SEATTLE/GETAFE, Spain ― Competition for Seoul’s project to procure four aerial tankers is heating up as contenders highlight the ways they can help enhance South Korea’s air defense with several months to go until the announcement of the winner.
Currently three competitors ― Boeing’s KC-46, Airbus’ A330 MRTT and Israel Aerospace Industries’ B767 MMTT ― have been vying to clinch the deal worth 1.4 trillion won ($1.25 billion) since Seoul gave public notice of its plan in March to introduce four tankers between 2017 and 2019.
Seoul initially planned to announce the winner next month. But its decision is expected to be delayed to early next year as negotiations are likely to be prolonged due to the bidders’ failure to meet the requirements Seoul proposed as part of the offset agreements.
Airbus’ A330 MRTT (left), Boeing’s KC-46
“We are nearing the tail end of our price negotiations. But the competitors’ proposals regarding the offset agreements are yet to satisfy our targets. Thus, there may be a delay in choosing the winner,” an official of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration said, declining to be named.
“But we are trying our best now in consideration of our best national interests. We may need at least one or two more months to finish negotiations.”
In the defense sector, offset agreements usually involve technology transfer and other support programs.
The South Korean military has set its sights on refueling aircraft since the mid-1990s as its fighters can operate over vulnerable areas such as its easternmost islets of Dokdo ― which Japan has claimed ― for only half an hour. With refueling, combat aircraft could operate for longer durations.
Highlighting interoperability with the U.S. Air Force, military protection systems, fuel efficiency and cheaper operating costs, Boeing has touted its KC-46 tanker, a military derivative of the 767 aircraft, as the “combat multirole tanker, (the) only one of its kind in the world.”
Pointing out that the U.S. Air Force is to procure 179 KC-46s by 2027, Boeing stresses that the KC-46 is the best candidate for South Korea in terms of interoperability with its long-standing security ally, the U.S.
“We think there is a great opportunity around the world for the KC-46, not only in Korea but in some other parts of the world because of the capability of the jet, but also the commonality and interoperability with all the forces around the world,” Timothy Norgart, vice president of Business Development for Boeing Military, told reporters.
Apart from the interoperability, Boeing underscores a series of wartime defensive features including enhanced capability to fend off electromagnetic pulse attacks and operate under chemical and biological combat environments, night-vision abilities and an armored crew compartment.
In terms of the capability to carry fuel and passengers, the KC-46 lags behind Airbus’ A330 MRTT. It can carry 96.1 tons of fuel along with up to 114 passengers, while the A330 MRTT can carry 111 tons of fuel and 266 passengers.
But Boeing argues that a bigger plane does not necessarily make it a better tanker, and that a smaller plane could operate in any airfields in any part of the world, while a bigger plane may have difficulty entering and maneuvering in small airfields.
It also claims that to make the tanker lighter to be absolutely efficient, tanker operators should ensure that they carry only the amount of the fuel needed for their specific missions ― mostly training missions.
“You don’t just send the tanker up in the air to sit as a gas station. When the tanker takes off, it is going off for a specific mission, you are going to know exactly how many planes you are going to refuel, you know exactly how much gas you need,” said Conrad Chun, Boeing’s senior communications officer.
“That is how much you are going to take up with you. We are not taking any more, because it is going to be too much weight, meaning it would cost you more money (to operate the tanker).”
Another strong point that Boeing emphasizes is its sixth-generation refueling boom capability, which the company has developed for some 33 years.
The boom can transfer 1,200 gallons of fuel per minute to a fuel receiver and has a far wider “refueling envelop” ― the volume of air behind the tanker that a receiver can operate in ― which would help fighter pilots more easily receive fuel from the tanker.
The weakest point of the KC-46 is that the development of the tanker has yet to be completed. Though the target year for its completion is 2017, that is the same year Seoul wants to start deploying the tanker. Critics express concerns that Korea may end up failing to thoroughly check the stated capabilities of the KC-46 before 2017.
But Airbus’ A330 MRTT is an already developed tanker, which Britain, Australia, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, France, Qatar and India have decided to purchase. Spain is also considering the MRTT as a potential candidate for its tanker acquisition program.
“With 34 units sold to five major air forces and having been selected as preferred bidder in India, Qatar, France and Spain, the A330 MRTT is the only solution which offers proven operational effectiveness,” Irene Barrio Martin, the manager of the MRTT Market Development, told reporters.
“Furthermore, these earlier customers have borne the development costs and technological risk derived from those technically immature solutions that have never been operationally tested yet. The MRTT is therefore a cost-effective and zero-risk option with no possibility of time or cost overruns.”
The A330 MRTT is based on the A330-200, one of the popular civil platforms. Airbus underscores its tanker’s capability to conduct a variety of missions including air-to-air refueling, the transport of passengers and military personnel, and aerial medical evacuation.
“The selection in recent years, by five of the world’s premier air forces of Airbus A330 MRTT ― enjoying almost total market dominance ― underlines the versatility and adaptability of our tanker,” said Martin.
Airbus officials dismiss the concerns that only the U.S. tanker would ensure interoperability with the U.S. Air Force.
“The A330 MRTT physical compatibility with receivers across the world was established, demonstrated and certified to allow coalition interoperability,” said Airbus in a media presentation.
“In order to provide the best practice in the air-to-air refueling missions, air forces gather around proven training opportunities in the international area where American (KC-10 and KC-135 tankers) and European tankers (A310 MRTT and A330 MRTT) physically train together.”
Like Boeing’s 767 aircraft platform, Airbus stresses the popularity of the A330 platform and its global maintenance support system. Currently more than 1,080 A330 aircraft are in service, while more than 1,000 767 aircraft are also in operation.
Israel’s IAI has offered a tanker based on the secondhand 767 aircraft. As it is a tanker made out of a used plane, the price is known to be around half the price of its competitors.
By Song Sang-ho, Joint Press Corps