Paris Air Show

Boeing faces fresh doubts over tanker Headline here Headline here Head

 - December 13, 2006, 1:33 PM

Bloodied and bruised by the U.S. Air Force tanker fiasco, Boeing has fought back this week by bringing the first KC-767A to the Paris show. But yet another damning report on the aborted U.S. lease deal has not only further tarnished the company’s reputation but also cast doubt on whether the Pentagon really needs a new fleet of tankers anytime soon.

The aircraft in the static display here is the first of four for the Italian Air Force, the launch customer, and is scheduled to be delivered in spring next year. This morning, the vice president and general manager of Boeing Air Force Systems, George Muellner, will climb aboard the KC-767A here to brief on the merits of the tanker, including its advanced mission control system, superior fuel overload capability and better airfield performance. The Italian aircraft has a boom receptacle/dispenser and three hose-and-drogue units mounted on the centerline and the wings. Boeing has sold another four KC-767s to Japan, in a different configuration.

In the recent competition in the UK for a Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft (FSTA), the British Ministry of Defence preferred a solution that included new Airbus A330s modified as tankers, over a rival proposal that included used Boeing 767s modified to the KC-767 configuration. The Royal Air Force was said to have liked the greater strategic reach and fuel offload of the A330. But Muellner told Aviation International News that “the KC-767 burns less fuel to reach its tanker station and has more fuel to offload at longer ranges.” Moreover, he added, “the KC-767 can take off from a NATO-standard runway [8,000 feet] and retains that performance at higher ambient temperatures.”

A former U.S. Air Force general, Muellner emerged unscathed from the U.S. tanker scandal. Indeed, when seeking employment with Boeing, Air Force acquisition official Darlene Druyun told the company that she would work for “any senior Boeing executive except Muellner.” Druyun was subsequently convicted of illegally negotiating her future employment while she supervised the tanker negotiations. Mike Sears, previously head of Boeing’s defense business, was convicted of aiding and abetting her hiring.

Druyen’s comment about Muellner emerged from an earlier report on the tanker lease scandal. Last week, the Pentagon Inspector-General (IG) released a 256-page volume that spells out in graphic detail just how the U.S. Air Force cooperated with Boeing to skew the requirement and make the flawed case for a $30 billion lease deal.

Of most significance for the future, though, the IG report questions whether the U.S. Air Force really needs new tankers, at least in the short-to-medium term. The Rand Corporation is currently conducting an analysis of tanker alternatives for the U.S. government, but many industry executives are expecting this to be followed by a fresh request for proposals early next year.

Northrop Grumman told AIN that it would “look seriously at competing” for any new U.S. tanker replacement program. The company said it was talking to EADS, the Pentagon and the U.S. Air Force. Presumably, Northrop Grumman would team with EADS to offer the Airbus A330 (as the KC-330). EADS North America is led by Ralph Crosby, previously a senior official with Northrop Grumman. Irrespective of any teaming arrangement, EADS North America is scheduled to announce next week the site of a modification center that it proposes to establish in the U.S. to support a KC-330 bid to the Pentagon.