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Potential for a New Military Refueling Aircraft

written by: Tim Plaehn•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 6/29/2011

The U.S. Air Force flies some half-century old tanker refueling planes. The military has a pressing need for new military refueling aircraft. What are the chances for an new Air Force tanker plane in the near future? Update: On February 24, the USAF awarded the new tanker contract to Boeing.

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    History of Tanker Aircraft

    The United States has been attempting to select a new military refueling aircraft since 2003. The U.S. Air Force tanker fleet consists of approximately 500 KC-135 Stratotankers and about 60 KC-10 Extender tankers. The KC-135s are derived from the Boeing 707 and the last new Stratotanker was delivered to the Air Force in 1965. These tankers have gone through numerous upgrades and engine changes, but the airframes are 40 to 50 years old. The KC-10s were McDonnel DC-10s built for tanker operations and delivered to the Air Force from 1979 to 1987.

    The process to purchase about 175 new tankers has been fraught with political maneuvering and complaints. The initial request for bids for new tankers went out in 2006 and Boeing and Northrup Grumman entered bids. The contract was awarded to Northrup Grumman in early 2008. Boeing protested the award and the U.S. General Accounting Office upheld the protest. The Air Force cancelled the bid and in September 2009 started on a new bid process. In March 2010 Northrup Grumman dropped out of the competition with the belief the request for proposal was slanted towards Boeing. In April 2010, Northrup Grumman's partner EADS, the manufacturer of Airbus aircraft, said it would enter a proposal in the tanker competition.

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    Current New Military Refueling Aircraft

    Although the U.S. military has been unable to yet select a new tanker aircraft, the two main contenders have been purchased by other nations' air forces. The KC-30 was the Northrup Grumman/EADS proposal and initial winner of the U.S. tanker competition. The KC-30 is a tanker/transport version of the Airbus A330-200. The aircraft is also known as the A330 MRTT, for Multi-Role Tanker Transport. The KC30 is currently in use or ordered as a military tanker aircraft for Britain's Royal Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, the Royal Saudi Air Force and the United Arab Emirates Air Force.

    Boeings entry into the tanker competition was the KC-767, a refueling tanker version of the Boeing 767-200ER. The Boeing 767 has been in production since 1982. The 767 is a narrow body aircraft and may have lost out to the wide body KC-30 in the initial competition due to a smaller load capacity. The KC-767 has been purchased as a military tanker aircraft by the Japanese Air Self Defense Force and the Italian Air Force.

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    The Future for Military Refueling Aircraft

    It is possible that the U.S. Air Force will again make an award for a new tanker contract in 2010. The players are stil the same, except EADS is entering the Airbus 330/KC-30 without partner North Grumman. Boeing is a again leading with the KC-767 with an upgraded flight deck and aerodynamics.

    The KC-30 is the larger aircraft with greater fuel and payload capability. The smaller KC-767 will be able to offload about the same amount of fuel as the KC-135. The Boeing tanker has lower operating costs, can operate from shorter runways and will take up less space on crowded military tarmacs.

    Update: In February 2011, the new U.S. Air Force tanker contract was awarded to Boeing.