WASHINGTON — Lockheed Martin on Tuesday announced it has selected a General Electric Aerospace engine for the aerial refueling tanker it’s seeking to sell to a wavering Air Force.
Lockheed picked GE’s CF6-80E1 engine for its planned LMXT strategic tanker, which would be a variation of Airbus’s A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport.
Over the next decade, the Air Force plans to buy about 75 tankers to tide it over between the Boeing-made KC-46 Pegasus — of which the service plans to buy 179 units — and a next-generation design that could be fielded in the latter half of the 2030s.
Lockheed hopes its proposed LMXT can fill that interim role, which in the past has been referred to as a “bridge” tanker.
But the Air Force has downgraded its procurement plans for the interim tanker, announcing in March that it had decided to cut in half the original plans to buy 150 of them and speed up the procurement of the next-generation tanker. And Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has suggested the service could forgo a competition for the interim tanker, and instead buy another series of modified KC-46s from Boeing.
The Air Force’s surprise announcement upended the state of play on its future tanker vision, and made Lockheed’s path to success on LMXT tougher.
In a briefing with reporters Tuesday, Larry Gallogly, head of Lockheed’s campaign, said the company wants its engine decision to show the Air Force that its LMXT tanker could be a viable choice for the service if it decides to launch a competition.
“We want the Air Force to be very confident that we are the low-risk solution,” he said. “We do want to convince the Air Force that we are ready to go ahead, but we also need to show the Air Force exactly what they would be getting if they entered this competition — what is the real alternative?”
Gallogly said Lockheed hopes the positive 50-year track record of GE’s CF6 series of engines on other planes such as the C-5M Super Galaxy and the current Air Force One presidential planes will make it easier for the Air Force to opt for a competition.
“This aircraft has the space, it has the electrical power requirements,” he said. This engine would provide “a lot of electrical power on the aircraft to grow with the mission. … When we look at the Pacific theater in particular … there will be this insatiable need for gas. And if the Air Force chooses to sole-source this interim block of tankers, we set ourselves up for a single point of failure for bulk delivery of fuel in-theater.”
Abdoulaye Ndiaye, the general manager for GE Aerospace’s mobility engines program, said the Royal Australian Air Force now flies MRTT aircraft with GE’s CF6-80E1 engines, and the Spanish Air Force plans to use those engines on its future MRTT fleet.
Lockheed chose this version of GE’s CF6 engine over other unspecified engines because it would deliver greater thrust — almost 70,000 pounds — and better fuel efficiency than previous models, Gallogly said.
If the Air Force goes with LMXT, Lockheed Martin plans to build it in Mobile, Alabama, and Marietta, Georgia.
Lawmakers such as Rep. Jerry Carl, R-Alabama, have criticized the Air Force for considering skipping a competition. In May 2022, Carl made an unsuccessful attempt to add an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have forced a tanker competition, saying lawmakers could not allow the Air Force to “run away with our checkbook and do what they want to do.”
The Air Force has not yet released its requirements for the next tanker purchase, but Gallogly said the process of setting requirements will likely be finished in late June or early July.
Lockheed expects the Air Force to release a request for information after the requirements are done, he said, and by the end of the year, it will be clearer if the service plans to hold a competition.
“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. “We think we’ve got a pretty good idea of what those requirements are going to be, but we’re looking forward to actually seeing those requirements in writing.”
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.