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Airbus responds to Air Force call for new tankers to replace Boeing's KC-46

By
Zarrin Ahmed
The Air Force is seeking new bids for its refueling tanker program as it considers whether to replace Boeing's beleaguered KC-46, the first of which is pictured taking off for its maiden flight. File Photo by Marian Lockhart/Boeing
The Air Force is seeking new bids for its refueling tanker program as it considers whether to replace Boeing's beleaguered KC-46, the first of which is pictured taking off for its maiden flight. File Photo by Marian Lockhart/Boeing

June 17 (UPI) -- The U.S. Air Force seeks up to 160 new refueling tankers, according to a contract notice posted this week, as lawmakers are pushing for the Air Force to terminate its KC-46 contract with Boeing.

This may be Airbus' chance to win a foothold in the American strategic tanker market, especially after the Biden administration and the European Union called a five-year trust in a 17-year-old battle over manufacturer subsidies.

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The Air Force said in the notice, published Wednesday, that it wants to buy 140 to 160 new tankers that are based on commercial aircraft design at the rate of 12 to 15 aircraft per year.

"The Commercial Derivative Aircraft must be operational by 2029," the notice states. "The Air Force is still finalizing the requirements for this acquisition."

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Airbus is the only other company that makes new-jet-powered strategic refueling planes.

Boeing's KC-46 tanker is based on the 767 airliner, while Airbus' Multi-Role Tanker Transports, or MRTT, is based on the A330 airliner. U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin and Embraer make smaller aircraft.

Airbus partnered with Lockheed Martin and intends to respond to the request.

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"We are responding to the U.S. Air Force's Sources Sought Notification for the Bridge Tanker Program, offering a mission-ready solution to meet the Air Force's future tanker requirements," Rob Fuller, a Lockheed Martin spokesman, said in a statement.

Government auditors overturned Airbus' victory over Boeing for a bid in the Air Force strategic tanker market in 2008.

Boeing has lost more than $5 billion on the project to build 179 aircraft and is years behind schedule due to design, technical and quality control problems. The contract requires Boeing, not taxpayers, to front the cost overruns.

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The Air Force is paying Boeing $100 million to redesign the refueling boom to refuel all types of military aircraft.

Boeing also has to replace key cameras and software that are part of the refueling system.

Air Force has already started using the aircraft for non-combat missions and anticipates it will be war-ready in late 2023.

Boeing said it will enter its KC-46 in the new bridge tanker contest.

"With 102 aircraft on order and growing international interest, Boeing's KC-46A is proven and matured for the next stage of combat air refueling capabilities and airborne battle management, which will extend the Air Force's ability to deliver critical fuel and information for decades to come," Deborah VanNierop, a Boeing spokeswoman, said in a statement.

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