This week we’re talking about tankers, which is convenient because next week we’ll be off to the tanker to refuel.
Don’t worry, our quest for world domination will resume the following week when we rejoin the fight. Meanwhile, follow us on your social media platform of choice (links at the bottom).
Now fence in for your 5 minutes of weekly SA.
This summer the Air Force launched the KC-Y bridge tanker competition, and it means more to the Air Force than you think.
The KC-Y competition seeks to buy 160 commercial derivative tankers as a bridge between KC-46 (the artist formerly known as KC-X) and KC-Z, a future clean-sheet tanker design that does not exist.
Why would we cover this? Because if there is one thing the Air Force has proven it’s terrible at, it's buying a tanker. In fact, its previous effort generated enough fodder to be a reality-based sequel for the Pentagon Wars. The plot continually pits a Boeing 767-based tanker against an Airbus A330-based tanker, the two main strategic tankers in production.
Here’s a handy graphic that sums up this dramcom.
Brace yourselves: Did you know that tanker fuel capacity was never a factor considered in the KC-X competition?
It's all due to the contract structure the Air Force used, called lowest price technically acceptable. This stipulates that with almost no regard to common sense, the lowest price wins.
Technically, it directs that no credit should be granted for the bidder (the contractor), nor any value is assessed to be gained by the user (the warfighter), for exceeding the technical requirements if the bids were close.
Turns out, Boeing bid way less than its competitor, so much so that 92 additional attributes weren’t even looked at—pesky things you might want in a tanker like fuel capacity, endurance, payload, and operational reach. #donthatetheplayerhatethegame
FYI: The A330 MRTT carries 33,000-lb. more fuel than the KC-46.
Right now the Air Force is supposed to have 95 fully-functioning KC-46s…but only has ~45 mostly-functional ones. Meanwhile, Boeing’s cost overruns on KC-46 now exceed $5 billion (with a B).
OBTW: That doesn’t include the $100 million boom redesign the Air Force is paying, which is literally one of the only engineering differences between the 767 tankers already in operation in Japan and Italy.
That’s not all. In the 20 years it took for this drama to unfold, two things have happened:
- The aging tanker fleet got 20-years older. #math
- The threats to aircraft and airfields grew orders of magnitude.
The KC-Y competition is the latest round in the tanker wars, but this time all signs point to the need for not only more tankers—but for more fuel.
Here's where KC-Y may take a twist.
Lockheed Martin has jumped into the mix and monster-garaged the A330 MRTT enough to add 26,000 lbs. of additional fuel—a full 59,000 lbs. more fuel than the current KC-46.
They are calling this the LMXT and our bar napkin math shows that it not only out-ranges the KC-46 and KC-135, it can also carry more fuel at longer ranges than the larger three-engine KC-10 in some scenarios. No doubt that Lockheed's MRTT-based LMXT will have some other tech on board to sweeten the pot, like automatic refueling.
But will this allure of fuel, range, and payload be enough to overcome the sigmatism of buying domestic versus foreign aircraft?
Grab the popcorn, it appears Lockheed is also serious about shifting Airbus’ current MRTT conversion and assembly location from Spain to multiple locations in the US.
Whatever tanker wins, if it shows up on time, at cost, and performs as promised…the Air Force better name it the Unicorn.
In That Number
The percent of fighter pilots in FY2021 who elected to remain in the Air Force after their initial service commitment ended.
The service has now missed its 65% fighter pilot retention goal for 13 consecutive years.
Trivia: OTD in 2014, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (aka unmanned space plane) completed the program’s third mission and landed after 675 days in space. The sixth mission is currently in orbit. Who owns it?
B. Air Force
C. Space Force
The Pentagon’s new head of research and engineering wants another tool to help bridge the acquisition valley of death. One of Heidi Shyu’s top priorities is engaging Congress to create a funded Phase III Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) tranche. This would be aimed at product commercialization of the prototypes commonly built under Phase II SBIRs. Yes, technically "Phase III SBIR" currently exists, but it's just a paper tiger because 1) it's not SBA-backed, and 2) it's a massive leap from Phase II that small companies can’t execute. Shyu is asking Congress to include a new funded “in-between Phase II and III” step, which would essentially codify the Supplemental Funding Pilot Program (i.e. TACFI and STRATFI) that AFWERX has been trying out to fill the current Phase III conundrum. #EasyWinWin4CongressandBusiness Speaking of Phase III SBIR, Rocket Lab won a NASA Phase III SBIR contract to launch the space agency’s solar sail propulsion system demonstrator. Speaking of Rocket Lab, they just acquired Colorado-based aerospace software engineering firm Advanced Solutions Inc. for $40 million.
They Said It
“If things start to progress in success stories and as we start to buy more than onesies twosies the price curve will come down.”
— Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu on the excessive cost-per-shot of existing hypersonics programs
Do you know what else is expensive? Losing.
Cooperative Research and Development Agreement: CRADA is a tool that helps move federally funded R&D into the private sector by permitting a private company and a government agency to work together to develop something. The ultimate goal of CRADA is technology transfer.
Why it Matters:
Interesting: Orbit Fab signed a CRADA with the Air Force Research Laboratory
Compelling: For the first time, the Space Force (via SpaceWERX) signed a CRADA with a venture capital firm (Embedded Ventures).
This week the Air Force released a photo of their new 5,000 lb. GBU-72 JDAM being test-dropped from an F-15E.
Many a joke has been made about the military’s addiction to, and wholesale abuse of, every staff officers’ weapon of choice: PowerPoint. A sub-sector of that brain drain is the military’s obsession with continually making terrible charts. Zoom in here for a Twitter account that exists purely to publicly ridicule defense charts.
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Trivia Answer: If you guessed A or B, you are partially right. The X-37B is an Air Force asset managed by the service’s Rapid Capabilities Office; however, the Space Force is responsible for the launch, on-orbit operations, and landing. OBTW, it started as a NASA project in 1999.
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