USAF stands its ground with final KC-X request, risking Northrop A330-based KC-30 withdrawal from competition against Boeing KC-767

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Service rejects RFP ultimatum to detail transport needs, risking Northrop withdrawal

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are examining the final request for proposals (RFP) for the US Air Force's KC-X tanker replacement programme to see if it provides the basis for a competition - and between which aircraft.

As expected, the final RFP contains no substantive changes to the major requirements - the key performance parameters (KPP) - but does provide greater detail on how the USAF will assess the capabilities of competing aircraft. The USAF also says it is prepared to award the contract to the higher-priced bidder if its overall offer outweighs the cost difference.

The changes are intended to answer Northrop's demand for a capabilities-based acquisition, but fall short of its call for the establishment of separate threshold (minimum) and objective (desired) requirements for the KC-X's cargo and passenger capability.

Northrop has warned it will not bid unless it believes its Airbus A330-based KC-30 can be competitive against the smaller Boeing KC-767. The USAF says it is prepared to proceed with only one bidder if Northrop withdraws.

Deferring comment until it "determines the alignment of the KC-30's capabilities to the [final RFP] requirements", Northrop has previously said it "does not see how the capabilities of the two competing aircraft can be measured if there is no adequately defined value scale for capabilities above the threshold requirement. Without a capabilities-based assessment, we are concerned the KC-30 will not be competitive."

The USAF says the final RFP defines a "capability-based, best-value approach" and, while emphasising that the KC-X's primary mission is aerial refuelling, says it intends to "take full advantage of the other capabilities inherent in the platform". In the absence of threshold and objective requirements for airlift capability, the final RFP says: "If there is no stated objective ...positive consideration will be provided when the specified capability above the KPP threshold is viewed as advantageous."

The 179-aircraft KC-X programme is the first of three procurements planned to replace the USAF's entire fleet of Boeing KC-135 tankers. The requirement is baselined on the KC-135, which has limited airlift capability.

Boeing says it is examining the RFP before deciding whether to offer "a tanker closer in size to the KC-135 or a larger tanker more focused on transport" - the KC-767 or KC-777 respectively.

The KC-30 has a greater refuelling and airlift capacity than the KC-767, but the commercial A330-200 on which it is based has a 30% higher list price than the 767-200, raising concerns that the USAF could afford fewer aircraft.

Northrop had hoped the final RFP would give weight to the KC-30's greater cargo and passenger capability to offset its higher price.