Two of my favorite aviation writers — Guy Norris and Bill Sweetman — are highly dubious about the technical feasibility of adapting the 787, Boeing’s next-generation airliner, into a military tanker. Plugging refueling systems into an all-composite fuselage is no easy task, and may very well be impossible. It will certainly be expensive, and, with the 787 still in a difficult developmental phase, the timing is not to Boeing’s advantage.
On the other hand, the 787 tanker could help solve one of Boeing’s biggest challenges. Since the US Air Force has clearly stated its preference for the KC-30 versus the KC-767, the 787′s superior overall performance capabilities could make a very attractive offer.
I liked reading an analysis of the pros and cons of this possibility today at the All Things 787 blog. Here’s what it says:
Wellin a nutshell, take all the advantages in weight and fuel efficiencythat the 787 has over the A330 and translate that over to the tankerversion. The 787 would be larger but lighter than the A330. Boeing canutilized the advantage of better fuel burn and the lighter structure ofthe 787. The 787 would have a more advanced and modern cockpit comparedto the A330. The 787 would beat the A330 on range, usable cargo carried(fuel and/or cargo), and weight. The KC-787 would certainly demolishthe KC-30 on life cycle costs and this metric can certainly make theAir Force stand up and seriously look at the 787 as a tanker.
Secondly,because Boeing would probably have to strengthen the 787 in order tocarry the weight of fuel and other cargo required by the Air Force aswell as a cargo door, Boeing would essentially have designed the 787F.Wow two birds with one stone though Airbus certainly would have a lotto say about DoD Tanker money going to design a commercial cargoaircraft.
Lastly, the Air Force would not have to modifyairfields due to the weight of the 787 vs the A330 which is heavier.This was a bone of contention with Boeing as the Air Forceunderestimated the cost of modifications in operating the KC-30 fromexisting airfields.
Production- Boeing is already suffering from the production problems with the 787and then the ramp up of production is looking to be long and painful.They would have no capacity at all to build tankers based on the 787.In order to do so would require 1) additional investment by Boeing andits suppliers to support increased production of the 787 (moreautoclaves, larger facilities, more LCFs), 2) a second assembly linethat is ITAR compliant. Now the Air Force would probably take anywherefrom 12 to 24 tankers a year meaning a rate of 1 to 2 airplanes, theseairplanes can be constructed on the existing assembly line but thatwould mean up to 2 less commercial 787s being delivered to customerswho would none too pleased about their delivery slots going to the AirForce. A second line would be required and later can be used to supportcommercial production if needed.
Development- Boeing will need significant investment in terms of time, money,resources and personnel to turn the 787 from a commercial passengeraircraft into a military air refueler. Right now they’re stillgrappling with the fall out from the production and supply issues thathurt them over the past year. They will still need a lot of these sameresources in order to finish the 787-8 development as well as todevelop the -3, -9 and -10 variants for commercial customers. Now sincethis product would come from Boeing IDS, it is possible to transferengineering resources from the KC-767 and to work on the KC-787 alongwith a few of the 787 program engineers. Boeing had earlier transferedsome engineers and other resources at IDS to the 787 to help alleviatethe issues due to the travelled work and production problems. Theycould do this again to help develop the 787 into a tanker platform.
Boeingmight need to develop a new refueling boom (though I wonder if theycould adopt the KC-767 boom for the KC-787) as well as floorstrengthening and perhaps landing gear strengthening.
Lastly,timing – the Air Force needs these tankers 4 years ago. There would belittle to no timing to get a KC-787 design, tooling, and productiongoing. My guess is that it would take up to two years to get the designgoing and then another 2-4 years for development, testing andoperational evaluation. This on top of doing the rebid (which I thinkwould take another 2 years). So assuming the rebid takes place and thatBoeing wins the rebid with the KC-787, it would be another 6 to 8 yearsbefore a KC-787 is in the hands of USAF pilots. The KC-30 won’tcertainly take as long.
Theseare some broad brush strokes…no details…those can be filled in bypeople who would certainly know better and more information but theKC-787 might be an option that Boeing can look at if they caneffectively reduced the risks, timing and costs of doing a KC-787.