Paris Air Show

Tanker protagonists square off for round three of U.S. bid

 - June 17, 2009, 9:42 AM

Battle lines were drawn here this week for round three of the Great Tanker War. Conflict is likely to break out next month, when the Pentagon is expected to issue a new draft request for proposals (RFP) for the KC-X program. Boeing said that it may now offer a tanker version of the 777. EADS and Northrop Grumman officials said that their KC-45 proposal based on the Airbus A330 tanker won round-two last year because it offered “best value” and would be disadvantaged if the selection philosophy was changed to “low price/technically acceptable” (LPTA).

Boeing’s protest over the KC-45 selection was sustained on only eight out of some 100 counts. “We’ve spent the last year poring over the lessons to be learned. We’re listening, and are ready to change our offering if that’s what is required,” said Boeing vice president for tankers Dave Bowman. As it awaits the draft RFP, Boeing has labeled its campaign “KC-7A7.” Bowman said that if the U.S. Air Force values more fuel, cargo and payload capacity, he will offer the 777, or maybe the larger -300 or -400 versions of the 767. Last year’s KC-767 proposal was based on the shorter 767-200 fuselage with -300 wings.

However, Bowman is still touting the merits of the KC-767, namely “superior takeoff performance, agile ground handling and deployability to austere airfields.” But if the RFP indicates that more credit will be awarded for fuel offload, then Boeing may have to offer a “KC-777,” based on the 777-200ER airliner. Can the company develop such an airplane in time? Boeing claims to have done a thorough study, but Bowman told AIN that no wind-tunnel testing of the refueling boom or wing pods have been done on a 777 model.

According to Ralph Crosby, CEO of EADS North America, there are indications that the Pentagon may explicitly adopt the LPTA philosophy, thereby favoring a KC-767 bid. “This is an esoteric but fundamental point. LTPA means that any system meeting the minimum requirement qualifies, then price determines the winner. But why would you not give credit for 20 percent more tanking capability?” he asked rhetorically.

Paul Meyer, the Northrop Grumman vice president who fronted last year’s KC-45 bid, said that the controversial Integrated Fleet Aerial Refueling Assessment (IFARA) should remain part of the evaluation. “It showed that we can do the mission with 22 fewer aircraft,” he said. EADS and NG have drafted some new advertisements that drive home their point about the greater fuel offload, time on station and fuel burn/delivery  efficiency of the KC-45 versus the KC-767 (see table).

After all that has gone before, many observers doubt whether any KC-X evaluation can now ever be judged fair and transparent by all parties. That’s why the idea of a split buy has gained traction, and conditional approval from both competitors. As the loser last time round, Boeing benefits more from such a strategy, if adopted. Ralph Crosby summed up opinion in the EADS-NG team as follows: “If not our birthright, we do at least consider the future U.S. tanker as our earned opportunity.”