with everybody they need running fast.”
Hafer said that the KC-46 provides almost three times that capability over the KC-135 and cargo-carrying, passenger-carrying capability. On top of that, he said the KC-46A has a “robust combat capability” required to operate. “It’s now about survivability. You see near-peer and naysay peer threats out there. Clearly, the tankers become a target.”