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Lockheed drops US Air Force tanker bid; partner Airbus to go it alone

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Lockheed drops US Air Force tanker bid; partner Airbus to go it alone

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WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin has ended its effort to compete for an Air Force contract to build the service’s next wave of 75 refueling tankers.

But Airbus, with whom Lockheed Martin had planned to build the proposed LMXT strategic tanker, will still compete for the KC-135 recapitalization. LMXT would have been based on Airbus’s A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport.

“Airbus remains committed to providing the U.S. Air Force and our warfighters with the most modern and capable tanker on the market and will formally respond to the United States Air Force KC-135 recapitalization” request for information, an Airbus spokesperson said in a Monday statement to Defense News. “The A330 U.S.-MRTT is a reliable choice for the U.S. Air Force; one that will deliver affordability, proven performance and unmatched capabilities.”

In an earlier statement, Lockheed spokeswoman Stephanie Stinn said the company had decided not to respond to the Air Force’s RFI. The news was first reported by Reuters.

Stinn said Lockheed plans to transition the team and resources working on the proposed LMXT strategic tanker to other programs, including the next-generation aerial refueling system, or NGAS, program.

Lockheed’s choice to drop out of the tanker competition could increase competitor Boeing’s chances of selling more KC-46 Pegasus tankers to the Air Force for the next phase of the service’s multibillion-dollar effort to replace its legacy KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft.

The Air Force has established a three-stage process for recapitalizing the KC-135, with the now in-process acquisition of 179 KC-46s representing its first phase.

But the service this year reshuffled its acquisition plans for the second and third phases of the tanker recapitalization.

Originally, the Air Force planned to buy about 150 tankers in the second phase, and Lockheed teamed up with Airbus to pitch LMXT for this procurement.

But for at least a year and a half, top Air Force officials including Secretary Frank Kendall have strongly suggested they were leaning towards buying modified KC-46s for the next phase.

And in March, the Air Force announced it was revamping its tanker plans and would cut the planned purchase of second phase tankers in half, to about 75. As part of its new tanker strategy, the Air Force also sped up plans to acquire NGAS.

The Air Force’s surprise slash of the tanker buy was a blow to LMXT. But Lockheed continued to push forward, and in June announced it had chosen a General Electric Aerospace engine for LMXT. A Lockheed official told reporters at the time the company hoped the engine choice would show the Air Force LMXT would be a viable solution for its tanker needs.

The Air Force’s deputy program executive officer for mobility aircraft, Scott Boyd, told reporters in Dayton, Ohio in late July that a KC-46 purchase was not a foregone conclusion. But he said the service would have to see if its market research showed a viable alternative to the KC-46 existed.

Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.

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