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This article was Originally Published on Oct 08, 2006 in Volume: 5  Issue: 2

The Race for KC-X

Boeing and a team of EADS/NG are competing to produce the next Air Force aerial refueling tanker fleet. Politics will play a major role in the competition, according to industry analysts.

By Rodney L. Pringle

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The U.S. Air Force expects to issue a draft request for proposals (RFP) to replace its KC-135 tanker fleet this month, with a final RFP to be released in January 2007. The service is also targeting the summer of 2007 to announce a winner in the tanker-replacement competition. Boeing and a team of European Aeronautic Defense and Space and NG are competing to land the tanker deal.

The Air Force issued a request for information (RFI) for the replacement-tanker program on April 25. The RFI requested information on KC-135 replacement platforms that are consistent with the findings of the analysis of alternatives, which focuses on a commercial derivative tanker aircraft in the 300,000- to 1-million-pound take-off gross weight. It will also consider vendor inputs on capabilities to complement the recapitalization effort, such as specialized commercial aerial refueling services and KC-135 modifications and upgrades. The Tanker Systems Modernization Systems Squadron of Aeronautical Systems Center’s Mobility Systems Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio is managing the program.

“This is an important early milestone on the path to recapitalizing our aerial refueling capability,” said Terry Kasten, TSMSS director. “We are looking forward to proceeding with a full and open competition that secures our tanker needs well into the 21st century and ensures the best value for the American taxpayers.”

AF replacing fleet

The Air Force intends to replace about 500 KC-135s, which are 45 years old, with a smaller number of new aircraft. The primary contenders for the KC-X tanker contract are the team of EADS/NG, which is offering the Airbus-built KC-30, and Boeing, which may present a version of its KC-767. Boeing is already building KC-767s for air forces in Japan and Italy. The Air Force could also opt for a larger aircraft than the medium-sized KC-30 or KC-767, according to Air Force officials. If that is the case, the aircrafts that would be considered include the A340 and 777, both of which could carry significant cargo payloads, according to officials.

NG spokesman Randy Belote said the EADS/NG team is a good fit for the tanker competition because of the core competencies in which each company specializes. NG has in-depth and extensive experience in integrating aircrafts for various purposes, Belote said, while EADS’ A330 aircraft is an ideal platform for meeting the Air Force’s tanker needs.

“The Air Force hasn’t released the requirements [for the KC-X] yet, but based on a number of discussions we’ve had with [Air Force officials] and other analysis, we feel that the A330 will meet their requirements,” Belote said. He called the A330 a “multi-role, very versatile platform.”

“We like to say it was born to be a tanker; consequently, we think it provides the best solution for the Air Force,” Belote said.

If it wins the competition, the EADS/NG team will build the tankers in Mobile, Ala., Belote said. The facility would add more than 1,000 jobs in Mobile with the potential to add an additional 10,000 jobs to help support subcontract work. The team won’t know if its KC-30 offering will be the best alternative for the KC-X tanker until it sees the Air Force’s requirements for the aircraft, Belote said. After that, then the team would be willing to discuss the differences between the KC-30 and other competitive platforms, he said. “We’re delighted to see that the DoD and the Air Force are committed to a new tanker, and we are excited about the prospect of competing with a platform that will provide the best value and meet the requirements,” Belote said.

William Barksdale, tanker communications manager for Boeing, said the company is waiting to hear the Air Force’s requirements for the KC-X before it offers what it believes is the best platform for the program. “The first step for Boeing as a company is to literally sit down with the Air Force, now that the RFI is out, and see what they are looking for [in an aircraft],” he said. “By talking with them, we will find out what they need. We need to know what their requirements are before we put a solution on the table. Until we have that dialogue, we are not going to commit to a platform.”

However, Boeing is ready to compete, he added. “After 75 years of building nearly 2,000 tankers, we feel we can compete with anyone when it comes to tankers,” he said. The fact that the company is building the most advanced tankers in the world for Italy and Japan helps reduce risk for other potential customers, Barksdale said. The U.S. military deserves the best tanker that America can produce, Barksdale said. “We just want it to be a fair and transparent,” he said. “These [tanker aircrews] depend on technology that is real. We are obviously very serious about this. The bottom line is that we believe a Boeing tanker will best meet America’s national security needs for refueling and cargo.”

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, called the competition for the KC-X tanker “a real horse race. This thing comes down to politics,” he said. “Both planes could probably do the job. The real question is timing. I think if there were a competition tomorrow, Boeing would have the edge. But as time goes on, I think EADS and NG will be in better position because of doubts concerning the 767 line.”

Aboulafia said he doubts recent problems concerning the tanker program will negatively impact Boeing. In 2004, Congress killed a $23.5-billion Air Force plan to lease and buy 100 modified Boeing 767s as tankers after Darleen Druyun, a former Air Force weapons buyer, admitted to inflating the deal before taking a $250,000-a-year job with Boeing. As a result, Druyun served a nine-month prison sentence for conflict-of-interest violations, and the Air Force reopened the competition.

“The scandal didn’t matter that much,” Aboulafia said. “The thing was the Air Force was using operations money for procurement. That is what rubbed Congress the wrong way. Senator John McCain went hunting and they found something.”

The EADS/NG team made a wise move by deciding to locate a new facility in Mobile, Ala., Aboulafia said. The area doesn’t have much competition in the aerospace industry and has strong Republican ties in Congress, a key component because of Boeing’s long-standing support from Democratic leaders in Congress, he said. “I think NG is taking a smart approach,” he said.

Paul Nisbet, an aerospace analyst for JSA Research, said the competition is about 50-50 at the moment, although EADS could catch heat from some congressmen who charge that the company’s aircraft manufacturing arm, AirBus, routinely receives subsidies from European governments that have helped distort the market for commercial airliners.

“Congress is going to be very apprehensive about providing AirBus with a lot of U.S. tax money when the company is having its aircraft subsidized by the European government,” Nisbet said. He also said he doesn’t think the previous tanker controversy will have a negative impact on Boeing. “I think the subsidy issue will probably be the deciding factor,” Nisbet said, concerning the KC-X competition. “If that isn’t resolved, and I don’t think that it is heading that way at the moment, I feel that could work strongly against NG and [EADS’] Airbus.”

Under the Air Force’s RFI for KC-X, the service seeks information on a new and/or used commercial derivative tanker aircraft as well as a medium and/or large commercial derivative tanker aircraft weighing between 300,000 to 1 million pounds in gross weight. The aircraft would also be configured to accommodate passengers and cargo.

The RFI says the new tanker is expected to be world-wide communications, navigation, surveillance and air-traffic-management compliant, and it will be able to refuel in the air day or night, in bad weather and with both probe-and-drogue and boom systems for multipoint, simultaneous air refueling operations.

It also says the KC-X may be employed to support global attack; air-bridge; deployment; homeland defense; theater support to joint, allied, coalition air and maritime forces; and specialized national defense missions. Secondary missions for the tanker may include aero-medical evacuation and C4 augmentation, according to the RFI. Companies have until June 9 to respond to the RFI.

The Air Force received permission to relaunch the tanker process in April after Kenneth Krieg, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, directed it to do so. The memo issued by Krieg came after a two-year study by the non-profit RAND Corp. on ways to upgrade the U.S. fleet of KC-135 tankers. The company’s lengthy analysis of alternatives recommended replacing the KC-135 fleet with a derivative of existing commercial jetliners or a possible mix from the providers. The RAND study said, “there are a number of competitive, medium-to-large, commercial-derivative aircraft that can fulfill the department’s needs.” Although the current fleet of KC-135s is 45 years old, the RAND study and an Air Force Fleet Viability Board assessment indicated that the department “has sufficient time to structure a traditional competitive program to gain the best value for the taxpayer,” according to the Pentagon.

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