With KC-Y tanker competition in doubt, next-gen KC-Z study to start ahead of schedule in 2024


The KC-Z will eventually replace the US Air Force’s KC-135 Stratotanker fleet. (U.S. Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Amber Monio)

DAYTON, Ohio — The US Air Force might begin development of its futuristic, next-generation tanker earlier than planned, according to a program official.

Development of the leap-ahead KC-Z tanker was originally slated to occur in the 2030s, but as a competition for a KC-Y tanker looks increasingly unlikely, the service is now planning on moving up KC-Z development, Paul Waugh, the Air Force’s program executive officer for mobility and training aircraft, told reporters last week.

Instead of waiting until the next decade to start work on KC-Z, the Air Force now plans to start “pre-analysis of alternatives work” next year, with a formal analysis of alternatives (AOA) to kick off in 2024, Waugh said.

The AOA will help the Air Force build out plans for a KC-Z family of systems, which could include a KC-Z tanker aircraft as well as “other technologies, whether it’s survivability, or connectivity, or maybe efficiencies that we want to pull into that family of systems,” he said.

Meanwhile, the program office expects to receive finalized requirements this fall for the KC-Y or “bridge tanker” that the service plans to acquire immediately after its initial 179 tanker buy of the Boeing KC-46 is complete. Over the past year, the program office has sought input from Boeing and Airbus for a business case analysis that will “help inform an acquisition decision after we have a set of requirements,” Waugh said.

If that timeline stays on track, the Air Force could come to a decision on its KC-Y acquisition strategy next spring, he said. That strategy is set to answer a looming question hanging over the aerospace industry: Will the Air Force seek out a competition between the KC-46 and the LMXT — an American version of Airbus’s A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport produced with Lockheed Martin — or will it simply continue buying the KC-46?

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has repeatedly said that, while a final decision has not been made, the outlook for a KC-Y competition was dwindling, as early work on the requirements hadn’t proven a need for a second tanker variant.

“I love competition. I’m all for it. It’s the best tool have to reduce costs. But we actually have to have a demand for the other aircraft that’s being offered,” Kendall told lawmakers in April. 

“And I’m trying to be as transparent and honest about this as I can be. It is not as certain as it was a year ago, let’s say, that we’re going to do a competition,” he said. “And I don’t want people to have a mis-impression about that.

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