Lockheed Martin and Airbus jointly announced the selection of GE Aerospace’s CF6-80E1 engine for the LMXT strategic tanker.
The US Air Force already operates aircraft using the CF6 under the military designations F103 and F138. These include the Lockheed Martin C-5M Super Galaxy military transport aircraft and the soon-to-be-retired McDonnell Douglas KC-10 Extender tanker.
“The A330 MRTT has been refueling U.S. aircraft in combat since 2015, and I look forward to seeing a GE-powered LMXT step into that role, providing a level of capability that US forces have clearly shown they need,” said C. Jeffrey Knittel, chairman and CEO, Airbus Americas.
The LMXT is a variant of the Airbus A330 MRTT tailored by Lockheed Martin to suit the needs of the USAF. The aircraft, heavily based on the European tanker, is poised to offer an extra 12 tons of fuel compared to the A330 MRTT of other operators, and 27 tons more than Boeing’s KC-46 Pegasus, its main competitor.
The “bridge tanker” competition of the USAF in jeopardy?
Since the turn of the millennium, the USAF has been attempting to modernize its fleet of aerial refuelers. After several stalled attempts, it was decided in 2007 to renew the fleet in three installments, known as the KC-X, KC-Y and KC-Z programs.
Airbus (partnered with Northrop Grumman at the time) initially won the KC-X tender launched by the Pentagon for a new refueling system to equip the United States Air Force. But after intense lobbying, the contract was taken away from Airbus and put back out for tender by the USAF. In 2011, Boeing was awarded the contract after what was described as an “aggressive” offer from its European competitor.
The KC-Y program was previously described as a “bridge tanker” between the first batch of 179 Boeing KC-46A tankers ordered following the KC-X tender, and the KC-Z. The latter will see manufacturers compete with a completely new and innovative design, whose requirements remain to be revealed but will likely focus on stealth and survivability.
However, the idea of holding a new competition for this bridge tanker may be in jeopardy, with the USAF mulling the acquisition of more KC-46s instead and moving ahead with the tender for a more disruptive tanker design, now known as the Next Generation Air refueling System, or NGAS. The USAF should give its final decision on its tanker acquisition strategy by the end of 2023.