Northrop says it will switch to Airbus A330-200F if it wins USAF contract

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Change will come if team wins US Air Force's $40 billion KC-X contest later this year

Northrop Grumman believes its KC-30 proposal will "inevitably" switch airframes to the Airbus A330-200F model if its team wins the $40 billion KC-X tanker contract for the US Air Force.

The switch to the freighter model may have the secondary effect of giving KC-30 team member General Electric Aviation a fresh opportunity to become the third engine supplier for the commercial A330-200F fleet.

"I think [the switch to the freighter model] is inevitable, but right now it's not in our proposal," says Paul Meyer, Northrop's vice-president and general manager for the KC-30 programme. The Northrop/EADS North America team is basing its bid on a passenger A330-200 converted to a freighter, which adds a cargo door and localised strengthening to the upper floor.

That model was chosen because Northrop's proposal was developed before the A330-200F had received a launch customer, and because the more expensive freighter version would have increased the cost of the original bid, says Meyer. However, now that the A330-200F has a solid customer base and is further along its development path, Northrop believes the dedicated freighter could more prove a attractive candidate to the air force.

If Northrop is selected, the possible airframe switch would present a unique opportunity for GE, which in June disclosed that it would not offer an engine for the commercial A330-200F programme, leaving the market for the dedicated freighter to Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce. Winning the KC-X contract would mean that the USAF would pay GE to certificate the engine on the freighter.

The Northrop team is competing against Boeing with the KC-767-200LRF for the programme to buy 179 aircraft. The USAF currently plans to place the contract by year-end after slipping the award date from September.

The larger KC-30 carries more fuel and has more range than the KC-767, but Boeing counters that its smaller airframe would provide the USAF with greater flexibility. Meyer, however, argues that the Northrop proposal is the most flexible option, claiming that a KC-30 with a maximum fuel load could be supported by 625 airports globally, versus 465 for the KC-767 with a smaller fuel load.