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The Curse Of the KC-767
by James Dunnigan
June 10, 2009

Recently, Japan placed three of its four new KC-767 aerial tankers on active duty. The fourth tanker will arrive by the end of the year. While this is a bit of good news for the KC-767, this aircraft design is getting hammered by the competing design from Airbus. Last year, the U.S. Air Force selected the Airbus aircraft, called the KC-30 (based on the Airbus 330-300, which normally sells for $160 million each), over the KC-767. The KC-30 carries 20 percent more fuel than the KC-767, plus more cargo pallets (26 versus 19) and passengers. These were apparently decisive factors in the final decision. Legal action overturned the air force decision, and the selection of a new U.S. tanker is still up for grabs. But the KC-30"MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) is getting more orders worldwide, and may still win the USAF contract to replace the biggest tanker fleet on the planet.

The KC-767 is based on the Boeing 767-200 airliner, which sells for about $120 million. The 767 has been in service since 1982, and over 800 have been manufactured so far. Boeing developed the KC-767, at a cost of nearly a billion dollars, on its own. Boeing also developed the original KC-135 tanker in the 1950s, and has since built over 2,000 of these. But the KC-767 sales effort was marred by the earlier use of bribes and other misbehavior. 

The two engine KC-30 was to be officially be known as the KC-45A, and would have replaced the four engine KC-135. The older aircraft carries 90 tons of fuel and can transfer up to 68 tons. Typically, aerial tankers have to service B-52s, which carry over 140 tons of jet fuel, and fighters like the F-15 (over five tons). The KC-135 has long made itself useful carrying cargo and passengers, as well as fuel, and both the KC-767 and KC-30 have more capacity for this, with the KC-30 having a decisive edge.

The KC-767 was developed partly because it is about the same size as the KC-135 (wingspan is 156 feet, ten more than the KC-135). Thus the 767 could use the same basing and repair facilities as the 135. That was not a critical factor. Moreover, Airbus has been developing the KC-30 for several years, and the first entered service with Australia last year.

The contract to build 179 KC-45As is worth about $35 billion (about $196 million per aircraft). Airbus offered to do nearly half the work in the United States The first KC-45s were enter service by 2012, rolling out of an assembly plant in the United States. But now it may be several years more before the half century old KC-135s replaced.


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