FARNBOROUGH, England — As a potential fight for the Air Force’s bridge tanker simmers, the two most likely competitors on Tuesday touted their planes’ potential to carry out advanced aerial refueling operations.
Airbus announced at the Farnborough Air Show on July 19 its A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport is now the first tanker to be certified to conduct automatic air-to-air refueling, or A3R, boom operations in daylight. Airbus said the certification by the Spanish National Institute for Aerospace Technology came after a collaboration with the Republic of Singapore Air Force.
The Lockheed Martin LMXT aerial refueling tanker, which the company hopes can compete for the KC-Y bridge tanker, is a modified Airbus A330 MRTT adapted to the U.S. Air Force’s needs.
Later that same day, Boeing issued a statement to reporters saying its KC-46A Pegasus — the Air Force’s newest refueling tanker, of which at least 61 of a planned 179 have been delivered — has carried out autonomous boom aerial refueling capability during flight tests.
Boeing said Tuesday it continues “to mature the technology, concept of operations, and the pathway to robust certification with the FAA and relevant regulators.”
“As we do so, we will continue to work with our customers to determine whether, when and how to integrate the autonomous capability to best support their mission,” the company added, but declined to share more information on its autonomous refueling tests.
The Air Force is now in the process of buying more KC-46s, and is planning for a next-generation tanker dubbed the KC-Z. But it will need more tankers to bridge the gap between now and when the KC-Z becomes a reality.
In recent months the Air Force has suggested it may forgo a competition for KC-Y, and go straight to buying more KC-46s.
In a March budget briefing, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters as the service considered what it needed out of a bridge tanker, the requirements “started to look like a modified KC-46, more than they do a completely new design.”
“I think that there’s still a possibility of a competition out there,” Kendall said in March. “But as we’ve looked at our requirements, the likelihood of a competition has come down.”
Erin Moseley, Lockheed Martin’s vice president for strategy and business development for aeronautics, told Defense News in an interview that Lockheed wants to compete for the bridge tanker and sees its LMXT as complementary to the KC-46.
“We definitely would like to demonstrate the fact that this complementary capability is important from an industrial base standpoint,” Moseley said. “It’s also important to be able to have multiple options for the Air Force and for other customers.”
Kendall and Andrew Hunter, the service’s acquisition chief, have assured Lockheed the service will go through the requirements process for determining which way to go on a KC-Y competition, Moseley said.
Hunter told reporters on July 16 at the Royal International Air Tattoo in England a plan should be ready as the Air Force moves into the 2024 budget cycle.
Airbus said in Tuesday’s release its automatic air-to-air refueling capability would reduce the workload of air refueling operators, improve safety and produce more efficient refueling transfers. Airbus said the process would not require additional equipment on the aircraft that is being refueled.
Airbus also said it has launched a demonstrator called Auto’Mate it hopes will help produce technologies that move it toward autonomous refueling and formation flights. This will also include automating steps in the process carried out by the receiving aircraft.
Airbus hopes to test those new technologies in flight next year, and predicted a final end-to-end demonstration in mid-2024. These test flights would use an A310 as the refueling tanker and DT-25 target drones as the receiving aircraft.
Airbus said these autonomous aerial refueling technologies will reduce crew fatigue and training costs, while improving safety and efficiency. They could even lead to drones refueling other drones, Airbus said, potentially crucial in future wars.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.