The Long Sordid Path To KC-46 (2011)


At first, no one thought the competition for a KC-135 replacement would be a sexy program to cover. Not compared to the work being done to field a ballistic missile defense system, mature unmanned aircraft or design the F-35 -– contemporary programs to the so-called KC-X. Building a refueler is hardly a high-technology affair.

But, what the U.S. Air Force’s KC-X lacked in technology appeal, it made up for with a good old fashioned Washington scandal, a transatlantic food fight and twists and turns that familiarized many onlookers with the Government Accountability Office’s bid protest process far more than they imagined –- or wanted.

In the course of finally selecting a Boeing 767-based design in 2011 (long thought to have been a shoo-in at the outset of analyses in 2000), KC-X spanned more than 10 years and eight Air Force secretaries or acting secretaries. It racked up multiple protests, two winners (only the second one stuck), two prison inmates and one very angry senator with a very long memory. (Sen. John McCain –- now chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee -- continues to ride the Air Force hard for its procurements including the Evolved Expandable Launch Vehicle system and F-35 due to the tanker fracas.)

What should have been a straightforward integration to modify a commercial jet with refueling and cargo systems evolved into the procurement scandal that has scarred –- and some fear defined -– a generation of Air Force procurement experts.

The Air Force’s 2002 plan to sole-source the lease of 767-based tankers from Boeing got the project off on the wrong path. Yes, you read that correctly. Former Air Force Secretary James Roche actually wanted to lease refuelers specific to the service’s requirements from Boeing in a deal that would have forced the service to pay a second fee to buy the jets at the end of the term. Sound like a used-car sham? It kind of was. Enter Sen. John McCain, who fingered the project as a sweetheart deal for Boeing and kicked off an inquiry.

He found that it was indeed a sweetheart deal, but not just about the tanker.

Subsequent investigations revealed that the deal was in-fact overpriced and offered bad terms for the government. Its primary backer in the Air Force, former senior procurement official Darleen Druyun, was found to have negotiated several deals biased toward Boeing –- including the Small-Diameter Bomb contract and the now defunct C-130 Avionics Modernization Program –- in exchange for a high-paying vice presidency spot at the company after she left public service. She also got her daughter on board.

But, in the end both she and Boeing’s former chief financial officer, Michael Sears, did time as a result of the malfeasance. Not exactly shining moments for Boeing or the Air Force. It was this affair that accounts for why at every Boeing facility today there are still highly conspicuous signs about ethics at every turn.
So, that tanked the lease.
Then there was KC-X: The Sequel. In this go, the Air Force managed to bungle the surprise source selection of an A330-based tanker proposed by Airbus Military -– then known as the EADS North America and its U.S. prime, Northrop Grumman. The choice of the larger tanker stunned Boeing. In order to win with its larger, more expensive aircraft, Airbus effectively convinced the service that it should overhaul not just what tankers it used but how to conduct the mission. The vast fuel and cargo capacity of the so-called KC-45 opened new doors to conducting long-haul missions and persistent refueling ops.

With Boeing’s loss, its European rival got a largely government-funded final assembly facility on U.S. soil, in Boeing’s own back yard.

Preparing that particular cover story will always be one of my fondest Aviation Week memories. We held sending the cover to the printers by a day (a VERY unusual step as we incur a financial penalty) and essentially dummied two covers –- one for a Northrop win and one for a Boeing win. As soon as we got the word, we pushed the throttle on cranking out the cover and the story. What was most fun, though, was the mixture of anxiety and focus in the news room that night. It just so happened my European commercial aviation colleague and our former Pentagon editor, Robert Wall, was in Washington that night. Thankfully, his expertise on Airbus and our collective work on defense produced a terrific story. We all shared the shock of the decision and, I think, a couple of bottles of wine after that night’s hard work as I recall.

But, the story was not over.

Boeing protested, poked holes in the selection in the media and eventually won. The Air Force was back to square one with then a twice tattered reputation for botched oversight of the program. The service kicked off a new, revised procurement.

In 2011, the Air Force got it right -- at least in terms of not executing a ham-handed source selection. Boeing’s redesigned 767-based tanker won after the company undercut Airbus’ bid by a whopping 10%, perhaps a sign of the desperation on the part of the company to retain this legacy line of work.  

Boeing bought into the project and has thus far used $425 million of its own funds before taxes to keep it vectored toward delivering 18 KC-46s by August 2017. The price of victory could grow. Last fall, Pentagon procurement chief Frank Kendall opened the door to yet another charge, as risk remains to meet the contract obligations.

Strategically, time will tell if the decade of fighting, legal bills and financial buy in was worth the price for Boeing. Despite its loss, Airbus has established a stateside final assembly facility for commercial airliners in Mobile. So, Boeing’s ultimate goal of keeping the company’s commercial manufacturing work off on foreign shores failed.

All that said, the next round will come. The Air Force’s refueler plan includes a KC-Y and KC-Z in the coming years.

Read the February 28, 2011 edition story

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Discuss this Blog Entry 24

on Feb 2, 2015

The KC-46 will eventually kill people. Lose an engine on a KC46 and any refueling mission is ENDED. Too bad for the pilots out there that needed refueling to stay aloft. The KC-135 and KC-10 will always be superior to the KC-46. Upgrade the KC-135 and KC-10 as needed

on Feb 2, 2015

The -135 is done, stick a fork in it.

on Feb 2, 2015

The KC-135 is old. When airframes get that old they are just done. Eventually they have to be retired for structural integrity reasons. The last thing you want is to have to ground the entire fleet of tankers because of structural concerns. No doubt the -135 has proven itself over the years but there comes a time when you have to let go and bring in the replacement.

So look at your options out there with 4 engines....747, A380...yeah....probably not the best candidates for tankers. And if you have to replace the KC-135 with something.....and you make the requirement that it has to have 3-4 engines...but there are no viable aircraft in production....guess have to fund the development of a new aircraft. The pentagon isn't up for that in this environment. It's not happening. So 2 engines will have to do.

on Feb 2, 2015

"So look at your options out there with 4 engines...".
Forgetting the C17, a proven aircraft and the military already has logistics in place for it.

on Feb 3, 2015

Do you think a C-17 could work as a tanker? I ruled it out from the get-go. The wake behind that big body would likely cause some problems.

on Feb 2, 2015

I'd say that both the KC-135 and KC-10 airframes are too old to be realistically considered for an upgrade.

Also, the argument for/against twins ended long ago in the commercial sector, and I can't see the military voting differently.

Meantime, the Airbus A330 MRT seems to have entered service without too many hiccups.

on Feb 2, 2015

KC-135 entered service in 1957. The KC-10 entered in 1980. Understanding that 50+ year old 135 design has seen many retrofits as has the now 30 year old design has been upgraded as well, I think it's probably a good idea to get a new tanked on-line soon (i.e. the KC-46). I'm guessing you also want to extend the life of the B-52 as well (65+ years old design). Sure all of these planes performed well (or else they wouldn't have been kept around for so long), but airframes, technology, and part availability make it a better choice to build new vs upgrade forever and ever....

on Feb 2, 2015

Modern engines are so reliable a twin engined tanker is not its weakest link, its radar signature is. With the short legs of modern strike aircraft and longer legs of adversary AA missiles the detectability of that 'gas station in the sky' limits forward power projection. It doesn't matter how 'stealthy' the F-35 is [or isn't] if it can't get enough fuel to reach its target.

on Feb 2, 2015

"With Boeing’s loss, its European rival got a largely government-funded final assembly facility on U.S. soil, in Boeing’s own back yard."

Where's the objectivity from Aviation Week these days? In 2013, Boeing was given the biggest tax break in US history - the second time in a decade that Washington had offered a massive sweetener to keep Boeing making planes in Washington. In 2003, Boeing was given a $3.244 billion deal to entice Boeing to build its 787 “Dreamliner” at its Everett plant (found to be illegal under WTO rules). In 2013 Boeing received a $8.7 billion sweetener to keep the 777X at Everett. Boeing also receives the majority of the US Government's export support....and, strangely for one of the world's biggest manufacturing companies, doesn't appear to pay much at all in the way of taxes.

on Feb 2, 2015

On the other hand....anyone with even a smidgen of aerospace experience could look at the Airbus/NG plan to stand up a fully functioning USA factory in (I think it was) 18 months as science fiction. Not going to happen. They deserved to lose the competition for lying so blatently.

on Feb 4, 2015

That doesn't even make sense what you said considering Boeing did the same exact thing in Charleston SC building the 787 Plant in about18 months. So don't underestimate the construction workers by clouding your judgment with unnecessary emotions.

on Feb 2, 2015

The main cause around the mess around the replacement of the KC-135 is John McCain. He should have retired from Capitol Hill a long time ago.

on Feb 2, 2015

You're complaining that McCain brought to light the corruption in the procurement system? Seriously?

on Feb 3, 2015

I'm glad he shined the spotlight on the corruption.

However....that was 2001. If they would have gone ahead with the plan to lease those tankers then it would have saved a boatload of money and time. Our warfighters would be flying it right now. Compare the cost of the lease deal to the cost of screwing around for a decade and now going through the development.

on Feb 4, 2015

The lease of 100 planes was the dumbest idea and biggest waste of our tax money had they gone with that. The lease at the time:
"Buying one KC-767 outright costs $150 million. The contract called for 100 aircraft being purchased or leased at an aggregate price of $37b, or $370m per plane. Therefore, the contract, if it had been executed, would have forced the DOD to pay Boeing much more money for each plane than it would have had to if the aircraft were purchased individually."

That in no way saves money.

on Feb 2, 2015

It's illegal to 'buy in' to anything because if the program tanks the company is weakened and subject to takeover while if it succeeds only partially and more investment is required, the monetary leveraging the company already holds with the banks is going to count against it in securing further loans, creating a potential Deficiency Condition that jeopardized contract completion.

We should have learned this with the A-12 and the DFARs it broke.

That said, there is nothing more hideous than a waste of money amounting to hundreds of millions to essentially state that "The U.S. tolerates no corporate corruption!" only to repeat that corruption when the superior tanker (offload, mixed load, range and cruise profile) _loses_ because Boeing throws a tantrum and threatens to hold their breath until they pass out.

The essence of the tragedy however is not limited to politics as usual pretending to be anything but corruption as always.

Rather it is the strategic mindset of a nation which is still fighting WWII.

We face threats with DF-21D _ballistic anti shipping missiles_ that can reach out at least 900nm offshore. They can be targeted by ROTHR type OTHB radars with a range of 2,500nm. We are _designing stealth aircraft_ to face that threat as a mixed IADS/ICD conditioned A2AD denial of /approach/ to contested shorelines.

Those stealth jets are designed to avoid fuel sucking combat with other aircraft and SAMs increasingly will be equipped with multiple small munitions (SDB and CUDA) to handle those enemies that they cannot route around.

And yet...

They are still manned.

Which is the principle driver in both the need for heavy fixed wing tanking (sitting on open ramps at Andersen Field, vulnerable to DF-21C landattack conventional missiles).

Why is this stupid?

1. Because it means that, even for a pure strike mission, in and out, on known threats, we are looking at 12-15 hours in the air. Just like we we suffered in Afghanistan during OEF. This will seriously limit (beyond 'The Carrier Myth') the ability to generate sorties with only 40 jets on deck out of a potential 85+ that used to be in the Airwings.

2. Pilots will come back to the carrier punch drunk and unable to undertake another marathon mission, even if they Delta Path + JPALS survive landing from the first one. All this with an average of 20 minutes over the target area, 40 if there are FORWARD tankers (as flew out of Kyrgyzstan) to support them.

Either we need to shift to super and even hypersonic weapons for deep strike, retiring the majority of the carrier air wing to provide space for much larger airframes in much smaller inventory numbers.

Or we need to acknowledge the advantage inherent to a baseline requirement to fly 1,100nm and hold on station for 2.5 hours.

Something that a properly designed robotic airframe without 10,000lbs of cockpit on the front end and 10,000lbs of burner and big tail (supersonic 9G capability) on the other destroying cruise efficiencies with wetted drag and lift @ drag.

High performance is meaningless if you are fuel starved on the wrong side of a 1,000nm radius and can't make it back even if you survive the fight. Conversely, few airframe geometries are superior starting points for Hyper Stealth (-70dbsm = .00001sqm) as a flying wing with it's narrow bow tie signature values.

How can we possibly judge how much airpower we need forward if _we don't know_ how long each sortie is going to stay, simply as a function of the manned/unmanned component differentials in arriving on-station with selective butt ache from sitting on an ejection seat in the 4-5hrs it took to get there and selective fuel burn thanks to disparate mission performance, by design?

Robots don't get tired. They go through engine oil and other consumables but properly designed, they can do things like 40-50 hour SENSCAPs, no problem.

And when we start to admit that as a function of "You know, maybe the F-35 is not such a great idea after all...", we will be able to see how much of a push up our tankers have to give to tacair to get to the target area vs. how much -sustain- (safely stood off, 700nm downrange but still 300nm offshore) they can trade for.

A jet which is sipping gas at the rate of 10-12,000lbs every 8hrs equates to a tanker that can stay on station a lot longer feeding it and ten others like it, with a relief crew and facilities already onboard and no difficulty making a 1,500nm transit back to Guam or Okinawa.

Isn't that a lot closer to what we want in a 'Near Peer' (J-20 + HQ-9) conditioned threat environment over blue water?

on Feb 3, 2015

That is why the USMC are getting the F-35B's to replace the limited capability and durability AV-8's. One can assume that the J-STARS could handle a bunch of unmanned attack aircrafts some with pretty good range and payload before troops om the ground finally targets their payloads. The US normally secures or build airfields pretty close to where the action is and airlifts with C-130's then C-17's everything including Coca-Cola, airconditioning equipment, gyms and hot tubes before building pipelines across some countries for all the fuel it needs.

on Feb 2, 2015

Lots of A-340s available. Four-engined, large capacity for cargo and fuel. More than suitable for converting to tankers.
And as a stop-gap there is also a large number of MD-11s to supplant the KC-10 fleet.
The KC-135 is becoming a relic.

on Feb 3, 2015

377 A340's built. Now out of production. How many available that have enough structural airframe life left to continue on as a tanker after being used as airliners? No idea. That's why the USAF would rather buy new than used and have to pay for the mods plus restoration of the structure.

Reminder....neither company proposed a 3 or 4 engine aircraft.

on Feb 4, 2015

Also to piggyback on what "djanes" said...
The USAF was offered MD-11's new off the assembly line by McDonnell Douglass as KC-10B, but they turned it down and demanded more DC-10 based planes, which they were not building anymore. So I don't think the USAF would go for it now, considering most of the MD-llF operators are switching to 777F's

Boeing Should just start a KC-777-2ER Prototype so they already have the data and ready for the KC-Y request, since Airbus will have the A330-MMRT and A350 to offer by then.

on Feb 2, 2015

Why not a 787-based tanker?

on Feb 4, 2015

I can't find the article anymore, but basically Boeing said "the 787 was not the right plane for the KC-X project..." at the time when asked the same thing by others.

Also at the time they were nearing the 1000 Mark on the 767 line and had no more orders as everyone was waiting on the 787, so they were going to have to close the 767 Production Line down and they didn't want too, that's why they lobbed hard to sell the 767 to Militaries so they could keep racking in revenue on both the 767 and the 787 Lines together.

Next step is convince the USAF to Replace the RC-135's and E-3's with the 767, then convince the NAVY to replace the E-6 with it too.

on Feb 3, 2015

787 based would be better i guess

on May 7, 2015

For whom I may ask?

The first 3 787s were delivered in 2011 and had afterwards several bad hick ups.

The KC-787 would not have been the best tanker for Boeing because Boeing thought the airlines would pay more. In 2010 the 787 had a backlog of about 850 aircraft.

The 767 was running out of orders and the line was kept open by cheap freighters for FedEx. As you can see today the A330NEO is very close to the 787 but not according to price.

The final RFP was suited for the smallest possible aircraft. The A330 (without NEO) would have won due to a better fuel burn rate against the 787. The Operational Empty Weight of an A330 is about 20 t lighter than a 787. The fuel burn rate was calculated with about 7 touch & go maneuvers for every flight. It is pure physics that you need more power/fuel to lift a 15 % heavier aircraft.

Therefore I guess the final RFP for a 787 would have been different with more flight profiles expected for future missions but the difference on the price tag is huge.

Btw. the A330 could have also replaced the KC-10 because the A330 can provide more fuel on long ranges or long loiter times than a thirsty KC-10. So one aircraft could have done all missions. Wasn't that the reason for the F-35?

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