Winner -Take-All Tanker Deal Criticized

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The Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team is clearly happy to have something new to talk about with regard to its Airbus A330-based tanker. The team made the first dry contact with the new EADS-designed boom during a Dec. 10 flight test.

The first photo (both of which are from EADS) below shows the F-16 aircraft in receiver position lining up behind the A310 test platform. And, the second photo shows a close up of the contact.

Paul Meyer, Northrop Grumman's KC-30 vice president, says the purpose of the test was to validate the design of the boom and its hoist and control system. Operators also used the remote workstation onboard the aircraft to control the boom. The hoist caused some earlier problems for the team.

Yet, the team is mum on future milestones. A date to pass fuel in midair through the boom on the A310 to a receiver hasn't been announced (fuel has been passed on the ground). Nor has a target date been acknowledged for passing gas through the A330-based Australian Multi-Role Tanker Transport to a receiver aircraft. Those are to come.

One thing Meyer isn't quiet about is his apparent frustration with the Air Force's decision for a winner-take-all downselect instead of a split buy between the Airbus- and Boeing 767-based designs. He had a handful of reasons why the split-buy strategy makes sense.

There's industrial base, for one. Meyer says that the relationship between Northrop Grumman and EADS North America isn't going to hold to the next competition; USAF plans to conduct a competition for a KC-10 replacement, called KC-Y, in 2018. "We are not going to sit here and hold on this current arrangement with EADS for 10 years for the hope that there might be an acquisition program when there isn't one as a program of record today."

Furthermore, Meyer says the talk among senior Air Force leaders about ramping up a potential KC-X buy -- now between 12-18 aircraft per year up to a total purchase of 179 aircraft -- is "confusing." Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and others are pushing for the White House and Congress to boost the Air Force's topline procurement budget by about $20 billion per year, mostly to buy higher quantities of F-22s, F-35s and tankers sooner and to retire the legacy airframes more quickly.

"The RFP is 15 per year, plus or minus three. There have been general officers who have made statements that we'd like to accelerate and increase the annual buy to buy out the whole fleet," Meyer says. "You can't say that and say there is a KC-Y as well, can you? The statements don't logically match up."

Keep up to date on the USAF tanker deal from our Aviation Week friends at Miliary.com.

-- Christian

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