By Scott Hamilton
Oct. 24, 2023, © Leeham News: Lockheed Martin Co. (LMCO) threw in the towel on Oct. 23, announcing it will not submit information to the US Air Force for the KC-Y aerial refueling tanker procurement.
But its partner, Airbus, quickly said it will respond to the USAF’s Request for Information (RFI).
“Airbus remains committed to providing the U.S. Air Force and our warfighters with the most modern and capable tanker on the market and will formally respond to the United States Air Force KC-135 recapitalization RFI. The A330 U.S.-MRTT is a reliable choice for the U.S. Air Force: one that will deliver affordability, proven performance, and unmatched capabilities.”
Lockheed teamed with Airbus and announced in 2021 that the former would be the lead in submitting a proposal based on the latter’s A330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport). LMCO later selected GE Aerospace as the engine provider.
But yesterday, LMCO said it was withdrawing.
“Lockheed Martin has decided not to respond to the U.S. Air Force’s KC-135 fleet recapitalization Request for Information (RFI),” a spokesperson said in a statement to the media. “We are transitioning Lockheed Martin’s LMXT team and resources to new opportunities and priority programs within Lockheed Martin, including development of aerial refueling solutions in support of the U.S. Air Force’s Next-Generation Air-Refueling System (NGAS) initiative. We remain committed to the accelerated delivery of advanced capabilities that strengthen the U.S. Air Force’s aerial refueling missions.”
A combination of a few factors in the RFI shaped the decision, including additional development requirements and uncertain quantities, as well as the acceleration of the Next Generation refueling tanker program, said a person close to the situation.
Initially, the USAF indicated up to 160 KC-Y tankers, either the Boeing KC-46A or the MRTT, or both, could be procured. This was later reduced to 75 and Pentagon officials said they may prefer to issue only a follow-on order to Boeing for the KC-46A. The publication Breaking Defense wrote that with only 75 tankers, Lockheed had trouble making a business case. An order for 110 was needed, to pencil out, the publication reported, citing an LMCO official.
Boeing has written off about $7bn on its initial contracts for the KC-46A. The program has been plagued with delays, cost overruns, equipment that doesn’t work, and quality control issues.
Airbus’ decision to submit a response to the RFI is déjà vu all over again. In the late 2000 decade, Airbus teamed with Northrop Grumman to compete against Boeing for the KC-X tanker procurement. This pitted the MRTT against what would become the KC-46A. The Northrop team won, but the contract award was overturned due to Air Force procedural improprieties.
Northrop declined to participate in the rematch. Airbus went ahead, knowing it was unlikely to win but seeing benefits anyway. (This is detailed in the book, Air Wars, The Global Combat Between Airbus and Boeing.)
Airbus then, and now, planned to build a final assembly plant at its aerospace complex in Mobile (AL) to assemble the tanker. In the JV with LMCO, the planes would then be flown to Marietta (GA), Lockheed’s prime defense facility, for militarization.
The LMCO withdrawal raises the question of who will complete the militarization of the MRTT should Airbus prevail. Airbus had nothing to add, in response to LNA’s inquiry. LMCO said it will weigh future work on a case-by-case basis.
Observers expect Boeing to win either a sole-source, follow-on contract, or to prevail in a competitive bidding.