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KC-X Players Set For Opening Day

Illustration only of the proposed KC-X.
by Hil Anderson
UPI Correspondent
Los Angeles (UPI) March 30, 2007
One of the most important pitches of the year in Washington will be made in April, and it won't have anything to do with the hometown Nationals or the opening of another baseball season.

On April 12, two all-star teams of industrial heavyweights will make their formal bids to the U.S. Air Force for the KC-X contract, a project that will replace the entire U.S. air-tanker fleet, keep thousands of aerospace workers employed for years and be worth some $30 billion to the winning team.

"Everything we do, whether it's disaster relief, humanitarian relief, global vigilance, global strike or global mobility -- the thing that makes you 'global' is the jet tanker," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley told reporters during a mid-March visit to Grand Forks Air Force Base in North Dakota.

Moseley has declared the KC-X to be his top priority as the United States remains committed to a grand strategy of rapid intervention in far-flung trouble spots that depend heavily on air power and airlift. Being able to refuel in flight has been as essential to U.S. power projection as aircraft carriers, overseas bases and Marine expeditionary forces. But time has caught up with the current KC-135 air tankers, and the Air Force is now ready to take the plunge and commit itself to the KC-X project.

"It will be the most comprehensive program in a half a century and it is pretty clear that the investment required to recapitalize this big fleet will ensure that it will be many decades before the next such recapitalization activity occurs," Northrop President and Chief Operating Office Wes Bush told a media briefing in Washington. "And that is why it is so important to get it right."

It is now up to the Boeing team and the rival Northrop Grumman varsity to convince the Air Force that their respective aircraft is the best way to get it right in terms of capabilities and price.

The match-ups largely boil down to a matter of size and money, and the two competitors contend that the facts are in their favor.

Both proposed tankers, Boeing's KC-767 and Northrop's KC-30, are based on existing civilian airliners and are in the final stages of testing with prospects in the overseas market. The KC-30 is larger than the Boeing plane, which is about the same size as the KC-135, a fact not lost on Northrop.

"The KC-30 offers our military much more than a 50-year-old capability replicated at a new aircraft price," Bush declared.

The price tags are, of course, sobering as is often the case with military hardware, and could go as high as $40 billion for the first 179 aircraft. As the immortal Sen. Everett Dirkson once said, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."

Estimates floating around Washington peg the KC-767 at equivalent to the $120 million civilian version. The KC-30 is based on the Airbus 330-130, which retails at around $160 million, but holds about 20 percent more fuel than the Boeing model.

Northrop's argument is that although the KC-30 costs more, it can carry about 20-percent more fuel, which gives it the ability to top off more planes per sortie and to get them back in the fight faster. The ability to loiter in the area longer, Northrop contends, is important due to the fact that precision-guided weapons allow planes like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to remain on scene longer themselves waiting for a prime target rather than flying in and flying out.

"These fifth-generation fighters demand a fifth-generation tanker," offered Northrop Vice President Paul Meyer, the program manager for the KC-30.

Boeing's counterpoint is that the KC-767 is proven technology that while smaller in capacity, is a better fit with the current Air Force infrastructure. Boeing built the KC-135 and argues that the KC-767 could be effortlessly integrated into existing bases, maintenance facilities and parts stream.

Mark McGraw, who manages the KC-767 program for Boeing, says that philosophy helped convince Japan and Italy to adopt the plane for their air forces.

"Rather than taking a risk on an unproven technology, they can take advantage of years of hard work and flight-test experience and receive the world's most advanced (refueling) boom technology today," McGraw said recently.

With both planes offering relative strengths and weaknesses, Washington can look forward to a great spring match-up that doesn't have anything to do with baseball but will still go down as a classic pitching duel.

Source: United Press International

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