SINGAPORE — ’s U.S. Air Force tanker win will, in the immediate term, adversely affect its efforts to sell the tanker overseas, leaving the international market wide open for .
Having the U.S. Air Force as a major customer is usually a positive, but in this instance the requirement to design, develop and deliver 18 KC-46A tankers by 2017 means Boeing’s production line in Everett, Wash., will be so busy that there will be no production slots in the near term for overseas customers.
The U.S. Air Force also plans to have follow-on orders until it reaches a total of 179 KC-46As. These will replace its Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers, which first joined the service in the late 1950s.
Boeing declines to disclose an official time frame when the aircraft-maker will have KC-46A delivery slots available for international customers. “Boeing is working with our customers to determine a potential date to deliver a KC-46 tanker for international export in the foreseeable future,” says a Boeing spokesman. However, another Boeing official familiar with the program says the company can deliver to international customers from 2018 onward.
That may be too late for some. Laurent Donnet, the European Defense Agency’s (EDA) project officer for deployability, says the EDA issued a request for information (RFI) to industry in May to present solutions for how European Union member states can alleviate a severe shortfall in refueling tanker capability. Industry has until sometime in August to respond to the RFI, after which the agency will analyze the submissions and formulate an action plan, including pricing and scheduling, that will be presented to member states in November for approval, he says. The aim is to start acquiring the necessary refueling capability in 2012, adds Donnet, who was speaking to delegates at the Military Airlift Asia Pacific conference in Singapore earlier this month.
Donnet says Europe’s previous air-to-air refueling (AAR) initiatives in 2003 and 2005 failed due to a shortage of money and because the initiatives only examined new aircraft. This RFI is different because it seeks a mix of solutions.
Besides acquisition of more refueling tankers, the other possible solutions in the mix may include, for example, better use of existing aerial tankers in Europe’s fleet, buying refueling kits for military transport aircraft and leasing commercial aircraft like the Omega Tanker, Donnet says. “European countries need to cooperate, because they don’t have the money to do it alone,” he says.
The issue is becoming urgent. “Europe’s tanker fleets are getting older and many need to be replaced,” Donnet says. “There is a shortfall, no doubt about it. Existing tankers aren’t even enough to support training.”
Europe has been relying heavily on the U.S. Air Force for AAR, Donnet says, adding the U.S. has made it clear that Europe needs to be more independent, particularly when it comes to AAR. “About 80% of the tanking in Libya is done by the U.S. This is not because the U.S. wants it this way, but because Europe doesn’t have the capability.”
In Asia, Singapore is actively working toward finding replacements for its four KC-135Rs. Industry executives say Singapore’s ministry of defense has been speaking to aircraft manufacturers about this. One industry executive says a tender is expected to be issued next year, with a decision likely in early 2013.
An important requirement is that the new tankers will assist the Singapore air force’sto fly between Singapore and its overseas detachment at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, industry executives say. Singapore’s air force also has an overseas detachment of at Luke AFB, Ariz.
Close ties between the Singapore and U.S. air forces would ordinarily mean Boeing would be the frontrunner to win the Singapore contract, but this time around theMilitary is the favorite, according to industry executives outside of Airbus Military.
Besides Airbus Military, another possible contender is(IAI). Singapore and Israel have close defense ties and IAI’s Bedek Aviation has a program that converts to tankers.
There is also a competition in India for six tankers, with the A330MRTT and theIl-78 tanker shortlisted, as Boeing has already decided to rule itself out of that competition.