USAF seeks new tankers through KC-Y programme

The US Air Force (USAF) has formally launched its KC-Y programme, which seeks to source a new commercial derivative tanker aircraft from a qualified, interested manufacturer to supplement its Boeing KC-46A Pegasus fleet from 2029.

Also known as the Bridge Tanker programme, the US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC) issued a Sources Sought Announcement (SSA) to industry on June 16 as part of its market research into the project. The SSA seeks to determine whether there exists an adequate number of qualified contractors that are capable of providing solutions to meet the air force’s requirements. Responses to the SSA may be used by the US government for information and planning purposes.

KC-46A departs Yokota AB Japan 25-10-18 [USAF/Yasuo Osakabe]
The USAF seeks to procure between 140 and 160 commercial derivative tanker aircraft (approximately) to supplement its Boeing KC-46A Pegasus fleet. Pictured is a KC-46A departing Yokota Air Base, Japan, during a systems evaluation on October 25, 2018. USAF/Yasuo Osakabe

Through the KC-Y programme, the USAF seeks to identify a manufacturer that can deliver between 140 and 160 commercial derivative tanker aircraft (approximately) at a rate of 12 to 15 examples per year. As per the programme’s requirements, the air force has outlined that this new commercially derived air-to-air refuelling asset must be operational by 2029. It adds that the new platform would supplement its growing KC-46A fleet, while allowing the service to replace its ageing Boeing KC-135R/T Stratotanker aircraft.

In a press release – issued on June 17 – the AFLCMC said: “The new aircraft will bridge the gap to the next Advanced Air Refueling Tanker recapitalisation phase, previously referred to as ‘KC-Z’. The existing KC-46A firm-fixed price contract is limited to 13 production lots, with the last planned procurement in 2027 and delivered in 2029…

“The KC-135 Stratotanker will be 70 years old when the air force expects to receive its last KC-46 delivery in 2029, and replacing these vital aircraft continues to be critical to the air force mission to project rapid global mobility in today’s strategically competitive environment,” it added.

KC-135 at Travis AFB on 18-05-17 [USAF/Louis Briscese]
While a second commercially derived tanker aircraft fleet is being sourced to supplement the USAF's KC-46A fleet, the new platform will also allow the air arm to replace its aged Boeing KC-135R/T Stratotanker fleet, which will be 70 years old by the time Pegasus production concludes. USAF/Louis Briscese

The baseline for the new tanker aircraft’s capabilities will be based on the requirements from the first phase of tanker recapitalisation. Any subsequent and emerging requirements will be defined by the USAF as the programme matures. The commercial derivative tanker aircraft will be based on existing and emerging technologies, and the type will be sourced through a full and open acquisition competition. Additionally, there are no plans for developmental stealth or unmanned capabilities to be incorporated into the project.

“The requirements for Bridge Tanker (KC-Y) are currently being defined and the necessary capabilities will be incorporated into the final Request for Proposal (RFP) once it is validated through the Department of Defense’s joint staffing process. The air forces plans to release the final RFP by the end of 2022,” the AFLCMC added.