Boeing sees incumbency as advantage in coming air force tanker procurement

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By Scott Hamilton

KC-46A. Source: Boeing.

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.

Filling the “gap”

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.

Mike Hafer

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.”

Lowest price

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.

Working side by side

“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.”

Competition or follow-on order

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.”

Summing up

“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.”

25 Comments on “Boeing sees incumbency as advantage in coming air force tanker procurement

  1. So, Boeing is not promising a do-better in the next round. A strong incumbency argument would be, “We demonstrated our capabilities by overcoming challenges, building trust going forward.” This is more like, “yeah this has been bad, and our get-well plan isn’t quite there, yet, but you can see how hard we’re trying.”

    …. and we can skate through if we don’t face competition.

  2. Is this Hafer guy for real?


    “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”

    10 years now…and still (at least) another 4 to go….and this man thinks that that qualifies as “delivering”?


    “Sitting side-by-side with the USAF”
    That’s what’s called babysitting — the USAF has to babysit BA, because otherwise it has no hope of getting its plane. It has also started to foot the bill, for the same reason.
    Not something to be considered an advantage.

  3. With all the increased war talk of the past month, one can imagine that the USAF would (urgently) like a tanker that actually does what it’s supposed to do…as opposed to a paper concept / bleeding ulcer that won’t be nominally ready for (at least) another 4 years.

  4. Is it just me or is this whole RFQ process just a bit of a farce? The Air Force very well knows what the advantages and disadvantages of either the Boeing or Airbus aircraft has. All they have to do is to phrase the requirements in a way that provides an advantage to the plane they prefer. So how’s that a real competition?

    • Matth:

      It never was or can be. The A330MRT is always going to come out the higher priced one.

      KC-X/Y were KC-135R replacement program.

    • The ONLY reason to have a competition with Airbus competing against Boeing would be to keep Boeing honest on pricing.

      Boeing would absolutely win, even with USA built/assembled/integrated aircraft, Airbus is not American enough from an optics point of view to USA public, plain & simple.

      If you remove the requirement to keep some kind of cap on spending, then there is no reason to continue the farce of a ‘competition’.

      Due to war in Ukraine, defense budget will increase & there will be no ‘competition’, Boeing will be selected/given a follow up order for more KC-46A. Wait & see.

      Another Ukraine war point, tanks are largely obsolescent. Large numbers of cheap/er, well armed stealthy drones/UAV, loitering munitions are the current/future tools of war. Sadly ground troops will always be required to hold captured ground.

      F-35 is almost over before it began, possible control role for loyal wingman type UAV, next future fighters will look a lot more like Tempest (EIS 2035?), but I suspect even that will morph over the next few years. I suspect a future Tempest will mostly fly without pilot present.

      I’m aware of Tempest & FCAS, how is progress with F/A-XX, who is building it, Grumman, Lockheed or Boeing? (EIS ???)

      Back to tankers, here’s a thought, forget KC-46A, next tanker should be smaller stealth & unmanned to fuel all the UAV.

      Who will pick up on this Boeing, Lockheed, NG, or Airbus?

      • Excellent points! But far too progressive for an ultra-conservative, slow, money-devouring defense leadership.
        Per the link I posted below: the Pentagon prefers to continue to facelift old junk.

        • I imagine that the lessons from the current conflict will not be lost on the Baltic states, Poland, France, Germany, Italy, UK etc. or Russia for that matter.

          War is largely logistics, you have to feed & water humans, that’s a weakness.

          It’s a major weakness if you send troops on a 3 day mission that continues over 10 times that length with planning done by PR instead of the military. Columns that have to stay on hard roads due to the surrounding terrain & just weeks before the big thaw that will only make things worse off road.

          A few A-10s, hit the front & the back of that column, then come back & repeat Highway 80 as those vehicles would have nowhere to go. Even better just hit the front & back & leave the personnel with no food, water or fuel in the freezing cold for a week or so. No fuel, no heating & after a while no charged batteries so no radio communications. Airdrop them a bunch of cell phones so they can call home & tell their families where they are.

          It’s fairly obvious which way this will evolve for air to air & air to ground missions.

          Back to tankers again, I have only seen a few 767 (1 Italian KC-767 & 1 USA KC-46A) based tankers along the Polish & Romanian borders, a few KC-10A, seems it’s mostly KC-135 & A330 MRTT. For those interested then click the U button top right to see U2 & other military aircraft.

      • I’m wouldn’t be so sure to say the role for armour is over. Ground troops will always be needed and armour will be used. Maybe differently. Russian Tanks, some from the Soviet era (T72) came across top of the line NATO weapons. Many NATO tanks have been upgraded for urban warfare. The remarkable Anglo Swedish NLAW which is a shoulder fired missile with inertial guidance following a predicted line of sight flight. It uses its inertial guidance to fly a meter above the line of sight and uses a sensors to fire an explosively formed penetrator into the inevitably thin top armour of the tank. The tank can’t even hide behind earth works. It uses a salt water counters shot and can be soft launched fired from within bunkers and from a 3rd story apartment down into the armour. It probably has a range of 400m against moving armour. Ukrainian troops apparently say ‘God Save the Queen’ when they fire it. The American Javelin, guided by infrared imaging and with a range of 2500m complements it well.
        -A typical Russian tank weights 45 tons has a 3 man crew. Elevation of the gun is restricted to about 6-7 degrees so it can’t fire into multistore buildings and on hilly ground.
        -A typical NATO tank weighs close to 70 tons, places great emphasis on armour including the top and can elevate close to 14 degrees and depress further as well. A 5 man crew means work load is less and you have the people needed for heavy maintenance in the crew itself.
        -A NATO tank is designed to be defensive not light and easy to transport, nevertheless they are far from immobile. Russian tanks are essentially offensive because of Soviet Era doctrine. (much like the T72-76)

        -I saw much of the Russian armour and they look like death traps. They are APC armoured personnel carriers. Armoured to protect against air burst artillery and heavy machine guns but not precision guided weapons fired by dismounted soldiers.
        -Western armour has moved to the concept of the IFV Infantry fighting Vehicle. This has armour to the standard almost of a Main Battle Tank and typically a 30,35 or 40mm gun with precision airburst capability.
        -A10’s strafing columns of Russian tanks I suspect is over since the Russians posses potent SAM missiles such as the laser beam riding Tunguska. Cheap little piston engine Turkish Drones were very effective.
        -I suspect the Chinese Military will have some remarkable weapons. I would never underestimate them.

        • Tanks are slow-moving, relatively defenseless, sitting ducks.
          I totally agree with JakDak in this regard: they’ve become an irrelevant fossil in warfare.
          Drones, drones, drones!

          • Imagine being the guy with a little body armour and an assault rifle be walking down a road or field targeted by snipers and airburst artillery. Soldiers will need to be in heavy armour if only to move fast in and too the battlefield. Instead of half tracks or APC they now need heavier vehicles such as Boxer or Puma. Tanks will be needed to support them.
            Armour has at least since 1939 needed air defences. Uniquely Wehrmacht advanced with 2.0cm and 8.8cm FLAK towed behined half tracks and occaisonly fired from them and it was these that attrited and destroyed the RAF and French Air Force during the Battle of France.
            The fact that the Russian defences didn’t work despite their experiences in Syria and seeing what happened in Azerbijan/Armenia war is telling.
            The Baykar Bayraktar TB2 is a big drone 700kg 12m wing span and not stealthy. A Croation software engineer (clearly an older guy) who manned a SA6 battery in Soviet times told me the Russian equipment was highly automated and there was little manual input or control. That proably explains it. Russian systems are degined to protect against AH64, F-16 and A10 and the radars simply don’t recognise drones. Antanove An-2 were able to fly past them during Yugoslav breakup.

        • I did say “tanks are largely obsolescent”, not completely obsolescent. As you have stated, there is a role to protect infantry, alongside modern well armoured IFV.

          Modern tanks need to have very effective active defence capability (APS). Challengers are to be upgraded to version III soon.

          I think the lessons from Ukraine are still clear, many cheap well armed drones (armed with Brimstone or similar) will be very cost effective against many current tanks – T72, T90, T-14 (has APS, but still vulnerable to top attack I think).

          But this thread is about aircraft, specifically tankers. I see the lessons here that possibly much smaller, stealthier, un-crewed tankers is likely the future.

          As it takes so long to develop & deploy such assets, perhaps the USA would be better of doing this ASAP, maybe even in parallel with KC-Y, rather than waiting another 10 years?

  5. Hafer exudes the same Boeing arrogance that’s been going on there the past twenty years and why today they are ~$60 billion in debt!

    We’re Boeing and nobody can do it like Boeing can…. Remember “make a safe airplane safer”….

  6. Mr. Hafer makes the points I have made and others ignore (or can’t accept the reality)

    Its withing US Procurement process to just extend the KC-X program. That has been used a lot as the US has gotten some good deals on equipment that was based on larger agreed production.

    The RFI was to get the whole spectrum of available.

    Reality is the KC-46A is a know entity and in production, the KC-45A never was.

    The USAF may decide to extend KC-46A. There is benefits to having sooner at 90% than latter with 10% more.

    They also have to factor in the current situation as to how that affects things as well as data on the increased fueling use and extrapolate that if things get hot.

    We will know if or when they come out with an RFP.

    Equally they could RFP an unknown number of KC aircraft and extend the KC-46A.

    That falls into an assessment if China has been sobered by the Ukraine war. An amphibious landing is a vastly harder op to pull off.

    30-50 KC-45A assigned to the Pacific might be worth a heads up message to China.

    While I always knew it, a lot of people are getting a surprise that those threats are real and not self serving for the US Defense mfgs (and yes they make money otherwise there is no mfgs). The tragedy is who is paying the price

    • “Reality is the KC-46A is a know entity and in production”

      Yes, it is a known, ongoing failure.

    • And the A330MRT is based on a even older airframe.

      Funny, the KC-135 works and it is off an airframe at the dawn of the jet age.

      Better up your game, you are sinking with your own illogic.

      • The A330 had its first flight in 1994.
        The B767 first flew in 1981.
        No reason why BA couldn’t have offered a tanker based on a 787-8.

        Better up your game, you are sinking with your own illogic (as usual).

        • Bryce as usual having a meltdown at the thought of Boeing winning something over airbus

          • Nnaeto as usual showing an inability to read/understand a thread…

  7. At last, it looks like the farsical KC-Y “competition” may be consigned to the trash can:

    “The largest revelation is that Air Force might not hold a competition for its next class of aerial refueling tankers. Instead, the service might just go with a modified version of the KC-46, a Boeing-made aircraft whose development problems have cost the company more than $5 billion.

    ““As we…look further out, the requirements start to look like a modified KC-46 more than they do a completely new design,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters Friday. “So, we’re working our way through that and finalizing those requirements.””


    Great idea — saves Airbus/LM a load of time and effort…now they can instead concentrate on other projects, and leave BA to continue to screw up the KC-46. If the RVS still isn’t working in 2026, then the Pentagon can always call Toulouse.


    Listening to Frank Kendall it becomes clear again. If Boeing was healthy we could have a competition. Now Boeing (+ its supply chain) need this badly and must win. Forget real world pacific AF requirements, past performance or capability. Just move on.

    No doubt Boeing will unashamed celebrate as sign of confidence, the superior product for the warfighter out there and the best long term solution for the US taxpayer.. water under the bridge.

  9. I think that the FAA should require Boeing to test the emergency exits before the airplane is allowed to enter service. At least once. If I’m not mistaken, it used to be required to do an actual timed evacuation, with live people for certification. Not actually testing emergency doors to see if they will open seems wrong to me.

    • It’s just another example of the Wonderful World of Self-Cert™.

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