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Tanker Choice a “Done Deal” This Time?

Life-cycle costs a key factor in the decision

The U.S. Air Force says its first KC-46A air refueling tanker will be operational in 2017. The term KC-46A is the military designation for the Boeing NewGen tanker, the winner in the KC-X competition for a new air refueling aircraft.

On Feb. 24, 2011, Pentagon leaders announced that the NewGen, derived from the Boeing 767-200 airliner, had been selected over the KC-45, the proposed Airbus A330-200 tanker from European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (EADS).

The winning planemaker will eventually reap $35 billion for 179 new planes to begin replacing about 490 Eisenhower-era KC-135 Stratotankers. The initial contract, found in the administration’s fiscal year 2012 budget request, will be $3.5 billion for the first 18 airframes. Total eventual tanker purchases could make this program one of the largest in history.

In the end, it appears the KC-46A's smaller size when compared to the competing KC-45 actually worked to its advantage, contributing to lower fuel burn and life-cycle costs. In this artist's conception, a Boeing KC-46A prepares to refuel a B-1B bomber in flight. Boeing Imagery

In the end, it appears the KC-46A’s smaller size when compared to the competing KC-45 actually worked to its advantage, contributing to lower fuel burn and life-cycle costs. In this artist’s conception, a Boeing KC-46A prepares to refuel a B-1B bomber in flight. Boeing Imagery

Boeing will build the KC-46A at its Everett, Wash., plant and will outfit the planes in Wichita, Kan. EADS wanted to erect a new plant in Mobile, Ala., and hoped a tanker contract would enable it, in addition, to assemble civilian air freighters in Mobile.

A key factor in the decision was life-cycle costs. The Air Force projected fuel costs 40 years into the future and found the smaller Boeing aircraft more economical to operate. According to Edmund S. Greenslet, publisher of the Airline Monitor, an industry newsletter, commercial versions of the Boeing aircraft use less than 1,500 gallons of fuel per hour, the Airbus about 1,900.

The decision comes after more than a decade of troubled efforts. In Washington, reaction to the selection highlighted the eagerness of lawmakers to bring aerospace jobs to their states. To Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash) the choice was “great news.” Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala), who had lobbied hard for the Mobile plant, called the decision “Chicago politics” – President Barack Obama is from that city and Boeing is headquartered there – and said the Air Force had picked an “inferior plane.” Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said the contract selection was the result of a “thorough and transparent selection process” and “represents a long overdue start to a much-needed program.”

EADS' KC-45 candidate was bigger and carried more fuel than the Boeing contender, but came in at a significantly higher price. EADS imagery

EADS’ KC-45 candidate was bigger and carried more fuel than the Boeing contender, but came in at a significantly higher price. EADS imagery

The losing candidate from Airbus was bigger and based on a newer aircraft design. The winning aircraft from Boeing is based on an older design, is smaller, and is closer in size to the KC-135 it will replace.

In Washington, some lawmakers and analysts point out that either aircraft probably could have done the job. Donley said that both of the competing tanker designs earned a passing grade for all 372 mandatory KC-X pass/fail requirements. Donley said he and other Air Force leaders considered only aircraft capabilities and that political factors were not taken into account.

Under the rules, EADS was given ten days to consider whether to file a protest to the Government Accountability Office. The general impression in Washington seemed to be that, this time, at last, the tanker choice was a “done deal” and was not likely to be undone.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...