October 1, 2010  

Third time’s the charm?

Ever-twisting tale of tanker replacement continues to surprise

All the Air Force wants is an airplane to replace the Boeing KC-135 aerial tanker, the last one of which was built in 1966. It seems like a simple desire, but fulfilling that wish has been anything but.

First it was the 2002-2004 lease deal that went bad; next, Boeing was widely considered the favorite to win the 2007-2008 competition with its KC-767. The Air Force shocked the defense community, Boeing and supporters on both sides, however, by choosing the Northrop Grumman KC-30. Boeing protested, and the Government Accountability Office overturned the award on procedural grounds.

Instead of simply correcting the errors found by GAO, the Pentagon rewrote the entire request for proposals and began a third competition from scratch. Then when Northrop Grumman pulled out of the current procurement in February, nobody, including its partner EADS, initially thought EADS would try to go it alone.



This round, the third, essentially is a rerun of 2008’s round two but with Boeing and EADS dueling it out. The major difference is that whereas 2008 became a “best value” selection, this time it is a “best price” shootout.

Some tactics are the same. Boeing is touting U.S. jobs, Buy America and illegal subsidies provided Airbus by European governments as key elements. EADS is touting U.S. jobs (it will provide more jobs here than Boeing, EADS asserts), a “real” tanker to Boeing’s conceptual offering, more capability than the KC-767 and, in essence, subsidies don’t matter — we’ve repaid them in full.

Some tactics are different. EADS has taken a far more aggressive stance in fending off Boeing than did Northrop, and it is very close to delivering operational tankers to launch customers of the version that is close to the proposal submitted to the Air Force.

In 2008 Boeing offered a lot of detail about the KC-767 Advanced Tanker. Boeing freely promoted that the AT combined the 767-200 fuselage, the 767-300ERF wings, flaps and landing gear, the cockpit displays from the 767-400 and a variety of other mixes-and-matches. Officials proudly touted the AT as much improved over the troubled KC-767 International program (four airplanes each for Japan and Italy) and benefiting from the “lessons learned” from each. The KC-767Js were finally all delivered to Japan from 2008 through 2009, but the Italian tankers still haven’t been delivered; the first is expected in January, although Boeing spokesman Bill Barksdale said the company is ready to tender the first for acceptance now.


Supporters of the KC-30 (as it was then known) cleverly dubbed the AT the “Frankentanker,” complete with a Frankenstein-style cartoon illustrating all the mix-and-matches from the various airplane models that made up the Advanced Tanker. The moniker was devilishly effective, even if unfair in its application. Boeing has been mixing-and-matching components on its airliners for decades, including most recently on the 737-derived P-8A Poseidon, which used the 737-800 body, the 737-900ER wing, and raked wingtips (777-style) instead of standard-issue flat tips or winglets. Nonetheless, the derisive moniker stuck, much to Boeing’s annoyance.

The Northrop/EADS KC-30, then as now, is based on the Airbus A330-200 and Boeing and its supporters have effectively tagged this as a foreign-made aircraft (and worse yet, a French-made airplane) despite plans to assemble it in Mobile, Ala. As much as EADS and Northrop tried to characterize this as an American-made airplane, with about 60 percent by value sourced here, their campaign didn’t get much traction.

In round three, Boeing has been quite circumspect about the technical specifications of its KC-767NG.

Although EADS was quick, and probably accurate, to dub the KC-767 NewGen as the Son of Frankentanker, the caricature hasn’t gained traction this time — and Boeing doesn’t plan to help it along by confirming the widely held conclusions of the mix-and-match of components.


Officially, there is another reason Boeing is mum, and that’s something called Final Proposal Revision, or FPR (pronounced “fipper”). Barksdale said this is a point in the procurement evaluation process by which offerors may change some critical specifications based upon Air Force questions (via “evaluation notices,” or “ENs”) to meet requirements or correct perceived deficiencies. While Barksdale says that the fuselage, for example, would not be changed in response to FPR (going from, for example, the -200 to the -300 or -400 fuselage), neither does the company want to reveal information about its offer that would be competitively sensitive and enable EADS to make FPR changes in response to Boeing specs to better compete with the NG.

“I would not say we would switch out big things for small things, but rather we will clarify proposals. ENs are a part of this process that allow this discussion to happen formally,” Barksdale said.

Another reason Boeing’s staying quiet: “We consider this one of the most competitive environments in acquisition history. We want to protect the details of our bid. ”

For its part, EADS has been running a campaign that it has a real tanker and Boeing only has a “cartoon.” EADS touts its in-production tankers for Australia, the U.K. and others; the in-flight testing, the number of fuel transfers and pending delivery to the launch customer, the Royal Australian Air Force, of the first two in October and November.

EADS doesn’t tout that the deliveries will be nearly three years late. But it does say that the RAAF tanker is 80 percent to 90 percent common with Air Force requirements and that an in-production tanker gives EADS a better understanding of development risks and costs than Boeing has with its conceptual KC-767 NewGen.

But EADS continues to ignore Boeing’s campaign that the KC-767 NG will have a huge advantage in the so-called life-cycle costs, an important evaluation criterion that takes into account fuel burn, maintenance and other factors over the anticipated life of the airplane. The smaller 767 uses 24 percent less fuel than the A330-200, according to civilian data of U.S. airlines filed with the government.


The entire tanker recapitalization saga has taken one twist after another, but one of the most bizarre is the bid by obscure supplier US Aerospace of Santa Fe Springs, Calif. US Aerospace’s AN-112KC is based on — nothing. The base, core airplane is a complete mystery. A 16-page slide show lists a 165 ton maximum takeoff weight, the possibility of four Western engine types and a maximum range of 2,500 nautical miles.

The civilian A330-200 on which the KC-45 is based has a maximum takeoff weight of 233 tons; the 767-200ER on which the KC-767 is nominally based has an MTOW of 197.5 tons.

The idea of putting 787, 777 or A380 engines on the 165-ton An-112KC seems, at best, technically challenging.

More bizarrely, US Aerospace used a Northrop Grumman-generated photo depiction of the KC-45 refueling a B-2 bomber on its Web page announcing the AN-112KC bid; and a photo of an Antonov AN-70 involved in a ground accident, with a shattered propeller, in its slide show presentation touting Antonov’s historical capabilities.

US Aerospace missed the July 9, 2 p.m. deadline by five minutes to submit its bid and was immediately disqualified by the Air Force. The company filed a protest with GAO on Aug. 2 claiming the Air Force conspired to delay entry onto Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, causing the delay. US Aerospace representatives appeared at the main gate only 30 minutes before the deadline. Boeing submitted its bid five hours earlier and EADS the day before, sending a copy by plane and another by truck as a failsafe.

A Pentagon spokesman wryly noted that the KC-X competition was not a high school homework assignment and that Boeing and EADS went to great pains to make sure their bids arrived on time.

Like the “Perils of Pauline,” what can possibly happen next in this tanker tale? If GAO upholds the protest, will the Air Force honor it, which would extend the review period?

One thing is for sure: US Aerospace and Antonov certainly don’t have the clout in Congress enjoyed by EADS and Boeing. You won’t see the likes of Patty Murray, Norm Dicks, Richard Shelby or Jo Bonner standing up for this odd combination.

Casey Stengel, the legendary New York Yankees ballplayer and first manager of the New York Mets, perhaps said it best. Lamenting the first year of the expansion-term Mets, racking up the worst losing season up to then in baseball, Stengel said, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” AFJ

SCOTT HAMILTON is an aerospace consultant with Leeham Co. www.leeham.net.