Republic of Singapore Air Force

Air Force Begins Search For New Refueling Tanker as Lawmakers Push Airbus

Some lawmakers want the Air Force to terminate its KC-46 contract with Boeing.

The U.S. Air Force has begun its search for as many as 160 new refueling tankers. The contest, a long-planned follow-on to the competition that produced the troubled Boeing KC-46, may be Airbus’ best chance yet to win a foothold in the American strategic tanker market.

The contest for what the military is calling a “bridge tanker” kicked off the same week President Biden and the European Union called a five-year truce in a 17-year-old trade battle over state subsidies allegedly given to the U.S. and European planemakers—and as some U.S. lawmakers say it’s time to give Airbus a role in the U.S. strategic refueling mission.

The Air Force said in a contracting notice posted Wednesday that it wants to buy between 140 and 160 new tankers—at a rate of 12 to 15 aircraft per year—that are based on a commercial aircraft design. 

“The Commercial Derivative Aircraft must be operational by 2029,” the notice states. “The Air Force is still finalizing the requirements for this acquisition.”

Boeing and Airbus are the only makers of new, jet-powered, strategic refueling planes. Boeing’s KC-46 is based on the 767 airliner, while Airbus’ Multi-Role Tanker Transport, or MRTT, is based on the A330. Lockheed Martin and Embraer make smaller, tactical refueling aircraft. 

Airbus has partnered with U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin, which said it intends to respond to the Air Force’s request.

“We are responding to the U.S. Air Force’s Sources Sought Notification for the Bridge Tanker Program, offering a mission-ready solution to meet the Air Force’s future tanker requirements,” Rob Fuller, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said in a statement.

Airbus has sought unsuccessfully for two decades to break into the Air Force’s strategic tanker market. It had partnered with Northrop Grumman, beating Boeing in a 2008 contest, only to have the contract overturned by government auditors. In a recompete, Airbus bid on its own, and lost to Boeing.

Now, 10 years since the Air Force chose the KC-46 over the Airbus MRTT, Boeing has lost more than $5 billion on the project and is years behind schedule due to design, technical, and quality control problems. The terms of the contract require Boeing, not taxpayers, to eat the cost overruns. 

The company must replace key cameras and software that are part of the KC-46 refueling system. Additionally, the Air Force is paying Boeing $100 million to redesign the tanker’s refueling boom so it can refuel all types of military aircraft. 

Despite the shortcomings, the Air Force has started using the plane for non-combat missions including refueling aircraft, aeromedical evacuations, and flying passengers and cargo. Air Force officials anticipate the plane being war-ready in late 2023.

The new bridge tanker, also known as KC-Y, has long been planned by the Air Force as the follow-on to the KC-46. It’s called the bridge tanker because it’s the second of a three-phased recapitalization of the Air Force’s aerial refueling aircraft.

Boeing said it plans to enter the KC-46 in the new bridge tanker contest.

“With 102 aircraft on order, and growing international interest, Boeing’s KC-46A is proven and matured for the next stage of combat air refueling capabilities and airborne battle management, which will extend the Air Force’s ability to deliver critical fuel and information for decades to come,” Deborah VanNierop, a Boeing spokeswoman, said in a statement.

At a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, some lawmakers, including Airbus allies, pushed Air Force leaders to consider canceling the current Boeing KC-46 contract, which calls for buying 179 aircraft, early.

“I would strongly urge you to look at recompeting,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va.

Air Force leaders said they would prefer to complete the current KC-46 buy before moving to the bridge tanker.

“We're concerned that if we try to go into a new contractual vehicle, that would put additional delays into the program that we simply don't think would be efficacious for us,” acting Air Force Secretary John Roth said.

Despite losing the Air Force tanker contest in 2011, Airbus followed through with plans to assemble aircraft in the United States. The company in 2015 opened a factory in Mobile, Alabama, that today builds dozens of A319, A320, A321, and A220 commercial airliners annually.

The KC-46 has been replacing KC-10 tankers that date back to the 1980s and even older Eisenhower-era KC-135.

“I'm worried about our Air Force, and our refueling possibilities of our aging aircraft, it is a huge issue that I think we really need to push to the front of profits of anybody,” Rep. Jerry Carl, R-Ala., said at Wednesday’s hearing. Airbus builds commercial aircraft in Carl’s district.