One of the most important roles the Air Force performs is providing aerial refueling for U.S. military aircraft and those of allies. With military engagements typically unfolding thousands of miles from U.S. territory, the ability to extend the reach of aircraft is critical to sustaining a global defense posture.
Much of the Air Force’s current fleet of over 400 airborne tankers was built during the early 1960s, meaning that today the planes often exceed 50 years of age. The Air Force has been struggling to replace these ancient aircraft—which are increasingly expensive to operate—with a new generation of tankers since the dawn of the current century.
In 2011, it awarded a contract to Boeing
But 179 planes will only recapitalize about a third of the tanker fleet. A second contract will need to be awarded soon for 140-160 additional tankers, and there is a good chance that contract will be competed between Boeing and Lockheed Martin
The Air Force has lately been praising the performance and features of KC-46 despite lingering development issues, in part because it would like to avoid another politically charged competition that might slow modernization of the tanker fleet. “I am 100% confident in its ability” says the head of the mobility command.
Moves are afoot in Congress, though, to require a competition before the program can proceed—a possibility that is more likely if Republicans, as expected, take control of the House. If there is a new tanker competition, it will be very different from the contest that led to Boeing’s 2011 contract. Here are five reasons why.
U.S. defense strategy has shifted to emphasize Pacific ops. When Boeing won its tanker contract, U.S. military planning was focused mainly on Southwest Asia. Today it is focused on the Pacific, where the tyranny of distance is a pivotal operational concern. Lockheed Martin’s LMXT
What that means in operational terms is that each LMXT can deliver over 100% more geographical coverage than a KC-46, and can deliver far more fuel at any given range. It also requires fewer Pacific bases to accomplish complete regional coverage (four versus seven).
Lockheed Martin acknowledges that with a full load LMXT can use only 105 airfields in the region compared with 141 for KC-46. However, Lockheed contends that if its tanker carries an amount of fuel equal to what a full KC-46 load represents, LMXT can actually utilize 207 regional airfields—mainly because it would require 2,000 fewer feet of runway than a full KC-46. That results in part from the fact that LMXT is equipped with thrust reversers and KC-46 is not.
New performance features have become available. Air Force specifications for KC-46 were established over a decade ago, and Boeing configured its design to employ the best technology then available. For instance, the remote vision system provided black-and-white images to the boom operator because at the time black-and-white afforded better resolution than color cameras.
But a lot has changed during the intervening years, and LMXT is designed to take advantage of recent advances. For instance, its color camera offers better resolution than was available during the initial tanker competition. Boeing too is shifting from its original camera to a color camera.
Lockheed has developed an automated boom system that potentially eliminates the need for a human operator. The algorithm-driven system was certified for daytime operations last year, and is expected to be qualified for nighttime ops next year.
Technology advances are also enabling new approaches to networked warfare. The Air Force has praised game-changing KC-46 capabilities for supporting networked operations and enhanced battlespace awareness, but Lockheed contends its offering provides greater carrying capacity for advanced technology. In fact, it says LMXT could accommodate sensors such as conformal radar that mimic the functionality of the Air Force’s E-series (electronic) aircraft.
Boeing’s incumbency will shape Air Force perceptions. The Air Force’s first attempt to award a next-generation tanker contract in 2008 went off the rails and had to be recompeted, in part because of poor relations between the Boeing team and the Air Force acquisition bureaucracy. While the company’s relations with the service since winning the second round of competition have hardly been ideal, at this point both sides know each other well and communicate easily.
This potentially puts Boeing in a position to influence the request for proposals that will drive the next round in way beneficial to the company’s offering. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in March that requirements for the next tranche of tanker procurement are starting to look like a “modified KC-46 more than…a completely new design.” That suggests the Air Force is viewing its future needs through the filter provided by a decade of work on KC-46.
Availability of corporate resources will vary. When Boeing bid aggressively to win the initial KC-46 contract, it had more cashflow and less debt than it does today. Senior leaders knew they were taking a big risk on the tanker’s fixed-price development contract, but they believed that by defeating the Airbus alternative, they could keep the European plane maker’s commercial operations out of their home market.
Things did not work out that way: Airbus still set up operations in Alabama. Boeing subsequently experienced setbacks in its business that today preclude using cashflow from the commercial side of the company to aid bidding on the defense side. Lockheed Martin has more discretionary resources to apply to its tanker bid. Having been barred by the Biden administration from undertaking major mergers in its core defense business, Lockheed has an added incentive to pursue white-space opportunities like the next tanker contract.
Industrial factors will spawn partisan division. The initial rounds of tanker competition were highly politicized, partly because the contest was widely depicted was a rivalry between a U.S. plane and a European plane. Lockheed Martin has structured its LMXT campaign to minimize any perception that it is carrying water for Airbus. Although its offering is based on a preexisting tanker variant of the A330, the Lockheed solution will be assembled in Alabama and modified for aerial refueling in Georgia. The boom will be manufactured in Arkansas.
There is also extensive U.S. content on the Lockheed tanker. The Boeing offering likely will contain greater U.S. content, in part because it utilizes Pratt & Whitney engines. But the way a contest would unfold, the choice will look more like a “Democrat” plane assembled in Washington State versus a “Republican” plane produced in the South.
So, the politics of tanker modernization will probably play out differently the next time around than they did the last time—especially if Republicans retake control of Congress. And that could start by lawmakers insisting that another competition be held before awarding the next tanker contract.
As noted above, Boeing and Lockheed Martin both contribute to my think tank.