Lockheed Martin is pitching its Airbus A330-based LMXT tanker as a “mothership” for the Air Force’s planned fleet of small, stealthy tankers—a rationale company officials hope will overcome the service’s reticence to open its so-called “bridge tanker” buy to competition.
Lockheed officials detailed their argument June 6 during a press briefing to announce they have selected the GE Aerospace CF6-80E1 engine to power the LMXT tanker. The company is marketing the LMXT for the Air Force’s bridge tanker program, expected to consist of at least 75 tankers between the conclusion of the current KC-46 program around 2030 and the future Next Generation Air refueling System in the mid-2030s, according to service leaders.
Larry Gallogly, LMXT campaign lead, noted the Air Force doesn’t want a gap in tanker production and expects to buy the bridge tanker until the NGAS is ready—and 2035 “we feel … is a very, very aggressive target,” he said. Lockheed officials believe a 2040 timeline, which the program originally had, is more likely.
“If you believe NGAS will really take a little longer before it’s operational,” the number of bridge tankers required “actually grows quite substantially; somewhere between 75 and I’d say, 150 aircraft, if they continue to buy 15 aircraft a year, which has always been [the Air Force’s] plan,” Gallogly said. That increase would boost the business case for LMXT, he argued.
While the Air Force has yet to rule out a competition for the bridge tanker and service Secretary Frank has said he is reserving final judgement until more analysis can be done, officials have said they are skeptical a tanker competition would be worth the cost, given the expected small size of the buy and the need to create an all-new logistics train for the aircraft. Instead, the service may simply buy an upgraded version of the KC-46.
However, Gallogly argued the LMXT would offer the service several advantages. Because it is based on the A330, it will have a worldwide maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) enterprise, similar to the KC-10, which was also derived from a commercial airliner. The LMXT would also be a hedge against a “single point failure” if the KC-46 develops a fleet-grounding problem like a wing crack, Gallogly said.
“Competition drives value,” Gallogly added, noting that Lockheed did not automatically select the A330’s usual engine, which happens to be the CF6.
Finally, Gallogly said the aircraft would fulfill a need in the Air Force’s future tanker fleet.
An analysis of alternatives for the NGAS program is slated for later this year, but it’s expected to be a small, stealthy tanker able to operate in contested airspace, feeding fuel to fighters and autonomous Collaborative Combat Aircraft operating at the end of a long supply line.
Assuming that comes to pass, NGAS is going to need “a mothership, in our view,” Gallogly said—an aircraft that can fuel NGAS and other stealthy aircraft before they enter contested airspace, and connectivity and real-time analysis while they’re there.
Gallogly said Lockheed has heard the overall tanker requirement is moving through the Pentagon’s processes now and the requirements for the Bridge Tanker will solidify next month, with a Request for Information to industry issued soon after. The Air Force is expected to complete its acquisition strategy by the end of the calendar year, he said.
“When we see those final requirements, that will give us a much better idea of how well the LMXT is aligned with the priorities of the Air Force,” Gallogly said. “And of course, we’ve been getting consistent and constant feedback from the service during our over four years now of pursuing this business. So we think we’ve got a pretty good idea of what those requirements are going to be, but like you, we’re looking forward to actually seeing those requirements in writing.”
The LMXT is a much larger aircraft than the KC-46, and the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport on which it is based was the competitor to what became the KC-46—it won one Air Force competition but lost the contract after a protest from Boeing, and lost the subsequent second competition. One of the Air Force’s discriminators in choosing the KC-46 was its ability to operate from a greater number of airfields, which will be a key factor under the service’s Agile Combat Employment model.
Gallogly said Lockheed doesn’t expect “a requirement for short field landings, but in operations in the Pacific, airfield access is getting more and more important. And we did look at our ability to have the LMXT operate in various airfields in that theater. This engine had a great impact on that. And really, our airfield access numbers are very impressive, and we’ve been sharing those with the Air Force.”
He added that in the Pacific, there will be an “insatiable need for gas,” and the Air Force will need an aircraft that can rapidly fill up its smaller NGAS aircraft to head on into contested airspace.
The CF6-80E1 equips the A330 Multi-Role Tanker-Transport (MRTTs) operated by Australia and Saudi Arabia, and GE said at 72,000 pounds, it’s “the highest-thrust CF6 engine to date.” Gallogly noted that the CF6 was designed for the A330 and powers the C-5 Galaxy, E-4B, and VC-25 Air Force One in the USAF inventory. There are some 8,500 CF6s flying. The latest version offers lower emissions and longer time on wing, with 15 percent improved fuel efficiency over earlier versions of the CF6, GE said.
In addition to refueling capacity, the Air Force has said it sees the bridge tanker as performing additional roles as an airborne internet provider, communications hub, and possibly an ersatz air battle management platform.
Those are roles for which Lockheed officials claim the LMXT is well-suited.
“When I look at what’s compelling about our offering—that will sway the Secretary and [Air Force acquisition executive Andrew Hunter] to see the value of a competition—is exactly that future of aerial refueling,” Gallogly said. “This aircraft has the space, it has the electrical power … again, thanks to our new GE engine selection. We’ve got a lot of electrical power on the aircraft to grow with the mission.”
The LMXT will also offer automatic air refueling, saving crew members and freeing up space within the aircraft for communications personnel or CCA operators or some other function, Gallogly said. Lockheed is also working on its Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) capabilities which would be hosted on the LMXT, he said.