The U.S. Air Force has named the winner in the hotly contested competition to build its next-generation aerial tanker: Boeing. Under the contract signed yesterday, the American aerospace giant will get $3.5 billion for starters, and for that sum is expected to deliver four aircraft. Eventually, though, Boeing stands to bring in $30 billion for the manufacture of 179 of the tankers, to be designated the KC-46A.
This artist's rendering by Boeing shows what it's been calling the NewGen Tanker refueling a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.
It's a long-term undertaking--Boeing is obliged to deliver the first 18 tankers by 2017. The NewGen Tanker will be a variation on the company's 767 aircraft. The KC-46A is intended to replace the two tankers currently being flown by the Air Force: the KC-135, which has been in service since 1956, and the KC-10, in service since 1981. There are about 400 KC-135s in the Air Force inventory, including those in active duty, in the Air Force Reserve, and in the Air National Guard. There are about 60 KC-10s.
In this artist's rendering, the NewGen Tanker simultaneously refuels a pair of F/A-18 Super Hornets.
Boeing says the NewGen Tanker has a "modern, digital flight deck" that's based on the electronic displays in its new 787 Dreamliner, a much delayed commercial jumbo jet that the company says will finally reach its first customer in the third quarter of this year. The tanker incorporates a fly-by-wire (that is, electronic) control system, though Boeing also says that it's based on "a flight control design philosophy that places aircrews in command rather than allowing computer software to limit combat maneuverability."
The other competitor in the quest to land the lucrative Air Force tanker contract was the European aerospace company EADS. Chicago-based Boeing conducted a relentless campaign that played the patriotism card hard. In this undated ad, for instance, Boeing dings EADS for, among other things, being a foreign company. The third bullet point here says this, making reference to the Airbus A330 aircraft on which EADS was basing its bid: "The A330 tanker is designed and manufactured predominantly in four European countries. The Boeing KC-X NewGen tanker will be designed and built in the U.S.A. by a skilled American workforce, supporting 50,000 U.S. jobs in more than 40 states." (We got the ad from the Web site The Real American Tankers, subtitled "Brought to you by Boeing." Boeing also maintained the site UnitedStatesTanker.com.)
It should be noted that EADS had pledged to assemble its tanker, designated the KC-45, in Alabama. "With a program of such complexity, our review of today's decision will take some time," EADS North America Chairman Ralph D. Crosby Jr. said in a statement yesterday responding to the Pentagon's decision. "There are more than 48,000 Americans who are eager to build the KC-45 here in the U.S., and we owe it to them to conduct a thorough analysis."
The loss of the U.S. Air Force contract was a major setback for EADS, but the European company does have tanker customers. The U.K.'s Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force have ordered a number of A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports, which EADS says are equipped with the same advanced aerial refueling boom system and digital under-wing refueling pods as its KC-45.
The Air Force's decision had to be especially vexing for EADS, considering that it had actually won the contract in February 2008 only to see that decision voided when the U.S. Government Accountability Office ruled that Boeing had been treated unfairly. Then again, in 2003, Boeing had been the original recipient of the tanker contract, but that deal fell through "due to illegal acts that had involved some Boeing and Pentagon officials," the Defense Department said yesterday.
In a press conference yesterday, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III (pictured here at the podium) characterized the selection process as "fair, open, and transparent" and said that it "evaluated warfighting requirements, evaluated price, evaluated life-cycle costs." And the bottom line, he said, was this: "I think what we can tell you is Boeing was a clear winner."
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz (at left) expressed relief, saying that after an exhaustive review "we will get about delivering the capability that's long overdue and will stop talking about it."
Also pictured are Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley (second from left) and Ashton B. Carter, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics (right).
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by Defense Department photo by Cherie Cullen
Boeing's NexGen Tanker shares a design heritage with the company's new KC-767 aircraft, four of which, Boeing says, are now in operational service with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. This photo shows a pair of Japan KC-767Js in flying formation, refueling booms extended, during a flight test over Kansas.
One of the two U.S. Air Force tankers that the forthcoming KC-46A will replace is the KC-10 Extender, a modified Boeing DC-10. In service since the early years of the Reagan administration, the KC-10 can carry a total of more than 356,000 pounds of fuel in six tanks, almost twice as much as the KC-135 Stratotanker, along with up to 75 people and nearly 170,000 pounds of cargo. Coincidentally, the KC-10 pictured here flying over Afghanistan was just refueled by a KC-135.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby
Here, a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet approaches a KC-10 for aerial refueling over Afghanistan last November.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin
During that same aerial refueling operation, the KC-10's boom operator speaks with pilots.
Correction March 6 at 7:55 p.m. PT: This caption initially misidentified the function of the person speaking with pilots.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andy M. Kin
This is the other tanker currently in service with the U.S. Air Force, the KC-135 Stratotanker. The first of the KC-135s went into service midway through the Eisenhower administration, which puts them in the company of other venerable Air Force workhorses, including the C-130 and the B-52. The Stratotanker can carry about 200,000 gallons of fuel for transfer, plus 37 passengers and 83,000 pounds of cargo.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Dave Nolan
Before heading out on a February 2011 mission connected to operations in Afghanistan, a pilot runs through his preflight check in the cockpit of a KC-135.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. William Greer
The aircraft approaching the KC-135 refueling boom here is an F-15E Strike Eagle, in a photo taken just last month over Afghanistan. The Air Force says it last took delivery of a KC-135 in 1965, but the aging aircraft have gone through a number of modifications and updates in areas ranging from the engines to navigation and surveillance systems.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz
This is the opposite viewpoint, from the cockpit of an F-15E looking up at the KC-135. This time, though, it's a training mission over North Caroline that took place last December.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael B. Keller
The boom operator of a KC-135 looks out at an approaching F/A-18F Super Hornet during the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) training exercise off Hawaii in July 2010.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Tech Sgt. Cohen A. Young
A much larger plane, the C-17 Globemaster III, makes its approach to a KC-135 during a routine flight over California in October 2010. Some Stratotankers have been modified for other missions, including reconnaissance and command post duties.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Linda Welz
This is the view from the cockpit of a C-17 as it approaches a KC-135 in March 2010 for refueling.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Eric Harris
The refueling boom from a KC-135 closes in on an EC-130J on a mission over Haiti in January 2010, broadcasting public information messages in Creole two weeks after the devastating earthquakes there.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. James L. Harper Jr.
At MacDill Air Force Base in Florida earlier this month, two airmen repair the boom signal coil wiring on a KC-135.
Caption byJon Skillings / Photo by U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nancy Hooks
And back to the future, the KC-46A (in an artist's rendering). On its UnitedStatesTanker.com site, Boeing proclaims: "The Boeing NewGen Tanker is ready for any mission. Anywhere, anytime."