Military airframer Lockheed Martin has withdrawn its bid to provide the US Air Force (USAF) with a new aerial refuelling aircraft known as the “bridge tanker”.
Lockheed on 23 October said it made the strategic decision to focus on other opportunities, including a future stealth tanker design. The move essentially marks the end of the LMXT tanker platform, which was based on the Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT).
“We are transitioning Lockheed Martin’s LMXT team and resources to new opportunities and priority programmes,” Lockheed tells FlightGlobal.
The USAF is in the midst of a three-stage plan to recapitalise its fleet of Boeing KC-135 Stratotankers. The Boeing KC-46 represents first phase of the plan, formerly known as KC-X, with an ongoing acquisition programme of 179 aircraft.
Boeing and Lockheed were competing for phase two, alternatively known as KC-Y or the “bridge tanker”.
Lockheed’s exit from the KC-Y programme makes it likely the USAF will opt to procure additional KC-46 Pegasus tankers from Boeing. However, Airbus says it “remains committed” to the programme and plans to formally offer the MRTT to the air force.
”The A330 US-MRTT is a reliable choice for the US Air Force”, Airbus said on 23 October, ”one that will deliver affordability, proven performance and unmatched capabilities”.
While Lockheed is pulling out of the bridge tanker, the company still plans on the “development of aerial refuelling solutions” for its successor, called the KC-Z. That final phase of the tanker recapitalisation plan calls for a new-design stealthy refueller that can survive in contested airspace defended by a modern adversary.
“We remain committed to the accelerated delivery of advanced capabilities that strengthen the US Air Force’s aerial refuelling missions,” Lockheed says.
The USAF formally launched that programme – now known as the Next Generation Air-refuelling System (NGAS) in January 2023.
However, concerns about a potential conflict with China in the Indo-Pacific led the USAF to accelerate NGAS development plans. While the service originally sought to field NGAS in the 2040’s, the air force now wants to be flying the stealth tanker by the early 2030’s.
That led air force officials to consider dropping the bridge tanker altogether and instead adding 75 aircraft to its KC-46 buy.
Fiscal year 2024 USAF budget documents and official statements indicate the service will likely drop the KC-Y development plan, choosing instead to purchase more KC-46s and accelerate NGAS development.
“The information that industry has previously provided… may lead us towards KC-46 [as] the answer,” Andrew Hunter, chief of acquisitions for the USAF, said at an Air & Space Forces Association conference in Colorado in March.
Those headwinds have apparently convinced Lockheed its resources can be better applied elsewhere, namely the NGAS programme.
The military airframer also offers its C-130 Hercules tactical transport in a tanker variant, known as the KC-130J.