Air Force taps Northrop Grumman to build aerial refueling tankers
According to the Defense Department, the contract calls for Northrop Grumman and its partner European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS), the French-German parent of Airbus, to build up to 179 new KC-45A tankers. The new planes eventually will replace hundreds of aging KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft that were introduced in the late 1950s.
The contract is estimated to be worth $40 billion.
“This initial contract for the newly named KC-45A will provide significantly greater air refueling capabilities than our current fleet of Eisenhower-era KC-135s,” Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne told reporters at a Feb. 29 news conference at the Pentagon.
The new tanker “will be able to refuel U.S. and allied aircraft in every area of responsibility, worldwide, 24 hours a day, in adverse weather and be equipped with defensive systems,” Wynne said.
“Today’s tanker decision is a major step in the Air Force’s critical recapitalizing and modernization that is going to be required to defend the United States and to support our international partners in the 21st century,” Wynne said.
The new aircraft also will be used to carry cargo, passengers and medical patients, Wynne noted.
“The KC-45, built by Northrop Grumman, will provide our nation and partners the critical ability to reach across the globe and project our combat capability or our humanitarian friendship rapidly and effectively,” said Gen. Duncan McNabb, the Air Force’s vice chief of staff.
Northrop Grumman: the ‘underdog’?
One of the hot topics at the Feb. 29 news conference at the Pentagon was the selection of Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman over Boeing for the aerial tanker contract. In response to one reporter’s question about the whether Northrop Grumman was the “underdog” in the contract competition, Assistant Secretary of Defense Sue Payton responded that in today’s consolidated industrial base, “there are no underdogs out there.”
“We have very strong industrial partners, and we had two very competitive offers in this competition,” Payton said. “Northrop Grumman clearly provided the best value to the government when you take a look at, in accordance with the RFP, the five factors that were important to this decision: in mission capability, in proposal risk, in the area of past performance, in cost price and in something we call an integrated fleet aerial refueling rating. So I would tell you that overall, Northrop Grumman did have strong areas in aerial refueling and in airlift, as well as their past performance was excellent and they offered great advantage to the government in cost price, and they had an excellent integrated fleet aerial refueling rating.”
In a statement issued Feb. 29, Chicago-based Boeing expressed disappointment with the contract award.
“We believe that we offered the Air Force the best value and lowest-risk tanker for its mission,” the company said. “Our next step is to request and receive a debrief from the Air Force. Once we have reviewed the details behind the award, we will make a decision concerning our possible options, keeping in mind at all times the impact to the war fighter and our nation.”
Payton emphasized that the contract competition was a transparent process and that both enterprises received regular feedback from the Air Force on how they were performing.
“ … I can’t stress enough what an incredibly open and transparent and rigorous first selection we have gone through,” Payton said. “For months and months, we have been telling each offeror where their weaknesses were, where their strengths were, and so they’ve had a lot of opportunity to communicate with us and to make sure we were not talking past each other. So having said that, disappointed offerors under statute are allowed to protest, and we should be knowing more about this in the March/April time frame.”
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the contract could reach $100 billion with additional orders, as the Air Force is considering purchasing more than 400 air tankers over the next four decades.
KC-45A airframe based on Airbus jetliner
According to EADS, the KC-45A tanker is based on the EADS A330 MRTT (an acronym for “multi-role tanker transport”). The KC-45A’s airframe is derived from the A330 jetliner produced by Toulouse, France-based Airbus SAS, a division of EADS. EADS noted that more than 880 A330 jetliners have been ordered worldwide in passenger and freighter configurations and that the military tanker configuration has been purchased by the Royal Australian Air Force and ordered by the Royal Saudi Air Force, the UAE Air Force and the U.K. Royal Air Force.
EADS North America will be responsible for assembling airframes and providing completed flight-qualified aircraft and refueling subsystems for the KC-45A, the company said.
In a news release, EADS boasted that the U.S. Air Force contract “will significantly increase EADS’ industrial presence and commitment in the United States, as well as its role as a U.S.-based defense and homeland security provider.”
“We have committed our energies to this important U.S. Air Force program and to our teammate Northrop Grumman,” said Louis Gallois, CEO of EADS. “Selecting a tanker based on the A330 MRTT will provide the U.S. Air Force with the most modern and capable tanker aircraft available today. This major selection is a win-win for our customers, for allied industrial cooperation and for EADS. It signals a quantum leap forward in our commitment to the U.S. defense customer, reflects and supports our global strategy to increase EADS’ industrial presence in key markets and our goal to balance the company’s defense and commercial portfolios.”
According to Northrop Grumman, EADS North America will be the primary subcontractor on a “world-class industrial team” that will include General Electric Aviation, Sargent Fletcher, Honeywell, Parker, AAR Cargo Systems, Telephonics and Knight Aerospace.
“We are excited to partner with the Air Force for their No. 1 acquisition priority—the KC-45A tanker,” Northrop Grumman Chairman and CEO Ronald Sugar said. “Northrop Grumman’s vast expertise in aerospace design, development and systems integration will ensure our nation’s war fighters receive the most capable and versatile tanker ever built. The Northrop Grumman KC-45A tanker will be a game changer.”
Aircraft will be assembled in Mobile, Ala.
Northrop Grumman announced that the KC-45A tanker will be assembled at new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in Mobile, Ala., and will employ 25,000 workers at 230 U.S. companies. The KC-45A’s refueling systems will be built at new facilities in Bridgeport, W.Va., and delivered to the KC-45A production center for aircraft integration, the company said.
If everything goes well, the first test aircraft should be flying by 2010, said Air Force Gen. Arthur Lichte, commander of Air Mobility Command based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill. Air Mobility Command provides the U.S. military with passenger, cargo, tanker and other aircraft support.
The Air Force should receive the first group of operational KC-45A aircraft around 2013, Lichte said.
Citing his role as Air Mobility Command’s chief, Lichte expressed relief that the process to deliver a new air refueling tanker to his service is moving forward.
“We know that in the future years we will have a new tanker,” Lichte said. “Tankers are what really enable the fight.”