Alabama and Georgia senators have called on the secretary of defense to hold a competition that could lead to Air Force tankers being built in Alabama – though a major defense-industry publication has described the competition as “increasingly unlikely.”
The stakes for Mobile are high. If the Air Force holds a competition to see who will build 150 or so tankers, under a program named KC-Y, and if a Lockheed Martin/Airbus partnership wins it, then Airbus will erect a new assembly line at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex. Jeff Knittel, CEO and Chairman of Airbus Americas, said in January that the new assembly line would represent an investment of hundreds of millions of dollars and bring hundreds of jobs.
To sell tankers to the U.S., Airbus would build a version of its civilian A-330 in Mobile and Lockheed Martin would fit them out as tankers in Georgia. The new tanker would be known as the LMXT.
In theory, the competition for the KC-Y program is a rematch, after a bitter Airbus-Boeing battle a decade ago for the KC-X program. Boeing ultimately won that round, but since then its winning jet, the KC-46, has been plagued by problems that have limited its service and added billions of dollars to Boeing’s costs.
While the teething problems have been substantial and costly, the KC-46 has finally reached a point where it can fly most of the missions it was supposed to be able to do. In the spring, defense officials began signaling that maybe what they want for the next round is more of the same.
“I love competition. I’m all for it. It’s the best tool have to reduce costs. But we actually have to have a demand for the other aircraft that’s being offered,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing in late March, according to Breaking Defense.
“As we look for requirements, look further out, the requirements start to look like a modified KC-46 more than they do a completely new design,” Kendall said, according to Aviation Week.
“And I’m trying to be as transparent and honest about this as I can be. It is not as certain as it was a year ago, let’s say, that we’re going to do a competition,” Kendall said, according to Breaking Defense. “And I don’t want people to have a mis-impression about that. [But] we have not made a final decision yet.”
Knittel said in May that he felt the outlook was still good and that the venture with Lockheed Martin was “moving forward.” “A campaign like this has ups and downs, and different views,” he said. “We fundamentally believe we have the right airplane for our warfighters going forward.”
The idea of doing away with the competition immediately made political waves. According to defensenews.com, U.S. Rep. Jerry Carl attempted a countering move in June: Carl “introduced an amendment during the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the Air Force to hold a competition for the KC-Y. That amendment was voted down.”
On Monday, Alabama’s two Republican senators, Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville, along with Democratic Georgia senator Raphael Warnock addressed a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III, urging him to conduct the competition.
“We agree with many senior Department of Defense officials, including Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, that competition is critical to ensuring the best quality and cost for defense acquisitions,” the senators said. “Competition is important to driving innovation and to ensuring both our nation’s servicemembers and taxpayers are best served by the defense procurement processes.
“We believe the KC-Y program is critical to modernizing our aging KC-135 tanker fleet and could provide options for addressing complex and growing threats facing our nation,” the letter continued. “… As Air Mobility Command defines requirements and you continue your deliberations for this program, we encourage the Department of Defense to proceed with a competition for the KC-Y program to ensure the best platform can be identified to address the important need.”
While the outcome remains undetermined, there’s a sense in some quarters that momentum has shifted away from the competition. In a report published on Aug. 29, defense industry news site Breaking Defense called the competition “increasingly unlikely.”
As evidence it cited signs the Air Force may move up its futuristic KC-Z tanker program.
“Development of the leap-ahead KC-Z tanker was originally slated to occur in the 2030s, but as a competition for a KC-Y tanker looks increasingly unlikely, the service is now planning on moving up KC-Z development, Paul Waugh, the Air Force’s program executive officer for mobility and training aircraft, told reporters last week,” according to Breaking Defense. “Instead of waiting until the next decade to start work on KC-Z, the Air Force now plans to start ‘pre-analysis of alternatives work’ next year, with a formal analysis of alternatives (AOA) to kick off in 2024, Waugh said.”
The scenario suggested is that if the Air Force drops the KC-Y competition in favor of simply buying more Boeing tankers over the next 5-10 years, that clears the way for the KC-Z program to move forward faster. Whereas this generation of tankers is based on civilian jetliners, the KC-Z would be a clean-sheet design built for stealth and other high-tech capabilities.
For the time being, the fate of the competition remains to be seen. The senators’ letter said they were looking forward to Austin’s response.
“Airbus appreciates the continued support of Senators Shelby, Tuberville, and Warnock in our pursuit to provide our U.S. forces with an aerial refueling tanker that is proven, tested, certified, and successfully supporting today’s warfighters,” said James Darcy, VP of communications for Airbus Americas. “The LMXT is needed today and we’re ready to build it here in Mobile.”