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  (Source: Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman/EADS KC-45A tanker  (Source: Northrop Grumman)
Boeing wins the battle, but the war continues with the controversial Air Force tanker program.

It looks like the ongoing battle between Northrop Grumman/EADS and Boeing over the $35B Air Force tanker contract will go on for at least another year. Northrop Grumman/EADS won the KC-X tanker competition earlier this year and it was announced that the Airbus A330-based KC-45 would replace the Air Force's existing fleet of 531 KC-135 tanker aircraft.

With foreign hands having a part in the design and construction of the KC-45, some in Congress weren't too happy with the move. "We should have an American tanker built by an American company with American workers. I can't believe we would create French [and British] jobs in place of Kansas jobs," said Todd Tiahrt, a congressman from Kansas.

Boeing filed a formal protest against the Air Force's decision with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in March. Boeing contended that it deserved the contract due to numerous errors and concessions made during the competition and noted that it provided "75 years of unmatched experience building tankers" and "offered the Air Force the best value and lowest risk tanker for its mission".

It looks as though Boeing has quite a bit of pull in Washington, because the GAO sided with Boeing’s protest. "Our review of the record led us to conclude that the Air Force had made a number of significant errors that could have affected the outcome of what was a close competition," said the GAO in a statement.

"We recommended that the Air Force reopen discussions ... obtain revised proposals, re-evaluate the revised proposals, and make a new source selection decision, consistent with our decision," the GAO continued.

Further stacking future proceedings in Boeing's favor, the GAO reported that the Air Force performed "unreasonable" cost/performance analysis with regards to the Northrop Grumman/EADS entry versus Boeing's competing entry. Had those errors not have been made; the GAO concluded that Boeing would have been the low-cost champion of the competition, and likely the overall winner.

The Air Force will in essence have to start the competition all over again to satisfy the GAO's requests – in the mean time; the aging KC-135 fleet will still take to the skies. "In theory, the air force has 60 days to answer. But in reality, it's obvious they're going to have to start over," said Lexington Institute military analyst Loren Thompson.

EADS, as expected, wasn't exactly elated with the GAO's decision. "Though we are disappointed, it's important to recognize that the GAO announcement is an evaluation of the selection process, not the merits of the aircraft," said EADA spokesman Louis Gallois.

"We will support our partner Northrop and remain confident that the KC-45 is the aircraft best suited to make the Air Force's critical mission requirements, as demonstrated by four previous competitive selections."

Not surprisingly, Boeing is ecstatic about the ruling. "We welcome and support today's ruling by the GAO fully sustaining the grounds of our protest," said Boeing tanker group VP Mark McGraw. "We look forward to working with the Air Force on next steps in this critical procurement for our warfighters."

Supporters of Boeing's protest in Congress also welcomed the GAO's decision. "The GAO's decision in the tanker protest reveals serious errors in the Air Force's handling of this critically important competition. We now need not only a new full, fair and open competition in compliance with the GAO recommendations, but also a thorough review of -- and accountability for -- the process that produced such a flawed result," said Senator Carl Levin (D-Michigan).

"The GAO did its work, and the Air Force is going to have to go back and do its work more thoroughly," added Representative Ike Skelton (D-Missouri).

You can read the GAO's full report including seven areas in which it found the Air Force's decision to be flawed here.



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By GGT on 6/19/2008 3:01:46 PM , Rating: 3
This discussion is absolutely fascinating...

The key to tanker performance to payload density. Tankers carry jet fuel which is very dense. That means it is very heavy for a specific volume of fuel. Airliners that carry passengers are not purpose built for optimum density. Instead, airliners like the 767 and A330 are built with an eye towards optimum volume. You see, people, as a cargo, are not very dense and actually need more open air than anything else to travel comfortably. Designs geared towards low density cargo are sometimes referred to a "ping-pong" carriers. You need to move a lot of low density balls, so the aircraft's design is volume optimized.

When it comes to tankers, the data that drives the effort is something called a range/fuel offload chart. This chart provides data on an aircraft in terms of its range vs. how much fuel it can offload for that range and still return to its operations base. There are certainly a number of other performance parameters as well, but as a tanker, the range/fuel offload chart is pretty much king.

So how to the tankers in this class do (leaving aside the KC-10 since its not the tanker being replaced)? Well, the winner is the KC-135R. It hands down is the best tanker on the planet. It can carry more fuel for it structural weight further than any other tanker. I make the 767 look chumpy and the A330, well, I won't even bother. Next comes the 767. The 767's excellent fuel mileage and smaller size at least put it in the ball park of tanker performance of the KC-135R. Last comes the A330. The A330 is in the truest sense a "ping-ball carrier" Its low fuel volume, high structural weight and even higher drag make it a dog when it comes to tanker performance. The A330 can absolutely get more fuel in the air on take-off, but as soon as it flies away from its base, the amount of fuel it can offload drops... really, really fast. Its so bad that only after a few hundred nautical miles, a 767 can offload more fuel for that range and then it only gets worse from then on. The joke is: Its a great tanker, as long as you don't fly it any where.

If the Air Force really just wanted a cargo aircraft, they should have said so, instead of playing all the games about tanker requirements. The A330 is the superior cargo plane. However, the Air Force didn't play it straight and now everybody gets to start all over again.


By cyclosarin on 6/19/2008 9:51:27 PM , Rating: 2
It's sad that your post is at the bottom of the page and yet is the best at explaining what the problem here is.

The KC135 is still the best tanker, and will likely remain better at the role than either proposed replacement.

What's even more amusing in the whole debate is that the boom operators that I discussed it with all wanted Boeing to win. They wanted Beoing to win because the tanker would be better at being....a tanker. The Northrop propsal, like the KC10, is a cargo plane that can also refuel not a tanker.

If we wanted to look at raw take-off weight for fuel, the C17 has over 3 times the fuel of the KC135. That doesn't mean the C17 would make a good tanker, in fact it would be a horrible tanker.


By ikkeman2 on 6/20/2008 2:27:12 AM , Rating: 2
Sorry, But I think you've got some signals crossed.
First you claim that the number one performance parameter for a tanker is range/fuel offload. A modified payload range chart I guess, and I see no reason to doubt.
But in the third paragraph you claim the kc135 is the winner because
quote:
It can carry more fuel for it structural weight further than any other tanker


have a look at this
http://blog.al.com/pr/2007/07/kc30_comparison_char...

The airbus offloads more fuel at 1000nm than any of the others. I've also heard this stays true at any range - a bigger plane uses more fuel to the last of it's trip - so it has to carry more fuel to the last of it's trip.

Don't start saying the 767 uses less fuel because it's true, but totally irrelevant. It's fuel efficiency you're looking for - fuel consumed per fuel offloaded, and again - airbus won... if the AF managed to get that calculation right.

Please try to include some sources, backup info for any future claims


By GGT on 6/20/2008 10:57:29 AM , Rating: 2
The chart you've linked is pretty cool. I have seen some PR stuff like that flying about for some time and I'd love to provide data to address your point, but I can't for legal reasons. So, I'll try to add some side information that may shed some insight.

The chart is dead wrong. It does not indicate the take off conditions (weight, runway, cargo load, crew, procedural limitations)or flight plans that were in play for each parameter being measured. By leaving out that data, its impossible to evaluate these aircraft relative to each other because you don't know if its "apples-to-apples" comparison. Let me give you an example:

From a purely aerodynamic since, the wings of the 767 and the A330 are performance monsters compared to the KC-135R. That means these aircraft can take off from much shorter runways and that's a great thing, but in reality its not really as big of an advantage as its made out to be. All take off planning for the KC-135R is done while assuming one engine is not operational. This is conservatism that is purpose built into the KC-135R operational planning. It insures that pilots will nearly always have enough runway. With four engines running in reality, the KC-135R gets off the runway significantly faster than any planning shows. However, its the planning performance that is used on all these cool charts everybody shows. The 767 and A330 do not use a conservative engine-out approach for their take off planning and hence their abilities are significantly magnified.

As you might imagine, taking an engine away from the KC-135R on take off really hurts it in all categories across the board. As an airplane, the KC-135R is a hot rod. Its really over engined and in fact holds the time to climb record for aircraft in its weight class. A an equally loaded (fuel and payload) contest between the three tankers (KC-135R, 767, and A330) would result in the KC-135R getting of the ground last, but it would whip the other two getting to cruise or refueling altitudes. In addition, with all four engines, the KC-135R is generally better at fuel offload than its proposed replacements. Its in everybody's interest (especially Beoing's) to "cripple" the KC-135R. After all, nobody wants to get in to a discussion why the 1950's tanker is kicking around the "new" tankers from a technical performance standpoint.

So, after saying all of that I hope my point came through. Just because the data on the chart says it, doesn't mean its an appropriate comparison.

One more thought, the 767's better fuel efficiency is absolutely relevant. These are tankers, their fuel management and efficiency is at the heart of the matter. Disregarding that is akin to saying the wings aren't important.


By Amiga500 on 6/21/2008 11:26:18 AM , Rating: 2
The chart you've linked is pretty cool. I have seen some PR stuff like that flying about for some time and I'd love to provide data to address your point, but I can't for legal reasons. So, I'll try to add some side information that may shed some insight.

LOL @ "legal reasons"

The chart is dead wrong. It does not indicate the take off conditions (weight, runway, cargo load, crew, procedural limitations)or flight plans that were in play for each parameter being measured.

Do you honestly think they haven't corrected results to the same conditions?

The 767 and A330 do not use a conservative engine-out approach for their take off planning and hence their abilities are significantly magnified.

As you might imagine, taking an engine away from the KC-135R on take off really hurts it in all categories across the board.


WHAT?!?!?!

Go read FAR 25.121 and cut the crap.

A 4 engine a/c losing an engine will lose around 20% thrust performance (as the other 3 are firewalled to compensate).

A 2 engined a/c losing an engine will lose around 40% thrust (same reason).


By US56 on 6/20/2008 3:08:47 AM , Rating: 2
CGT-- Taking your argument one step further, for $35B the AF should be getting a new design specifically to fulfill the AAR mission. If there is a requirement for additional airlift capacity, then the AF should buy more C-17's. The operational doctrine which leads to the requirement for a dual role aircraft needs to be called into question before the AF goes down the garden path to another fifty years with a suboptimal solution. The KC-135 came into service purely from Cold War expediency. SAC needed a jet tanker to cope with refueling the B-47 and B-52 and needed it as soon as possible so a commercial platform was adapted to the mission. We don't seem to be in that position now except for the time wasted by the AF dithering for many years. It looks as though EADS is buying into a very long term revenue stream by offering the AF more airplane than the AF originally wanted or needs. That's historically how Airbus came to be in a position to challenge Boeing as the preeminent builder of commercial aircraft and effectively drove McDonnell-Douglas out of the commercial aircraft business. Having some experience with large AF projects, it is also possible that the selection was rigged because the jet jocks flew both airplanes and liked the Airbus better or even more likely, thought it would make a better recruiting tool. Previous posters are correct in that the A330 and derivatives have a commercial future and the B767 does not. On the other hand, the selection of what is effectively a French designed and built aircraft in a presidential year smacks of either arrogance or naivety (inclusively) on the part of the AF. Also, it's laughable that the Airbus boosters cite the construction of a new plant in Mobile, AL as a selling point. Who needs it and why Mobile? Are they going to barge the major airframe components over from France?


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