Airbus joins forces with Lockheed to step in Boeing’s backyard
One company's demise is another one's opportunity. Or in this case, two companies. Lockheed Martin and Airbus signed a memorandum of agreement to “jointly explore opportunities to meet the growing demand for aerial refueling for US defense customers.” The manufacturers are taking advantage of the difficulties encountered by Boeing's KC-46A Pegasus.
It was Airbus (partnered with Northrop Grumman at the time) that initially won the KC-X tender launched by the Pentagon for a new refueling system to equip the United States Air Force. With its A330 MRTT already in production, the European manufacturer was way ahead of its American rival whose KC-46 “Pegasus” was still on the drawing board. However, political concerns invited themselves into the acquisition process, and after several years of lobbying, the contract was eventually taken away from Airbus and given to Boeing. 179 aircraft were ordered, with the first aircraft to be delivered around May 2016, and the following 17 by 2017.
But since then, the KC-46 program had a bumpy flight, and the USAF is still waiting for its planes. The development of the tanker exceeded the initial forecast by $3 billion (which hints at a deliberate underestimation to win the contract over Airbus), and the delivery has been constantly delayed.
The last precise deadline in date, October 2018, was finally postponed to “a little later” by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in an interview to Bloomberg. In March 2018, Wilson commented on the matter in front of the Congress: “One of our frustrations with Boeing is they’re much more focused on their commercial activity than on getting this right for the Air Force and getting these aircraft to the Air Force”. As Boeing was contractually obliged to deliver 18 planes and 9 refueling pods by October 2018, it will now face financial penalties. The KC-46 is currently ongoing certification with the FAA.
Boeing’s struggle comes as a perfect opportunity for Airbus and Lockheed Martin to offer their services to the USAF and its allies, both in the short and long term. “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,” they said in a common press release.
In the coming twenty years, the USAF will need two new types of refueling aircraft. The programs should be respectively known as KC-Y, to replace the gigantic KC-10s, and KC-Z, a stealth tanker. This new partnership could allow Airbus to put its A330MRTT on the table once more, in a version adapted to the needs of the USAF that would use Lockheed Martin’s competence in the matter. The tanker is now operated by six air forces around the world, and has already seen some actions.
While awaiting for the KC-Y tender to begin, Airbus could offer a leasing service to the USAF, in a similar way as AirTanker is already doing for the Royal Air Force with its ten Airbus Voyagers (A330 MRTT).
With Lockheed Martin as a partner, Airbus could set a foot in the U.S. defense industry… for good this time.