US Air Force warns budget delays could jeopardize NGAS tanker fielding

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s plan to field a next-generation refueling tanker by the mid-2030s could be in jeopardy if the service has to operate under lengthy continuing resolutions, a top service official said Tuesday.

Andrew Hunter, the assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said in an interview with Defense News at the Pentagon that a lengthy continuing resolution in fiscal 2024, and possibly the following year, could hinder how quickly the service begins work on the next-generation aerial refueling system, or NGAS, program, thus leading to problems down the road.

“The longer you take to get started, obviously, that has back-end consequences,” Hunter said.

When asked if those consequences could affect the mid-2030s goal, Hunter replied: “Correct.”

The Air Force still plans to launch a formal analysis of alternatives for NGAS in early fiscal 2024, Hunter said, adding that “hopefully we’ll get an FY24 budget sometime soon.”

That analysis is expected to produce recommendations on what a future NGAS tanker would need to meet the Air Force’s goals.

If Congress cannot pass a formal budget on time and the Air Force has to operate under a continuing resolution, Hunter said, the service will be able to continue its preparatory work on the analysis now underway. The NGAS analysis doesn’t require a lot of money, he explained, which makes it easier to reallocate funds to keep it going under a continuing resolution.

But once NGAS moves beyond the analysis and “to the stage of really wanting to work directly with industry — establish vendor pools, those kinds of things that we’ve talked about for NGAS — we’re going to need a real budget to do that,” Hunter said.

And other, larger new programs — meant to address “operational imperatives” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall believes are necessary to transform and counter a potential threat from China — will also require more money in an FY24 budget to get started, Hunter said.

“The longer we wait on ’24, the further we will fall behind on addressing our operational imperatives,” Hunter said.

The Air Force earlier this year shifted course on the two tanker recapitalization stages that will follow the ongoing KC-46 acquisition. Originally the service envisioned following up with KC-Y, a so-called bridge tanker acquisition of roughly 150 refueling planes, and then a next-generation KC-Z in the 2040s.

But China’s rapidly developing air capabilities prompted the service to move up the next-gen tanker it now refers to as NGAS to the mid-2030s, and scale back its interim KC-135 recapitalization to roughly 75.

Hunter also said the Air Force hopes its revamped strategy for its next refueling tanker, in between the current KC-46 purchase and NGAS, will allow it to proceed with a less extensive engineering and manufacturing development phase than the previous KC-Y approach would have required.

Hunter said the service still plans to finish the KC-135 recapitalization’s joint capabilities integration and development system, or JCIDS, process and release a request for information later this month. Boeing and Lockheed Martin are expected to compete for the next tanker, with the former likely to offer a slightly modified KC-46, and the latter pitching its LMXT tanker.

An artist’s rendering shows the potential LMXT tanker refueling a Next Generation Air Dominance fighter. (Courtesy of Lockheed Martin)

Hunter said this RFI will ask industry to detail what it could provide that is “more aligned with the KC-X [or KC-46] requirement than with the KC-Y requirement that we had originally talked to them about.”

“We wanted to make sure that we went back to industry to give them an opportunity to offer information relevant to that [new] requirement, which is most of the way through the JCIDS process,” Hunter said. “It’s gotten very firm.”

The Air Force also wants to better understand how industry sees the timing of how quickly they could deliver a follow-on tanker to replace KC-135s, Hunter said. The length of time it might take for industry to deliver a KC-Y tanker was one factor that prompted the Air Force to rethink its strategy to accelerate NGAS and scale back its interim tanker purchase.

When Hunter announced the new tanker strategy in March, he predicted Boeing would be able to deliver modified KC-46s in 2032, and Lockheed’s LMXT tanker, if chosen, would likely come in 2034.

Lockheed Martin and Airbus, partners on LMXT, disagreed that delivery of its tanker would take that long. Hunter later said industry asked the Air Force to explain in greater detail its concerns about timing.

“They were not understanding how we saw things folding out,” Hunter said. “Now we’ve had much more opportunity to give them information about how we see deliveries happening, and for them to then take that and come back and say: ‘This is what we think we can really deliver on.’ ”

The Air Force’s current strategy is focused on how important it is to deliver the next iteration of tankers as quickly as possible after the end of the current KC-46 contract, without a significant gap. The service now plans to buy 179 KC-46s, and expects to receive the final KC-46 tankers in 2029.

Hunter said the greatest difference between how the Air Force saw the KC-Y procurement proceeding and how industry saw it was on the need for an engineering and manufacturing development, or EMD, program. Industry felt it could meet the KC-Y requirement using existing, off-the-shelf technologies, he added.

But, Hunter noted, it wouldn’t have been that simple; the individual technologies might have been off-the-shelf, but they had never been integrated into the kind of system that KC-Y would have needed. That would have required conducting risk reduction through an EMD program to demonstrate the proposed design would work, and then take it into production, he explained.

“What was different about how we were seeing the schedule, versus how industry was seeing the schedule is, they were just seeing it as: You start a program, and then after 2, 3, 4 years we start building and delivering aircraft,” Hunter said. “They were leaving out, I think, the time frame for an EMD program.”

Hunter said the Air Force also might not have had the money in its budget to begin and rapidly progress an EMD program for KC-Y.

“That was some of the disconnect,” Hunter said. “They had very favorable — for themselves — assumptions about: ‘Hey, we can go very rapidly towards aircraft production without doing much of an EMD effort. And to the extent that any EMD would be required, you could start it right away, and you could proceed very quickly.’ And you just have to bump that up against [the] reality of, what does the Air Force budget actually look like?”

“We have generally higher expectations than industry sometimes does about how much we want to know in an EMD program before we initiate production,” he added.

The Air Force hopes its new strategy of a more limited purchase of tankers not far off from the previous KC-X requirements will be simpler and proceed more quickly, Hunter said.

“Our hope is that there would be very modest, if any, new technology integration required [for the] KC-135 replacement,” he noted. “Because we have effectively done that with the [KC-46] aircraft that are out in the world flying today. So that does lend itself to the possibility that you could proceed to production significantly faster under this approach.”

When asked if he saw Lockheed and Airbus’s proposed LMXT tanker as still having a shot, Hunter responded: “Absolutely.

“I’m assuming Lockheed will include that in their RFI,” he said. “So that would that mean that it would still be under consideration.”

Hunter explained that the main change to the requirements for the next tanker are coming in its communications architecture. The requirements for the KC-46 were set nearly 14 years ago, he said, and communications requirements have evolved considerably since then.

The next aerial refueling fleet will also need much more ability to connect to and communicate with other aircraft or systems in a future war, he added, but those changes should not present a great challenge for industry.

“We’re not seeing that as things that industry fundamentally doesn’t know how to do, or that they’ve never had to integrate before.”