A Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport refuels an Edwards B-52 Stratofortress over California in 2017.

A Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport refuels an Edwards B-52 Stratofortress over California in 2017. U.S. Air Force / Donald R. Allen

Airbus Looks to Pounce As Boeing Struggles to Deliver First Tanker

The fight between the commercial airliner titans is moving back into the defense space. And this time, Lockheed Martin is in Airbus’ corner.

Airbus is teaming up with Lockheed Martin to pitch a new refueling aircraft to the Pentagon, looking to pounce as Boeing struggles to deliver its KC-46 to the Air Force.

The new partnership between Europe’s largest aerospace company and the world’s largest defense firm are early shots in what could become another bitter battle to build tankers.

“The companies will seek to provide aerial-refuelling services to address any identified capacity shortfall and to meet requirements for the next generation of tankers capable of operating in the challenging environments of the future battlespace,” Airbus and Lockheed said in a joint statement Tuesday.

In September, the Air Force said it needed 14 more tanker squadrons to meet the requirements of the National Defense Strategy, which calls for a force able to defeat Russia or China. While the Air Force has not said how many planes that would take, industry officials believe it could amount to at least 140 new aircraft.

Related: Air Force Secretary: Boeing Is Giving Its Tanker Short Shrift

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Airbus and Lockheed officials say their pitch is largely focusing on this new requirement and the hundreds of planes that the Air Force plans to buy after Boeing delivers a planned 179 KC-46 tankers — suggesting that it is not an attempt to persuade service officials to curtail those plans.

Boeing officials view it the same way, a person familiar with the situation said.

Airbus and Lockheed are pitching the A330 tanker — the same aircraft that lost to Boeing’s KC-46 in 2011.

“The companies are taking a cooperative approach, with the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (A330 MRTT) at its heart, to examine a broad spectrum of opportunities,” the Airbus-Lockheed statement said. “These may range from ways to support critical near-term air-refueling needs, such as a fee-for-service structure to conceptualizing the tanker of the future.”

The Air Force flies about 400 Eisenhower-era KC-135 Stratotankers and 59 of the larger KC-10 Extender tankers. The KC-46 is supposed to replace about half of the KC-135s, while an effort called KC-Y is supposed to replace the remaining Stratotankers.

Boeing was supposed to deliver 18 KC-46 tankers last year. Thanks to numerous development problems, it has delivered none, and has not said when it will start. Asked if Boeing would deliver the first tanker by year’s end, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said, “We will work through with Boeing to get the equipment that works.”

The KC-46 still has “a couple major deficiencies,” Wilson said Nov. 15 at the Defense One Summit.

She mentioned a problem with the plane’s remote vision system, the cameras that allow the refueling boom operator to see other aircraft arriving to take on fuel. There is also a problem with the boom itself, which sometimes does not disconnect as designed when bent by the plane it’s refueling.

These problems others have led to Boeing eating more than $3 billion on the project. The Air Force signed a fixed-price contract for the planes, meaning the firm must pay for any overruns.

“We are completely focused on delivering KC-46 to the Air Force,” Todd Blecher, a Boeing spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “The KC-46 will be the backbone of global mobility for generations to come. It offers multi-role capabilities the likes of which the Air Force hasn’t ever had in its tanker fleet and can’t get anywhere else.”

The Air Force has placed orders for 52 KC-46 tankers from Boeing. More than a dozen have been completed, but they remained parked at Boeing’s facilities at Everett, Washington, and elsewhere. Japan has also ordered one KC-46, to expand its fleet of four 767-based tankers.

The Air Force has been trying to replace the KC-135 for nearly 20 years. In the early 2000s, it planned to lease 100 tankers, based on its popular 767 airliner. That fell apart when it was revealed that former Air Force acquisition chief Darleen Druyun cooked deals for Boeing, helping the firm win billions of dollars in Pentagon deals and landing herself an executive position with the company. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in 2004 and was sentenced to nine months in prison.

A few years later, the Air Force held a competition for new tankers. Airbus teamed up with Northrop Grumman to enter its A330 against a Boeing 767 derivative. The Air Force selected the Airbus-Northrop plane in in February 2008, but that award was negated after the Government Accountability Office sustained a Boeing protest.

Three years later, the Air Force finally  finally chose Boeing’s KC-46 over Airbus’ A330 — in a contest in which the European firm did not use an American partner.

Since then, Boeing has yet to deliver a KC-46, while Airbus has received 60 orders from foreign government for its A330. Airbus tankers flown by U.S. allies have refueled American coalition aircraft striking Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria since 2014.