Boeing eyes supplier shake-up for KC-X tanker contest

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Boeing is considering supplier and manufacturing system changes as it looks to drive down costs in the next round of the US Air Force's KC-X tanker competition.

The company's KC-767A proposal lost in the last round of the contest partly because the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team offered the Airbus A330-based KC-30B at a slightly cheaper price. Boeing successfully protested Northrop's contract award.

As the Department of Defense prepares to relaunch the bidding process in a few weeks, Boeing officials are determined to set "aggressive price targets" for selecting suppliers and even manufacturing locations.

For example, Boeing's Wichita, Kansas, facility remains in baseline proposals based on either the KC-767 or KC-777, says Rick Lemaster, Boeing's KC-X programme manger.

However, Boeing could still shift its tanker "finishing centre" from Wichita to another location to lower costs. Lemaster declines to identify competing sites, but confirms: "We are looking at alternatives. If we can find cheaper places to do the [finishing centre] work we will consider that."

Lower production costs form part of Boeing's strategy for offering the KC-777 (below), Lemaster says. Boeing could leverage the higher monthly production rate of the 777 airliner, in comparison to the 767's output, he says. By using the 777's higher quantities, Boeing could obtain cheaper parts and materials from suppliers.

 
© Chuck Schroeder/Boeing

Boeing's quest for cost-savings has also reopened the 777's engine supplier to competition since the first time that the General Electric GE90-series was granted exclusivity to commercial suppliers.

Lemaster confirms all three certified engines - the GE90, Pratt & Whitney PW4000 and Rolls-Royce Trent 800 - will be considered if Boeing decides to offer the KC-777. However, engines that have not been certified on the 777, such as the GEnx family, have been ruled out. "We don't think there's enough time for a certification programme," Lemaster says.

The DoD is expected to release a draft request for proposals for the KC-X competition before October, with source selection authority having been transferred from the office of defense secretary Robert Gates to the air force. Boeing says a final RFP could be issued in October or November, followed by contract award in the third quarter of 2010.

Boeing previously offered a KC-767, which was based on structural and control system elements from the 767-200/300 and 400ER airliners. If Boeing decides to propose the KC-767 in the next round, the structures and control systems will come from the same aircraft type, Lemaster says.

No matter which aircraft Boeing offers, Lemaster says the company's tanker proposal will feature a cockpit "as advanced" as the systems available on the 787 or 777.