The US Air Force is expected to release the final request for proposals (RFP) for the 179-aircraft KC-X aerial-refuelling tanker requirement on Tuesday. Although the USAF has incorporated the majority of changes requested by the bidders, there will be no substantive changes to the performance requirements in the final RFP, says a leading US defence analyst.

Northrop Grumman has said it would not bid unless there were changes to the key performance parameters (KPP) in the RFP that would put a competitive value on the greater cargo and passenger capacity of its Airbus A330-based KC-30 tanker compared with Boeing’s smaller KC-767.

KC-30 with F18s 
© Northrop Grumman   

Lexington Institute analyst Loren Thompson says US defence officials have told him there will be no substantive changes to the KPPs, raising the likelihood that Northrop will decide not to compete and leaving Boeing as the only bidder for the $200 billion contract.

The previous two drafts of the KC-X RFP have set only minimum, or threshold, requirements for the tanker’s cargo and passenger capacity. Often in US competitions there is also a desired, or objective, requirement that is higher and competitors are assessed on their ability to exceed the threshold and approach the objective.

Northrop says 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”. The company says the KC-X requirement is baselined on the existing Boeing KC-135 tanker, with has limited cargo and passenger capability.

“Without a capabilities-based assessment [of the rival aircraft], we are concerned the KC-30 will not be competitive,” says Northrop, adding that this is a “joint position” with its team-mate EADS North America. The European giant’s US subsidiary has seen the KC-X competition as its big chance to break into the US defence market.

Northrop says it will only make a decision on whether to bid after it has seen the final RFP. Thompson says the RFP will contain “a lot of clarifying language around the KPPs”, but no substantive changes to the requirements. He does not expect Northrop to incur the $40-50 million cost of bidding unless it believes the KC-30 can compete