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Airbus-Boeing rivalry may extend to US Air Force contracts

The Airbus-Boeing rivalry for US Air Force contracts may stretch beyond tankers to new replacements for Lockheed Martin C-5-class freighters and Air Force One-class VIP transports.

Airbus North America chairman Allan McArtor confirms that the airframer has responded to two separate preliminary enquiries made last summer by the USAF's Air Mobility Command (AMC).

AMC's first enquiry was for data on the A380 Freighter as a military transport in the C-5-class, for which Airbus responded with a marketing brochure, and expects to follow up with a more detailed presentation, McArtor says. An industry source says the follow-up meeting could be scheduled for December.

Secondly, AMC invited Airbus parent EADS to respond to a market survey seeking options for a "VIP Large Aircraft Recapitalization [VIPLAR]", which is the first step in a process to replace three VIP transports. The USAF asked for data about three Airbus types - the A380, A340-600 and A330-200.

McArtor does not confirm the identify of the VIPLAR fleet, but Boeing officials have said the air force is examining replacement options for its 747-200-based fleet, which includes two VC-25 Air Force Ones and one Looking Glass airborne command post.

The number one priority for Boeing's Global Support Systems division is to maintain the company's historic monopoly on Air Force One aircraft and sustainment.

Both requests by the USAF were preliminary steps, and Airbus has not yet decided to formally offer the A380 for either requirement if it emerges, McArtor says.

But the AMC's interest in the A380 and other jets for such a wide range of missions is a reflection of a renewed dedication by the Department of Defense to foster competitive procurements.

AMC's requests to Airbus come more than three years after the US Navy selected a new presidential helicopter offered by Lockheed Martin based on the Anglo-Italian AgustaWestland EH101.

But the move also comes amid the backdrop of an emotionally charged competition for the $40 billion KC-X tanker contract and a simmering dispute in the World Trade Organisation between the USA and European Union over the issue of aerospace subsidies.

Airbus products, however, are increasingly in demand by the US military as competitive alternatives to a shrinking pool of US-made aircraft designs. Earlier this year, US Special Operations Command expressed interest in the Airbus Military A400M transport to compete against the Lockheed Martin C-130J for a fleet replacement requirement, although A400M development delays could make joining the competition impossible.

Additionally, the A320 is viewed by some US aerospace executives as a potentially attractive candidate in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance market. Boeing may offer new versions of the 737-based P-8A for requirements to replace the EP-3 and RC-135 fleets, and the A320 may emerge as a competitive alternative.

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