Industry has welcomed a revised draft request for proposals (RFP) for the US Air Force's KC-X replacement tanker, but is waiting for release of the final RFP this month before deciding whether the changes will level the playing field for bidders Boeing and Northrop Grumman/EADS.
Analysts believe the decision not to set separate threshold and objective requirements for cargo capability may obviate any capacity advantage the Airbus A330-based KC-30 might have over Boeing's smaller KC-767.
This may prompt the US manufacturer to stay with the KC-767 rather than offering a larger tanker based on the 777.
The draft RFP says only that the tanker must have the capability to carry cargo or passengers on the main deck. "All three missions are vitally important, but first and foremost the KC-X is the next generation on aerial refuelling," said Lt Gen Donald Huffman, military deputy, office of the assistant secretary of the air force for acquisition, on release of the revised draft RFP in December.
Also, the draft RFP makes clear the KC-X programme is the first phase of a larger aerial refuelling recapitalisation strategy. The 179 aircraft planned to be acquired over 10-15 years beginning in fiscal year 2010 are intended to replace about one-third of the current fleet capability, after which the USAF will decide whether to continue producing the KC-X or launch a separate competition for a KC-Y tanker.
The initial winner-takes-all contract will be for the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase, beginning next year and involving four test aircraft, and production of up to 109 aircraft starting in fiscal year 2010, with follow-on contracts covering the remainder.
Engines for the SDD aircraft will be contractor-furnished, but a separate competition is being considered for the production phase of the process.
The US Army plans to restart the stalled Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) programme in 2009. Lockheed Martin's ACS development contract was terminated in January 2005 when the mission system outgrew its Embraer ERJ-145 platform, but the joint US Army/Navy programme was not cancelled.
Instead, the Department of Defense launched a study into airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) that is still "a work in progress", the army says, but which has "reaffirmed the need for manned assets".
ACS is intended to replace the army's Guardrail Common Sensor and Airborne Reconnaissance Low platforms and the navy's EP-3E Aries II.
Existing intelligence-gathering platforms will be modernised to sustain the fleet, but the US Army plans to restart ACS in 2009, with the US Navy providing funding from 2011. Plans call for teaming of manned and unmanned aircraft to meet ISR needs.