Air Force Begins 3rd Round of Tanker Buy

The Pentagon has re-opened the bidding on a new Air Force aerial refueler. And this time,  war planners got it right after two failed tries.

First, there was a tanker-lease program with Boeing Co. which became awash in scandal.

Then came a competition between Boeing and its mid-size 767, and Airbus and its larger A330. The A330 team of European Aeronautic Defense & Space, and Northrop Grumman won that contest. But a Boeing protest was upheld. The Pentagon cancelled the award, and last week issued a brand new request for proposal (RFP).

Analysts say it clearly favors Boeing’s airframe for the $35 billion prize, so much so that the Northrop team might bow out of a competition to replace the aging KC-135.

Boeing supporters say the Air Force did the right thing this time. It consulted more closely with the tanker community and then wrote a RFP that favors a medium-size aircraft more nimble in a war theater.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jay Barry, who has logged many hours in transport aircraft, talked with HUMAN EVENTS about why this RFP is new and improved. Barry works for a Washington consulting firm which has contracts with Boeing.

"First of all, I think it fits the Air Force’s ‘conops’ —  the concept of operations for the tanker force," Barry said. "There is a need for bigger tankers to support fighters and air bridges for cargo. But that’s only a small part of the overall tanker force … The majority of the tanker mission is in support of theater operations. That requires multiple orbits supplying fuel to multiple targets …. It’s unnecessary and inefficient to have a huge airplane with a lot of gas up there in orbit … the Boeing airplane, the 767, meets that need …. I’m very pleased with the way the requirements section of the RFP came out."

Barry said there are a "lot of reasons" the A330, or KC-45, is not right for Air Force conops.

"It’s size. It’s a really big airplane," he said. "That physical size creates problems on the ground. The A330 takes up almost twice the space of the KC-135. When you talk about tanker operations, the people who know tanker operations, including fighter guys that are aware of the need for fuel, will always tell you that the most important thing in tanker operations is booms in the sky. That gives them the most flexibility. With the bigger airplane, carrying somewhat more fuel, there would be less booms in the sky."

"Booms" are the appendages from the tanker that hooks up to the refueled plane.

"It carries about 25 percent more fuel than the 767," he said. "However, it burns 25 percent more fuel. So over the cost over a lifetime, the fuel cost of the bigger plane are staggering …. "The larger size would require the Air Force to build new hangars and increase the strength of pavement for runways and taxi ways.

The A330 is a computerized fly-by-wire aircraft. Barry contends the system will not let pilots execute full evasive maneuvers to dodge missiles.

"The computer system physically limits the angle of bank," said Barry, who flew the C-130 cargo plane in Vietnam and in Desert Storm.. "It would severely restrict a pilot in the combat environment."

How did the A330 win last time around?

Barry says the Air Force wanted a competition so it changed some requirements to allow Northrop Grumman to compete with a big plane.

Meanwhile, allies of Northrop-Airbus are furious.

Since the two planes competed previously, the Pentagon knew what each can do and what advantages one has over the other.

Airbus allies anonymously accuse the Pentagon of deliberating rewriting the requirements to guarantee a win for Boeing. With it, the Air Force wins the most political support in Congress and finally gets a new tanker.

An industry source who favors Airbus said virtually all the performance benchmarks that favor the KC-45 were changed from a mandatory requirement to non-mandatory. This means the KC-45’s big advantages, such as delivering more tons of gas in flight, is erased.

"Virtually all discriminators that worked to the advantage of the KC-45 were eliminated or place in non-mandatory," this source said.

To boot, virtually all the 767’s discriminators, or advantages, were made mandatory.

"That is why it is so offensive and insulting," the source said.

Rep. Todd Tiahrt, Kansas Republican, represents Wichita where Boeing would finish tanker assembly.

"I’m cautiously optimistic," he said of the new RFP. "The good parts of it is they have firmed up requirements so there is not so much waiving of requirements as they did in the past procurement."

But he worries about "illegal" subsidies for Airbus that he said cuts its cost while Boeing picks up the tab for research and development.

In that regard, the RFP has another plus for Boeing. Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn told reporters last week, "We are not looking at just acquisition costs when we look at cost.  We are looking at life-cycle costs. We’re looking at fuel costs.  We’re looking at changes in military construction costs."

Those are the very issues that retired Gen. Barry says favors Boeing.

"The RFP is to replace a medium size tanker," Tiahrt said. "You really don’t need a big vulnerable tanker. Tankers never take off fully full and never land fully empty. What they need is an optimum load and that’s provided by a medium size tanker. it’s more survivable, has better capability in dangerous situation. I think what the Air Force has done it has gone out and talked to the users. The users said we need a medium size tanker and that airframe just fits into that category better."

Though Boeing likes the RFP and the Airbus team does not, Lynn argued he is not playing favorites.

"We get buffeted from both sides," he said. " We are resisting that buffeting. We are going to play this straight down the middle."