Making the case for competing the next USAF tanker procurement

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By Scott Hamilton

May 22, 2023, © Leeham News: The US Air Force is moving slowly toward another aerial refueling tanker procurement. With hundreds of ancient Boeing KC-135 tankers still to replace, the procurement will be a big one: more than 160 jets.

Concept of the Lockheed Martin LMXT aerial refueling tanker it wants to sell the US Air Force. This tanker is based on the Airbus A330 MRTT now in service. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

The big question that is as yet unresolved is whether the Air Force will place a follow-on, sole-source order with Boeing, or seek a competitive bake-off. If it’s the latter, a bid by Lockheed Martin Co. (LMCO) will be the competition. (Others may submit a bid, but the Boeing-Lockheed face-off will be the one to watch.)

LMCO partnered with Airbus to offer the A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport). This sets up a third Boeing-Airbus contest that could well be as bitter as the two previous ones. Make no mistake: although Lockheed will be the company submitting the bid, Airbus will become the target. It already has. Boeing surrogates lost no time in attacking Airbus after LMCO announced it will submit a bid, using the same old tired illegal subsidies claims and adding some new ones.

One surrogate questioned Airbus’ safety record. This was an astounding line of attack, considering the Boeing 737 MAX history and all the scandals that emerged in its development; and the 2013 grounding of the Boeing 787 for safety reasons. Airbus has never had a fleet type grounded by regulators for safety reasons traced to the design of the aircraft. (India’s regulator grounded A320neos equipped with Pratt & Whitney GTF engines due to issues related to the engine durability.)

More relevant is whether it makes economic and financial sense for the Air Force to have two primary tanker fleets: Boeing’s KC-46A and the A330 MRTT. LNA visited LMCO last month in Marietta (GA), the location of much of its defense business. It’s where the LMXT, as Lockheed calls its offering, will be militarized after production at Airbus’ Mobile (AL) aerospace complex should LMCO win the contract—if the procurement is competed.

LNA tomorrow will discuss some of the history of previous procurements.

  • Commonality is Boeing's argument. Derisking the fleet and greater capability is Lockheed's argument.

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