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Bridge Tanker / KC-Y - KC-10 Replacement

The Secretary of the Air Force has committed to a continuous recapitalization of the 479 legacy tanker fleet and this includes replacement of the aging KC-135 fleet. The KC-135 will be 70 years old when the Air Force receives its last KC-46 delivery in FY 2029. Therefore, the Air Force intends to move forward with a Bridge Tanker air-refueling aircraft acquisition program. The Bridge Tanker is planned as a non-developmental program, based on existing and emerging technologies. The Bridge Tanker acquisition is expected to be a full and open competition. The quantity of the procurement is still under analysis for 140-160 aircraft, with possible future options for additional aircraft. The tanker will bridge the gap between the capabilities offered by the Boeing KC-46A and the future follow-on Advanced Air Refueling (AAR) Tanker.

The Tanker Recapitalization planned to replace 479 legacy tankers in three phases known originally as KC-X, KC-Y, and KC-Z. The concept remains the same, but there is some updated terminology:

  • KC-X was awarded to Boeing in 2011 with deliveries beginning in 2019 and became the aircraft designated KC-46A. It is expected to deliver the last of 179 aircraft by 2029.
  • KC-Y, now called Bridge Tanker, initially planned to replace the KC-10 but now plans to acquire approximately 140-160 aircraft starting no earlier than 2029 via a competitive award for a commercial derivative solution to replace the the rest of the KC-135 fleet.
  • KC-Z is now Advanced Air Refueling (AAR) and is the planned future development and acquisition of new air refueling capabilities. The precise requirements and timeframe are still being determined.

Production of the Bridge Tanker aircraft is desired to begin no earlier than 2029. Delivery of Bridge Tanker aircraft is desired to begin no earlier than 2029 and continue at a rate of ~12 aircraft per year until all aircraft are delivered. This is planned to be a commercial derivative program. The Air Force recognized it was too early to predict a precise Bridge Tanker delivery schedule, and was seeking industry input on the viability of the desired on-going tanker recapitalization program. With KC-46A production currently projected to complete in 2029, the Air Force desired industry responses that best align with Bridge Tanker aircraft deliveries starting in, or shortly after, 2029. Although the Air Force desired the Bridge Tanker to be ‘fully operational’ by 2029 (meaning the first delivered aircraft is capable of meeting all Bridge Tanker requirements), it was seeking industry input on the viability of such a requirement based on planned commercial derivative aircraft capabilities, identifying any risks or shortfalls that may impact your ability to deliver against this projected requirement.

As part of its market research, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center / Bridge Tanker Program Office (AFLCMC/WLQ) issued a Sources Sought 16 June 2021 [updated 23 July 2021] to determine if there exists an adequate number of qualified interested contractors capable of providing solutions to meet the requirement. The Government may use the responses to this Sources Sought for information and planning purposes. The Air Force is seeking companies that have the capability to deliver approximately 140-160 Commercial Derivative Tanker Aircraft—at a rate of 12 to 15 per year—to supplement the Air Force Tanker Aircraft fleet at the end of KC-46A production, and bridge the gap to the next Tanker recapitalization phase. The Commercial Derivative Aircraft must be operational by 2029. The Air Force is still finalizing the requirements for this acquisition. However, the baseline for aircraft capability will be based on the requirements from phase one of tanker recapitalization with subsequent and emerging requirements as defined by the Air Force.

KC-Y - KC-10 Replacement

The Air Force revised its acquisition strategy in 2007 and planned to recapitalize the aerial tanker fleet by developing three consecutive acquisition programs: KC-X, KC-Y, and KC-Z. The intention of those programs was to represent different tanker aircraft platforms. Air Force staff have described the KC-Y and KC-Z programs as budgetary "off ramps."

The Air Force needs to replace its aging KC-135 tankers, which have an average age of 49 years. Replacement of the legacy fleet will take place in three stages, known as the KC-X, the KC-Y, and the KC-Z. The initial KC-X increment will replace roughly a third of the current capability with the purchase of 179 aircraft. The KC-X will be able to provide fuel to joint and coalition receivers via a boom or drogue system on every mission and will also augment the airlift fleet with cargo, passenger and medical evacuation capabilities.

Senior Department of Defense and Air Force officials announced the rollout of the KC-X Acquisition Program at a Pentagon briefing 24 September 209. Air Force leaders were seeking a replacement for the KC-135 Stratotanker that has been a stalwart of the tanker fleet for more than 53 years. "As we integrate the KC-X into the fleet, we will begin evaluating our future tanker needs and begin work on the second phase, KC-Y," Michael Donley, secretary of the Air Force, said. A third phase is called KC-Z.

Under the Future Technology for Aerial Refueling (FTAR) program, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the USA would conduct collaborative study work in the automation of aerial refueling, to include manned and unmanned receivers, operation in a mixed manned and unmanned combat environment, and operation of unmanned tankers.

The Air Force announced selection of the Boeing tanker in February 2011. Replacement of the legacy KC-135 fleet will take place in three stages, known as the KC-X (now the KC-46), KC-Y, and the KC-Z. The KC-46 will provide fuel to joint and coalition receivers via a boom or drogue system on every mission and will also augment the airlift fleet with cargo, passenger and aeromedical evacuation capabilities. The KC-46 will be able to operate in day/night and adverse weather conditions to enable deployment, employment, sustainment and redeployment of U.S. joint, allied, and coalition forces.

KC-46 funding will support various studies and analyses including the five-nation Future Technology for Aerial Refueling (FTAR) project, and KC-Y/KC-Z planning activities. The intention of those programs was to represent different tanker aircraft platforms. Over a 15- to 20-year period, the Air Force plans to acquire as many as 179 KC-X aircraft by competitively procuring as many as 80 commercial-derivative aircraft. The Air Force retains an option to acquire at least 99 aircraft from the winner of the competitive procurement using a noncompetitive acquisition. Alternatively, the Air Force may bypass future KC-X aircraft in favor of a new KC-Y competition based on a different aircraft platform..

Air Mobility Command director of strategic plans, requirements and programs discussed innovation and technology that will shape the total force mobility enterprise in the coming years during an Air Mobility Command requirements brief at the 2014 Air Force Association Air & Space Conference and Technology Exposition, Washington, DC, 16 September 2014. Maj. Gen. Michael S. Stough highlighted additional autonomy on the next-generation KC-Y or KC-Z. Stough said that concept doesn’t necessarily mean fully autonomous or unmanned as the next step. He said it could include looking at how future generations of tankers can add autonomy in ways that allow for potentially decreasing the number of crew members on an aircraft, or keeping the same number but increasing the safety, assistance, and decision-making ability the crew- members have. “We think there’s great promise in autonomy,” he said.

The future "KC-Z" tanker could look very different than the large-bodied, commercially derived tankers of today; it could be stealthy, carry missile-shooting lasers, and even fly autonomously.

Speaking at a press briefing during the Air Force Association's annual conference on 20 September, General Carlton Everhart, head of US Air Force Air Mobility Command, said that the 179 KC-46As in the USAF's budget plan are insufficient. He also wants procurement of the KC-Z to occur in 2035, with any potential gap filled by a KC-Y program. "I want to jump the leap in technology to go straight to the KC-Z," he said. "If it means to bridge that, sure. But I'm also looking to the next leaps in technology because we do supply fuel to the nation."

Everhart said the Air Force will initiate a study in 2016 to examine potential technology for the KC-Z. He said that he was interested in standoff and penetrating capabilities for an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) environment. "We're going to need a platform that we've never seen before," he said. "The blended or hybrid wing, it's a lifting body and it has a capability of being low observable." He added that an unmanned tanker similar to the US Navy's MQ-25A Stingray could also be of interest.

The next tranche to replace the Air Force's 59 wide-body KC-10 tankers, dubbed KC-Y, was initially expected around 2020-2024. The first 179 were the KC-X competition. It would start all over again in a few more years. The Air Force will take a look at the 179 aircraft that are on hand. The Air Force will will look at the requirements and then go back in and look at the second tranche, known as the KC-Y. The plan calls for procurement of 15 KC-Ys a year from 2024-36, then nine KC-Zs a year until 2048.

On 04 December 2018 Lockheed Martin and Airbus signed an agreement to "jointly explore opportunities to meet the growing demand for aerial refuelling for US defence customers". The companies will seek to provide aerial-refuelling services to address any identified capacity shortfall and to meet requirements for the next generation of tankers capable of operating in the challenging environments of the future battlespace.

“Reliable and modernized aerial refuelling is an essential capability for our customers to maintain their global reach and strategic advantage,” said Lockheed Martin Chairman, President and CEO Marillyn Hewson. “By combining the innovation and expertise of Airbus and Lockheed Martin, we will be well positioned to provide the United States Air Force and allies around the world with the advanced refuelling solutions needed to meet 21st century security challenges.”

“The US Air Force deserves the best aerial-refuelling technology and performance available under the sun and this great industry team, Lockheed Martin and Airbus, will offer exactly that,” said Tom Enders, Airbus CEO. The companies are taking a cooperative approach, with the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (A330 MRTT) at its heart, to examine a broad spectrum of opportunities. These may range from ways to support critical near-term air-refuelling needs, such as a fee-for-service structure to conceptualizing the tanker of the future.

Airbus Defence and Space Head of Military Aircraft Fernando Alonso said: “The A330 MRTT has been selected by a dozen nations around the world. It is extensively proven in live operations and has been repeatedly praised by major air forces. We are convinced that the combination of Airbus’ tanker expertise with Lockheed Martin’s extensive US presence, has the potential to provide highly effective solutions for current and future US military aerial-refuelling requirements.”

Lockheed Martin has a long and successful history of systems integration, manufacturing and MRO operations with large airlift and tanker aircraft. When combined with Airbus’ expertise, the two companies will field a strong team to address future air refuelling needs. “Airbus is an industry leader in the aerial refuelling area, and Lockheed Martin is known for cutting-edge defensive technologies and capabilities,” said Michele Evans, Executive Vice President, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. “This is a great opportunity for our two companies to combine our expertise – cooperating to develop world-class solutions for critical needs around the world.”

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