Tanker aircraft are a requirement for any serious projection of airpower. And no one ever has enough of them. So let’s go get some.
Previously, the standard in aerial refueling was the KC-135, a close relative of the classic Boeing 707. Today, there are two different airframes available for tankers. There is the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A330. The 767 has two tanker derivatives: the KC-767, which is derived from the 767-200ER and is in use by Italy and Japan; and the KC-46A, which is based on the 767-200LRF1 and is in use by the United States and Japan. Note that the KC-46A is bigger than the KC-767, and carries more fuel. The A330-MRTT is the tanker derivative of the A330, and it is bigger than the KC-46A.
Now on to the choices. We know from the USAF tanker proposals that the 767 options have a lower projected life cycle cost than the A330-MRTT. For many export customers, this is outweighed by the greater fuel and cargo capacity of the Airbus. On the other hand, the 767s smaller size means it can operate out of smaller airfields. It is closer in size to the KC-135R, for those looking for a direct replacement, or just trying to picture sizes.
For us, we’d also point out the massive USAF buy of KC-46As as points in its favor, since that will mean the type will get more future upgrades and development money, if only to keep the US fleet going. Further, 767s are Boeing aircraft, and have a flight envelope not restricted by the flight computer. We prefer this.
So we’re going with the KC-46A. It’ll get the upgrades, and Boeing is still making 767s for the civilian market, which is a plus. We expect to be able to cannibalize ex-civilian airliners for parts and airframes for years after the type is formally retired (as was done with the KC-135), but the longer we can go before having to do this the better.
- Which is actually quite a bit different from the 767-200ER. ↩