WASHINGTON — Boeing and Airbus could find themselves duking it out as early as next year to provide aerial refueling aircraft to the U.S. Air Force, reigniting a bitter battle between Boeing’s KC-46 and Airbus’s A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport.

The Air Force on Tuesday released a sources sought notice for a non developmental tanker aircraft known as KC-Y that would bridge the gap between KC-46 and the next-generation KC-Z tanker.

The Air Force is looking for companies that could deliver as many as 15 commercial derivative tankers a year, with the new bridge tanker operational in 2029 — the same year the last KC-46 is due to be delivered.

The service plans to buy 140 to 160 KC-Ys to continue the replacement of its aging KC-135 fleet, which will be 70 years old when the bridge tanker is fielded, the solicitation stated. The competition could start as early as 2022, when the service issues a final request for proposals.

The Air Force provided few details on how KC-Y would differ from KC-46, only saying that it is still finalizing its requirements.

“However, the baseline for aircraft capability will be based on the requirements from phase one of tanker recapitalization, with subsequent and emerging requirements as defined by the Air Force,” the service stated in its solicitation.

With the Air Force emphasizing that vendors should provide non-developmental aircraft that can be fielded in less than a decade, a contest between Boeing and Airbus is all but ensured.

Mike Hafer, who leads Boeing’s global sales and marketing of the KC-46, said that the company looks forward to proposing the KC-46 for the KC-Y program.

“We’ve learned a lot and we’re going to focus on the Air Force’s needs, fulfilling the requirements of the contract, and providing exactly what the Air Force wants,” he told Defense News in an exclusive interview. “We’re ready to compete.”

Airbus, which teamed with Lockheed Martin in 2018 to offer the A330 MRTT in the United States, also plans to compete in the program, Lockheed spokeswoman Stephanie Stinn said.

“We are responding to the U.S. Air Force’s Sources Sought Notification for the Bridge Tanker Program, offering a mission-ready solution to meet the Air Force’s future tanker requirements,” she said.

The KC-X competition ultimately resulted in the award of a $4.9 billion contract to Boeing in 2011, but it was preceded by years of contention.

The Air Force had awarded Airbus — which was then called EADS and partnered with Northrop Grumman — a contract for the program in 2008, but Boeing’s legal protest was successful and overturned the award. Northrop then pulled out of the competition in 2010, and Airbus’s solo bid with the A330 was ultimately successful.

Since winning the KC-46 program, Boeing has incurred more than $5 billion in losses as technical glitches have stacked up and required expensive fixes. (The terms of Boeing’s fixed-price contract with the Air Force requires it to pay for any costs in excess of the initial $4.9 billion award.)

However, Hafer was confident that Boeing’s struggles on the KC-46 wouldn’t influence its chances of winning KC-Y.

“That’s a lot of risk that’s been retired. These are identified issues that we’ve put to bed and we’re closing very rapidly with the other ones out there,” he said. “This was an investment that the U.S. Air Force has paid [and] is getting the capability they want and need.”

However, some lawmakers have shown interest in canceling Boeing’s KC-46 contract and moving that business to Airbus.

During a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday, Reps. Rob Wittman, R-Va., and Mike Rogers, R-Ala., expressed frustration with the KC-46 and asked Air Force leaders to consider re-competing the contract due to Boeing’s poor performance.

Republican Rep. Jerry Carl — who represents Mobile, Ala., where Airbus currently makes commercial planes — made the case that U.S. Air Force fighters operating in Europe regularly receive fuel from the A330 tanker.

“Knowing that we’ve got an aircraft that can be built in America, that could be already delivered because we’re up to about three a month coming out of Mobile right now — not this particular plane, but basically the same scale — why are we not bringing this back up for a bid?” he asked.

Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth said but the service currently doesn’t see a cost-benefit to re-opening the KC-X competition.

“I take your point in terms of the history of the contact,” he said. “But…we’re concerned that if we tried to go into a new contract vehicle, that would put additional delays into the program that we simply don’t think would be efficacious for us.”

The Air Force intends to buy 179 KC-46s over the program of record, wrapping up procurement in fiscal year 2027. On Wednesday, Boeing announced the delivery of the 46th KC-46, which flew to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., that afternoon.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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