Boeing reveals NewGen Tanker for KC-X contract

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Boeing has revealed a 767-based NewGen Tanker to offer the US Air Force for the KC-X contract to build 179 tankers.

The product unveiling comes as the Northrop Grumman/EADS North America team continue to evaluate the USAF's terms for the competition.

A decision on whether to submit a bid before the 10 May deadline will come "soon", says Sean O'Keefe, chief executive officer of EADS NA, who briefed reporters today en route to a UH-72A delivery ceremony in Columbus, Mississippi.

The Northrop/EADS team could offer the KC-45, a multi-role tanker-tramsport based on the Airbus A330-200 converted freighter.

Boeing unveiled its rival NewGen Tanker concept, but has revealed few details about the aircraft configuration. The company previously offered a 767 tanker using the fuselage of the -200 variant, wings from the -300 variant and flight deck from the -400ER.

 
 © Boeing
Boeing will offer the KC-767 NextGenTanker to the US Air Force for the KC-X contract

The source of such components for the NewGen Tanker has not been identified. Boeing says the 767 design will be updated with the "latest and most advanced technology". The cockpit incorporates large electronic displays developed for the 787. A "new-generation" fly-by-wire refuelling boom, meanwhile, will offer an expanded envelope and increased fuel offload.

The USAF's request for proposals requires the new tanker to offload fuel at a rate of 1,200gal per minute.

New information posted on Boeing's tanker web site also says the boom has an improved system that automatically eases loads and bending forces. The boom also includes a system that assures positive disconnect from the receiver aircraft.

 © Boeing

The scarcity of data about Boeing's proposal is part of the company's strategy. Jean Chamberlin, Boeing's KC-X programme manager, has said she expects a heated competition wtih Northrop for the contract, and that she intends to withhold information about the new tanker proposal.

The approach draws a sharp contrast with Boeing's high profile in the previous competition, which the company initially lost. The Government Accountability Office overturned Northrop's contract award in June 2008, setting the stage for the current round of bidding.

Meanwhile, some powerful Northrop supporters continue to push for a dual procurement. Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who attended the UH-72 event on 4 May, predicted Northrop's proposed KC-45 factory in neighbouring Mobile, Alabama, will open for business.

"We look forward and believe that we're going to build KC-45s in Mobile whether it's part of a dual procurement or we win," Barbour told reporters.

O'Keefe noted that USAF's request for proposals released on 25 February includes language that could support a dual procurement. The document says the USAF could award the contract to a single bidder, multiple bidders or no bidder at all, he says.

The key thing is that the USAF's acquisition documents do not preclude a dual procurement, O'Keefe says, although Department of Defense and USAF officials oppose the idea because of cost.

Northrop first must decide whether to submit a bid in response to the USAF's request. The DoD adjusted the contract terms in response to the Northrop team's concerns that a fixed-price strategy puts too much risk on the contractor. But it did not change the performance requirements for the new tanker. Northrop has argued that the specifications put a larger aircraft like the KC-45 at a disadvantage compared to the 767.

But walking from the competition could be a difficult decision. The Northrop/EADS team has already invested four years and around $200 million to support all phases of the tanker sales campaign in the US, O'Keefe says. Submitting a new bid is an "expensive proposition", he adds.

Even if Northrop decides not to submit, it remains unclear if EADS NA can pursue the contract on its own. O'Keefe, however, dismissed a question about whether EADS would submit an independent proposal if Northrop withdraws.

"We're not looking at any other arrangement," he says.