Can Five Air Forces All Be Wrong?

Jed Babbin announced recently that he is opposing the USAF’s decision to buy the KC-45A air refueling tanker from Northrop Grumman and its European partner, EADS. He bases this on two main points: "First, the warfighters need a tanker that isn’t so big and heavy that is unable to deploy on many of the world’s airfields; and second, the Air Force is taking an unreasonably high risk on the NG-EADS aircraft." Jed who is a respected friend and colleague has been gracious in allowing me to respond in HUMAN EVENTS with an opposing opinion. HUMAN EVENTS is truly fair and balanced.

These points are very similar to those made by the Boeing Corporation, which lost the tanker competition. And I would suggest that readers consider who to believe-the men and women of the US Air Force, who analyzed both aircraft in excruciating detail and will fly the new tanker in harm’s way for the next 50 years, or the Boeing Corporation, whose job is sell KC-767s. As a retired Air Force officer with combat experience, I side with the people who need to put their lives, not just their wallets, on the line. In fact, in the last five tanker competitions (Australia, UK, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and now the US), the KC-45 beat out the KC-767. Can all five air forces be wrong and Boeing be right? By the way Boeing did not protest any of the previous loses which begs the question, Why Now?

In terms of airfield access, Jed estimates that the KC-45 "will be unable to operate out of 20% of the airfields that could accommodate the right-sized Boeing tanker." Actually, out of the 1700 or so airfields in the Air Mobility Command data base (measuring 7,000 feet or longer in length), both the KC-767 and KC-45 can operate from about 75% of them.
The KC-45, which has better takeoff performance and carries 20% more fuel, can launch from these airfields with a larger average fuel load.

But debates over airfield numbers and "bare base operations" are of little relevance to Air Force tanker concepts of operations. The tanker mission is to deliver fuel to receivers and suitable bases must have large stocks of fuel. Over the past two decades, Air Mobility Command has used about 70 airfields worldwide that meet its tanker basing requirements. Both the KC-767 and KC-45 can operate from all these airfields, but the KC-45 can launch with 20% more fuel. Launching with more fuel means it can fly farther (thus increasing base availability), stay on station longer, and refuel more receivers per sortie.  That is what a tanker does. It is critical to mission success. That’s why the Air Force and four other air forces chose the KC-45.

Boeing believes that critical assumptions were changed "mid-stream" to favor the larger KC-45. Based on my discussions with the Air Force, this is not true. No assumptions were changed after the final RFP was released. The Air Force released a series of draft assumptions before the final Request for Proposal and solicited input. For the final RFP, the Air Force elected to use realistic warfighting assumptions for parking and fuel loads (since these would be used in combat). To my mind, using combat planning factors to evaluate combat performance seems quite reasonable.

Both the KC-767 and KC-45 are multi-mission, medium-sized aircraft that can execute both aerial refueling and airlift missions. For the primary refueling mission, the Air Force concluded that the KC-45, offering better takeoff performance, greater offload, better fuel efficiency, and longer range, was superior to the KC-767. And when needed as an airlifter, the KC-45 offered significantly greater capacity. In December 2007, General Nortie Schwartz, the TRANSCOM commander, stated that he planned to use the KC-X in both refueling and airlift roles, noting that the new tanker’s flexibility would make it "the game changer over time."

In terms of risk, Boeing management bears the responsibility for their poor score.  The aircraft Boeing proposed to the Air Force-the KC-767AT — is not the same jet it sold to Japan and Italy, which remain two and five years behind schedule respectively.  The foreign KC-767s carry only 160K lbs of fuel, which is 20% less than the current KC-135.
The proposed KC-767AT combines the wing, fuselage, and landing gear from different KC-767 models and has never been built, flown, tested, or certified. It uses a new engine never used on a B767 before. Boeing proposed integrating a digital cockpit with the old hydraulic flight control system, which historically has led to problems. Not to mention that they had not started boom development and continue to have problems with their drogue pods. The AF concluded that Boeing’s proposed development plan posed greater risks in contrast to Boeing’s assessment that their offering reflected "inherent manufacturing genius."

In contrast, Northrop had already built and tested the first Air Force tanker on its own nickel. That aircraft stands ready for final modification. Northrop’s boom has been tested and passed fuel. The KC-45 Final Assembly Line (FAL) will be located in Mobile, Alabama. The KC-45 team has a core competency in designing, building, and operating FALs-and has conducted 12 successful FAL stand-ups to date. The Mobile FAL stand-up schedule is based on lead times experienced on these previous FALs and includes additional schedule margin. The warfighter will not be affected should any delays occur due to the availability of a duplicate aircraft production line. Northrop’s plan was viewed by the Air Force-correctly in my opinion — as less risky in terms of delivering warfighting capability on schedule.

Finally, Northrop came in cheaper than the Boeing design. Maybe the company was hungrier for the business and was willing to take a lower profit than Boeing. Basically, Northrop offered a more capable, lower cost system at lower risk than Boeing. That’s why they won.

That’s just not my view — that’s the view of men and women from five different air forces who decide what type of aircraft they want to take into combat. I’ll defer to the warfighter’s judgment.

[Editor’s Note: Lt. Gen. Thomas G. McInerny, (USAF, Ret.) is a consultant to the Northrop Grumman Corporation on the KC-45 tanker program.]