Lockheed Martin no longer intends to pursue a contract to replace a portion of the U.S. Air Force’s aging KC-135 aerial refueling tanker fleet. The company had previously been pitching an Americanized version of Airbus’ popular A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport to meet this requirement. It says it will now refocus its efforts on other opportunities, including a design to meet the Air Force’s demands for an advanced next-generation tanker.
The Maryland-headquartered defense giant announced it was pulling itself out of the running for what the Air Force currently refers to as the KC-135 Recapitalization program in a brief statement earlier today. Airbus will continue offering a tanker based on the A330 MRTT to service. Aviation Week.
Lockheed Martin’s LMXT proposal derived from the A330 MRTT was first presented in September of 2021. This would have involved converting Airbus A330s into an Air Force-specific MRTT configuration at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Marietta, Georgia.
“We are transitioning Lockheed Martin’s LMXT team and resources to new opportunities and priority programs within Lockheed Martin, including development of aerial refueling solutions in support of the U.S. Air Force’s Next-Generation Air-Refueling System (NGAS) initiative,” the statement today says. “We remain committed to the accelerated delivery of advanced capabilities that strengthen the U.S. Air Force’s aerial refueling missions.”
Many signs had been pointing to this decision.
Lockheed Martin originally pitched the LMXT for a program referred to at the time as the Bridge Tanker. Under this program, the Air Force was expecting to buy 140 to 160 additional tanks, either of an existing production-ready design, or a derivative. This would “bridge the gap” between the end of the service’s existing planned orders for Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tankers and an advanced future design.
The Air Force indicated that they might not even hold a competition to select the Bridge Tanker Program, but instead, would purchase additional KC-46As via one or multiple sole-source agreements with Boeing. Several members had indicated they intended to challenge this decision.
In early this year the Air Force announced a reduction in planned purchases for what it now calls the KC-135 Recapitalization to 75 aircraft. The move was seen as effectively canceling plans for a competitive. The service now focuses more on what it calls the Next-Generation Air-Refueling System, as well as family systems that are planned but whose requirements are still evolving.
The Air Force had 365 KC-135s, a fleet that is slowly being divested, and 82 KC-46s, as of March, according to inventory data accompanying the service’s proposed budget for the 2024 Fiscal Year. According to existing contracts, Air Force expects to purchase 179 Pegasus Tankers. The Air Force is also retiring its entire fleet KC-10s. It only bought 60 KC-10s initially. The service’s KC-46 purchases and the 75 new aircraft that will be purchased under the KC-135 recapitalization program mean it won’t be able replace older tankers one-for-one.
A major factor in all of this is the Air Force’s view that current-generation tankers like the KC-46A and the LMXT will simply be too vulnerable to operate effectively in forward areas of the battlespace in a future high-end conflict, especially one against China. This is the reality The War Zone Since years, has called attention to this.
Air Force now hopes to start fielding at the very least one component of NGAS family systems by 2040 if possible.
Lockheed Martin has shown publicly for many years a design idea for a tanker of the next generation that would be at least somewhat discrete, using a blended wing-body platform. In addition to high fuel efficiency, blended wing body designs are known for their high aerodynamic performance. All of these factors can result in a design with a greater payload and range than an aircraft of similar size, but more traditional configuration. Air Force is also interested in these capabilities in a high-end Pacific war, which will likely take place over a wide area that’s covered with water, and where there are no landing areas or fueling stations.
In fact, in August, the Air Force hired aviation startup JetZero, in cooperation with Northrop Grumman’s Scaled Composites, as part of a separate project, to build a full-size blended wing body demonstrator aircraft that could inform future tanker and airlifted designs. This project is described in more detail here.
Boeing unveiled in January a concept for a blended wing-body design, initially aimed at cargo carriers, but which could be used as tankers.
Overall, the competition to build a brand new advanced tanker within NGAS is already shaping up to become fierce. This program has been described as a system-of-systems and may include other capabilities. These could be uncrewed aerial tanking platforms, or podded aerial tanking booms, which can transform existing aircraft into tanks as needed.
If nothing else, Lockheed Martin’s decision to withdraw from the KC-135 Recapitalization competition marks the fourth time a pitch to the Air Force involving a version of the A330 MRTT has failed. Airbus has lost three previous competitions to Boeing, and all of them while partnered up with Northrop Grumman. In the first instance, it was determined that the Air Force’s contracting process had been marred by serious corruption, which eventually landed the service’s top acquisition official at the time in federal prison.
“Any future tanking opportunities with Airbus will need to be considered based on specific requirements and timelines,” Stephanie Sonnenfeld Stinn, a Lockheed Martin spokesperson told The War Zone When asked about the future of cooperation with European Aviation Conglomerate.
Lockheed Martin announced in 2019 that it would be partnering with Airbus, even before LMXT was released, to provide various aerial refueling capability to the U.S. Military, including possibly contractor-owned A330 MRTTs. Lockheed Martin announced in June that it would no longer be offering LMXT as a contracted service. Lockheed Martin could, of course, still work with Airbus on a NGAS project.
Despite Airbus’ decision now to go it alone in an A330-based pitch to the Air Force, Lockheed Martin’s announcement today would seem to point to a growing likelihood that the Air Force will simply buy more KC-46As.
You can find out more here. This is despite the fact that the Pegasus continues to have serious and long-standing technical problems, especially with the Remote Vision System, which boom operators use onboard to connect with the receiving aircraft. The new RVS will not be completed until October 2025. After that, it must be installed on all tankers already delivered.
Boeing’s KC-46 line has also had quality control difficulties and other problems over the years. The company’s goal is to deliver 14 of these tankers to the Air Force this year, but has only turned over seven so far. According to reports, this is partly due to a hold placed by the U.S. Military on August deliveries, which was attributed to bureaucratic issues. This was lifted only last week. Aviation Week.
This is all happening in the midst of a significant demand for aerial fueling capacity and the long-standing concern of senior U.S. government officials regarding potential tanker shortages. Recently, there have been reports of discussions about slowing down the divestment process for KC-10 and KC-135 to help mitigate issues.
There has also been talk in the past about significantly expanding the use of contractor-owned and/or operated tankers to meet some non-combat aerial refueling demands and ease pressure on the Air Force’s fleets. Metrea, an aviation company, became the first private contractor in June to refuel U.S. Air Force planes. Metrea operates a four-strong fleet of ex-Republic of Singapore Air Force KC-135s.
All told, it very much remains to see how the Air Force’s future aerial refueling tanker plans will continue to evolve. What is clear from Lockheed Martin’s announcement today is that its LMXT will not be a part of that future.
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The Drive first published the article Lockheed Blows off competition for KC-135 Tanker Replacement.