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By Scott Hamilton
May 29, 2023, © Leeham News: Procurement of a new round of US Air Force aerial refueling tankers resulted in a shift in strategy driven by new threat assessments, a service spokesperson tells LNA.
“The Next Generation Air-Refueling System (NGAS) is being accelerated due to threats. Therefore, the Air Force is no longer pursuing the original envisioned tanker strategy,” an Air Force spokesperson said in an email on May 22.
“However, we know that between KC-46A (179 aircraft on current contract) and an accelerated NGAS, we still need uninterrupted tanker recapitalization. Therefore, we are working on validated requirements and a finalized Business Case Analysis (BCA) for this tanker before making a final decision later this year whether or not we’ll hold a competition for aircraft (approximately 75) as the gap filler to ensure uninterrupted tanker recapitalization. Andrew Hunter, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics provided this update on March 7 during a media roundtable at the AFA Warfare Symposium.”
Initially, the Air Force posited that the next round of tanker contracts would be for around 160 aircraft. Originally, the procurement, called KC-Y, was expected to be an advanced tanker design. Then it shifted to a “bridge” procurement for an existing tanker. Now called NGAS, the procurement concept is reduced to 75 tankers.
Boeing favors a sole-source, follow-on order. Unsurprisingly, Lockheed Martin Co. (LMCO) favors a competition.
Boeing currently has contracts for up to 179 767-based KC-46As. Airbus has delivered about 50 MRTTs worldwide. Boeing has delivered more than 60 KC-46As worldwide, nearly all so far to the USAF.
“We are confident that the U.S. Air Force will pursue the appropriate acquisition strategy to continue the recapitalization of the tanker fleet and meet the needs of the warfighter,” a Boeing spokesperson said last week in an email to LNA. “The U.S. Air Force has been demonstrating the unmatched capability of the KC-46A and the mission readiness it brings to the fleet today.”
In addition to refueling support, the KC-46A delivers combat capability and data necessary in a multi-mission tanker for the 21st century warfighter,” Boeing continued. “We won’t speculate about specific potential competitors, but any potential competitors face the same development and certification risk, at a cost which they or the US taxpayer would bear.”
LMCO remains undecided at this date whether to offer its Airbus A330-based LMXT refueling tanker to the US Air Force with engines provided by GE Aerospace or Rolls-Royce. The A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) Airbus delivered to date is largely equipped, but not exclusively, with RR Trent 700 engines. Airbus previously offered the MRTT to the USAF with GE engines.
US jobs and US content in the aircraft will undoubtedly be a consideration in a competitive procurement. While its importance to the Air Force may not rank high, US content and jobs will be a political issue. LMCO announced the LMXT will be assembled at Airbus’s aerospace complex in Mobile (AL). The airframe and wings are mostly produced in Europe, with some sections produced in the US. The GE engines are made in the US. Rolls-Royce’s Trent engines are predominately produced in the United Kingdom, but it has US sites where the Trent 700 could be produced.
Boeing’s Pratt & Whitney engines on the KC-46A are produced in the US.
LNA visited Lockheed at its military headquarters in Mariette (GA) last month. Ken Moss is the capture manager-business development for Air Mobility and Maritime Missions. He outlined LMXO’s approach to domestic content.
“We have made very clear to anybody who wants to or who is interested in participating in the LMXT program the importance of domestic production and domestic content,” Moss said. “This includes workers and suppliers, especially given the recent concern from the US Congress and the US military about even where the raw materials are coming from. All of the engine manufacturers in their proposals gave us plans that would reduce our concerns about our ability to meet the Congressional requirements.”
Although LMCO hasn’t ruled out offering the A330-800 neo, with its more economical Trent 7000 engine, such a move seems unlikely. The MRTT is already certified by regulators. A tanker based on the neo will require new certification, a process that could delay development and delivery.
Nevertheless, Lockheed is evaluating the Trent 7000 and the A330-800.
“The data that we are analyzing on the Trent 7000, we’re still trying to figure out if that engine actually produces the fuel economy for the mission profile that the tanker would fly,” Moss said. The mission profile is different than those required by the airlines. The Trent 7000’s fuel economy may not produce the same or similar results in a tanker mission profile.
The other element is that the Air Force wants an “off-the-shelf tanker.”
“The MRTT baseline has been certified with the GE and the Trent 700. If we put a different motor on that, we need to re-certify the entire airframe, and that would extend our ability to deliver it for years,” Moss said.
“The neo has a different wing than the MRTT and the A330ceo. I don’t know what the type of certification would be for the LMXT, but I know that it would be longer than we have, at least with the Air Force, to deliver a newly-engined LMXT,” he said.
“To certify the neo airplane to refuel all the receivers, knowing how long it takes to do out at Edwards Air Force Base to orange wire (testing wiring) the aircraft and then get receiver availability would then extend its operational availability for a good five years.”
There are differences between the A330 MRTT and the LMCO LMXT. Moss said the MRTT comes with a baseline of 232,000 fuel which gives it a 20,000-pound advantage over the KC-46. “We’ve added another 25,000 pounds of fuel and strengthened landing gear. We are looking at some other engineering elements based on what we suspect the Air Force requirements are going to look like. But our biggest differentiator between what the LMXT will be and the MRTT comes from our mission system integration.
“We know that the environment that the LMXT is going to have to operate in is going to require advanced defensive systems. We are looking at making sure the LMXT has access to the airspace it needs to have. The connectivity that we are envisioning includes access to all of the data links and we have demonstrated the ability to connect already disparate data links and decrypt the data links, make the information at the right level available across those data links,” Moss said.
“Technology and technological integration that we’re bringing to the LMXT is a clear differentiator to both the MRTT and really what is capable in the KC-46 right now, especially when you talk about bringing that internal. There are some other parts to the LMXT that differentiate it from the KC-46 specifically.”
Moss said LMCO doesn’t think that the Air Force wants more airlift. “What they really want is more air refueling. The LMXT is optimized to maximize fuel offload at range. We’re not putting a cargo floor and door on the upper deck for a couple of reasons.
“That’s 10,000 pounds-ish or so of extra weight you’re carrying around all the time that’s burning extra fuel and in the concept of operations that the Air Force talks about as far as agile combat employment and being light and lethal to service that upper deck of cargo at remote locations, you would need a tonner,” Moss said.