Lockheed Martin and Airbus have signed an agreement to jointly explore opportunities to meet the growing demand for aerial refuelling for US defence customers. The companies will jointly seek to provide ‘aerial-refuelling services to address any identified capacity shortfall and to meet requirements for the next generation of tankers capable of operating in the challenging environments of the future battlespace,’ according to a new release today.
The companies are taking a cooperative approach with the A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (A330 MRTT) to examine critical near-term air-refuelling needs, such as a fee-for-service structure to ‘conceptualizing the tanker of the future’.
The news comes amid ongoing problems for Boeing’s KC-46A Pegasus, the first of which is yet to be delivered to the US Air Force. Boeing is developing the KC-46A under a $3.5-billion Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) contract that included the production of four developmental aircraft. Operated by a pilot, co-pilot and boom operator, the aircraft was chosen as the winner of the USAF’s protracted KC-X project in February 2011 after a controversial process that eventually eliminated the Airbus KC-30 (which was based on the A330 MRTT).
As part of the KC-X project the USAF plans to purchase 179 KC-46As and Boeing will deliver 70 aircraft by the end of 2020 with the remainder following by 2028. However, Boeing continues its work to resolve several deficiencies that have delayed delivery of the aircraft. Air Mobility Command had expected to accept the first Pegasus on October 27. The USAF and Boeing are both now saying the delivery will occur by the end of 2018. Boeing is currently under contract to produce 52 of the planned fleet of 179 Pegasus tankers.
Airbus Defence and Space Head of Military Aircraft Fernando Alonso said: ‘The A330 MRTT has been selected by a dozen nations around the world. It is extensively proven in live operations and has been repeatedly praised by major air forces. We are convinced that the combination of Airbus’ tanker expertise with Lockheed Martin’s extensive US presence, has the potential to provide highly effective solutions for current and future US military aerial-refuelling requirements.’
The move by Airbus and Lockheed Martin is clearly aimed at what was known as KC-Y, a follow-on to the 179 KC-X aircraft. USAF tanker recapitalization is a huge project that goes well beyond the initial 179 aircraft and the success of the A330 MRTT on the world stage is sure to focus attention on what the USAF will do next when it comes to tankers. It also taps into ‘Air Force We Need’ strategy that aims to build the USAF from the current 312 squadrons to 386 operational squadrons by 2030. One of the two biggest areas of expansion set out for the USAF is tankers, which sees an aspiration for an incredible 14 additional tanker squadrons.