‘Bridge Tanker’ Competition For USAF Looking Less Likely

Credit: USAF

The possibility of a “bridge tanker” competition to cover the gap between the end of the current KC-46 program and a future U.S. Air Force refueler is looking less likely as the service continues to refine its requirements for the future fleet.

The service in July 2021 kicked off the KC-Y program, with the goal of buying 140-160 tankers starting in 2029 after the last of the 179 Boeing tankers (KC-X) are delivered and before an Advanced Air Refueling (KC-Z) contract in the mid-2030s.

Lockheed Martin promptly announced its entrant into the program, a modified Airbus A330 A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport called the LMXT that the company says can provide more fuel at range than a KC-46. Boeing has said its KC-46 will meet the KC-Y need.

The Air Force, in its fiscal 2023 budget request released March 28, is continuing some research, development, test and evaluation funding for the KC-Y program—part of $198 million under an umbrella of KC-46 spending. 

Service Secretary Frank Kendall says the funding is staying consistent to continue determining the requirements for the KC-Y. But the more this requirements process continues, the less likely a new aircraft becomes because the existing Boeing tanker seems to be the right fit.

“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 says. “So we’re working our way through finalizing those requirements. Again, we’ll be doing due diligence market research analysis.”

This process will be completed “over the next several months,” Kendall says. 

“I want to be very transparent about this. I think that there’s still a possibility for competition out there. But as we’ve looked at our requirements, the likelihood of a competition has come down,” he says.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.