The US Navy is studying a potential tanker variant of the Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft (MMA) ahead of a development contract decision in late May.
The request for proposals (RFP) for the primarily anti-submarine warfare aircraft requirement directs the two competing design teams - Boeing, offering a militarised 737-800, and Lockheed Martin, with an upgraded new-build P-3 called the Orion 21 - to include options for a tanker version, says Boeing MMA campaign manager Tim Norgart. The USN's fleet of about 110 MMA maritime-patrol aircraft will also be required to receive fuel using an external probe.
Although the ability to dispense fuel is not a baseline requirement for the MMA fleet, the USN is interested in the concept, since a lack of navy-specific aerial refuelling assets was a painful lesson from Operation Iraqi Freedom. The service was forced to use several of its two-seat Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets as "buddy-buddy" tankers for some missions, and also relied on UK Royal Air Force Lockheed TriStar and Vickers VC10 drogue-equipped tanker-transports.
Air-to-air refuelling is among more than 1,800 requirements listed in the RFP released to the competing teams. In addition to the tanker proposal, Boeing was surprised to find upgraded requirements for a "leading-edge" mission system architecture and an "ambitious" level of onboard network connectivity.
The newly added features on the navy's wishlist are certain to drive up unit costs. Early on, the programme had proposed a $55 million price cap per aircraft, but Boeing says the programme's evolution and new requirements will easily exceed that asking price.
The navy has proposed spending about $2.5 billion for MMA research and development and another $1.45 billion in procurement in its most recent five-year budgeting plan. The winner of the eight-year system development and demonstration contract will provide five test vehicles.
For overland missions, the future MMA fleet is expected to be assisted by a roughly 50-aircraft unmanned air vehicle fleet acquired through the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) programme. The navy plans to launch the bidding phase of its BAMSeffort, worth roughly $2 billion, by mid-year (Flight International, 23-29 March).
The service is still reviewing how to link the manned-unmanned patrol team. The RFP orders the bidding teams to submit proposals giving the MMA the capability to exercise full - or Level 4 - control of networked drones, but also asks for proposals based on the more limited Level 2 payload control.
STEPHEN TRIMBLE / WASHINGTON DC
Source: Flight International