Issue Briefs

Why The Air Force’s “Bridge Tanker” Will Likely Be A Bridge To Nowhere For Airbus (From Forbes)

Why The Air Force’s “Bridge Tanker” Will Likely Be A Bridge To Nowhere For Airbus (From Forbes)

Loren B. Thompson

July 15th, 2021

The U.S. Air Force wants to buy 140-160 commercial derivative tankers following completion of the present KC-46 production run in 2029. The effort is called a bridge tanker because it is the transition to a next-generation aerial refueler. Boeing and Airbus are both are likely to bid, in a replay of the competition that Boeing won ten years ago. There isn’t much reason to expect it will go differently this time since they are bidding the same basic airframes. The Airbus offering is bigger than the Boeing offering, but it isn’t clear that is advantageous given the amount of space it takes up on the ground and the amount of fuel it consumes in the air. Having a fleet split between two different tankers is likely to be more expensive than just buying one aircraft type, due to the need for different training procedures and spare parts. And the Airbus tanker would need to be upgraded to KC-46 standards (at least), entailing significant engineering challenges and prolonged certification testing. So at the moment, Boeing’s KC-46 looks like the plane to beat. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Loren B. Thompson is a Senior Adviser at GPI, Chief Operating Officer of the non-profit Lexington Institute and Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates, a for-profit consultancy. Prior to holding his present positions, he was Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and taught graduate-level courses in strategy, technology and media affairs at Georgetown. He has also taught at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Mr. Thompson holds doctoral and masters degrees in government from Georgetown University and a bachelor of science degree in political science from Northeastern University.