On December 4 aerospace giants Airbus and Lockheed Martin signed an agreement to jointly explore a range of opportunities in the U.S. in the growing aerial refueling arena. Potential activities range from short-term service provision to the development of new-generation tankers to meet future defense needs.
“Reliable and modernized aerial refueling is an essential capability for our customers to maintain their global reach and strategic advantage,” said Marilyn Hewson, chairman, president, and CEO of Lockheed Martin. “By combining the innovation and expertise of Airbus and Lockheed Martin, we will be well positioned to provide the United States Air Force and allies around the world with the advanced refueling solutions needed to meet 21st-century security challenges.”
Airbus CEO Tom Enders added, “The U.S. Air Force deserves the best aerial refueling technology and performance available under the sun, and this great industry team will offer exactly that.”
The announcement comes a decade after the Airbus A330 MRTT was selected (as the Northrop Grumman/EADS KC-45) as the winner of the U.S. Air Force’s KC-X competition to begin the replacement of the aging KC-135. Boeing successfully challenged the selection, and in 2011 its smaller, 767-based KC-46 was chosen instead, with a requirement for at least 179 tankers. However, the KC-46 program has not run smoothly, missing a series of deadlines, and the first aircraft has yet to be delivered to the Air Force. Internationally, the A330 has been ordered by 12 nations, with recent deliveries to France, Singapore, and South Korea, while the KC-46 has so far only been sold to Japan, an existing KC-767 operator.
It is widely anticipated that the U.S. Air Force will order further tankers in the medium-term to continue the replacement of the KC-135 fleet, and in the longer term to supersede the KC-10 Extender from the late 2030s. These requirements could, in turn, open the door once more for the A330 MRTT, and for a new tanker type. In 2016 Lockheed Martin unveiled a low-radar cross-section hybrid wing-body concept for a future tanker that could form the basis for a co-operative development program.
In the shorter term, another avenue to be explored is the provision of fee-for-service refueling capability to address ad hoc requirements and increasing shortfalls in tanker capacity. Civilian contractors such as Omega Aerial Refueling Services have been active in the sector with drogue-equipped 707 and DC-10 converted airliners for some years, notably in support of the U.S. Navy. One-off refueling services for large exercises and international deployments have been provided, and the contractor has also supplied ferrying support for the deliveries of fighters from U.S. manufacturers to overseas customers.