The following is the Nov. 5, 2021, Congressional Research Service In Focus report, Air Force Tanker Strategy Change.
From the report
As discussed in the CRS report Air Force KC-46A Pegasus Tanker, the Air Force is in the process of replacing its fleet of 396 KC-135 Stratotanker refueling aircraft, built in the 1950s and 60s, and 59 KC-10 Extenders, which entered service in 1981. Recent announcements indicate that the planned replacement program is changing significantly from its original form, which Congress may consider in evaluating the FY2022 defense budget requests.
The Air Force originally envisaged replacing the current tanker fleet in three stages.
- An initial acquisition of 179 new aircraft procured through the KC-X competition (won by the Boeing KC-46A) would replace roughly one-third of the KC-135 fleet.
- A further 179 tankers were projected to be procured in a second solicitation called KC-Y; initially projected as a new competition based on what aircraft were available at the time, it was subsequently recast as a continuation of KC-46A procurement.
- A third program, KC-Z, was to be a replacement for the KC-10 fleet, a larger tanker than the KC-46. Subsequently, the Air Force dropped plans for the KC-Z, envisioning it instead as a third tranche of KC-46s.
However, it now appears that tanker procurement plans have changed in at least two ways.
One is that the KC-Y program is now to be a full and open competition rather than a follow-on KC-46 contract. The Air Force released a “sources sought” notice on June 16, 2021, seeking a commercial derivative tanker aircraft. The requirement for commercial derivative, as opposed to new design, would seem to limit the field to the KC-46 and the Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport, a variant of which is being marketed in the U.S. by Lockheed Martin as the “LMXT.” An earlier version of the A330 tanker lost to Boeing after three rounds of a protracted and controversial KC-X competition.
The Air Force is referring to this prospective procurement as a “Bridge Tanker,” to fill in between the current KC-X and future KC-Z; it is not clear how or whether that nomenclature distinguishes the program from the already-scheduled KC-Y.
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