AW101 delivered for Marine One trials
Boeing KC-767 delivered to Japan
The FIRE Project editorial team has received a number of emails from readers about our coverage in FIRE News and Aerospace & Defence on-line news columns of the USAF aerial tanker procurement and the procurement of a new Marine One fleet of helicopters to transport POTUS (President of the United States). There are two factors that determine this coverage.
Firstly, we receive news from aerospace and defence companies as part of their marketing communications. As corporate communications from well-established companies these news releases and opinion pieces are well-written but naturally present the marketing story the companies wish to promote. It is our policy to publish these releases without editing.
Secondly, our team members are volunteers who have some considerable experience in their day jobs of aerospace and defence. This sometimes limits our ability to post editorial as journalists because we may have knowledge of privileged information that we are not free to publish and which may not be available to journalists. That can mean that we already have strong opinions based on direct experience but cannot use all of the information available to us. The result is that we will delay posting an editorial opinion until either the privileged information is about to enter the public domain, or we find publicly available information that can be used to base an opinion on. In some cases journalists will research this information or make substantiated claims that then result in rebuttals being published that provide a platform for debate.
In the case of these defence procurements we do have some initial opinion and will revisit the topic later in greater detail.
The USAF procurement for new aerial refueling tankers, and the completely separate procurement of a new Marine One helicopter fleet, are not only two individual procurements, but have very different backgrounds.
KC-97, refueling a B-47 nuclear bomber, pioneered aerial refueling in general and high transfer rate boom refueling in particular
The refueling tanker procurement effectively became a straight contest between Boeing, based on the 767, and a European bid, based on the Airbus. Boeing has a long tradition of supplying the USAF with aerial refueling tankers starting out with the KC-97 conversion of the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser piston engine airliner that was itself derived from the B-29 Super Fortress of World War Two. This successful early aerial refueling tanker was used to pioneer refueling techniques to keep combat aircraft airborne for long ferry flights and standing patrols. Boeing has considerable experience therefore, built over a sixty year period, with a massive lead in the number of flight hours over other aircraft companies.
The RAF flew converted Victor nuclear bombers in the tanker role, using drogue and hose systems
British FAA Supermarine Scimitar Fleet fighters using the “buddy” system of drogue refueling, also used by USN and USMC carrier capable combat aircraft
Britain has great experience in this area, but largely through modified bombers in a significantly smaller fleet, and through “buddy” refueling where naval combat aircraft flown from carriers are equipped with refueling pods to enable them to refuel other naval carrier-based combat aircraft in flight. The USN and USMC both have similar “buddy” refueling experience to the British, although the number of missions flown over the years will be greater for USN/USMC pilots and manufacturers due to the much larger fleet of aircraft operated than the size fleet operated by the British RAF and the FAA. Britain favoured the drogue and hose type of refueling system, as have the USN/USMC. This is largely because the system can be added to any size aircraft, even as under wing pods fitted to munitions and drop tank hard points. The rate of fuel transfer is relatively low and the pilot of the aircraft being refueled has to take the initiative in making connection to the drogue, while the tanker pilot concentrates on the passive role keeping the tanker steady. This works very well in refueling carrier aircraft and where a small Air Force tanker fleet is more economic when a similar refueling method is employed.
Boeing KC-135 refuels an RAAF Boeing WedgeTail AWACS
Most other nations with aircraft manufacturers likely to bid for a US DoD procurement have less experience than the British and what experience they do have has often been acquired with Boeing tanker aircraft.
The Boeing KC-35 has been the backbone of USAF tanker capability, being re-engined and updated during a long service period
The USAF has followed a different path from Britain and the USN/USMC. Early on, it was found that a boom refueling system best matched USAF requirements to refueling long range nuclear bombers in flight. This system places the recipient pilot in the passive position, with a skilled operator in the tanker “flying” the boom into the refueling receptacle on the aircraft being refueled. This method has much to commend itself. The fuel transfer rate is much higher than the drogue and hose system and the new required skill only has to be learned by a much smaller number tanker crew as boom operators. The disadvantage is that the system cannot be used to refuel aircraft from allies or from the USN/USMC who have aircraft equipped for drogue and hose refueling. As a result, a new USAF refueling tanker should be equipped to also allow drogue and hose refueling. However, the prime requirement is for boom refueling of the USAF’s own aircraft. Alternatively, second aircraft could be added to the USAF fleet specifically to have drogue refueling capability. That has already happened in the form of the KC-130 turbo prop tanker that is used to refuel helicopters in flight. The need for drogue capability in the new jet tanker is therefore a secondary requirement only to allow the USAF to operate with USN/USMC and allied fast jet combat aircraft.
The KC-130 is an effective tanker, seen here refueling USN F/A-18 Hornets, that is slow enough to be able to refuel turbo prop aircraft and helicopters, using the drogue system
The new USAF tanker will replace the Boeing KC-135 that was based on the Boeing 707 airliner and the KC-10 that was based on the DC10-30 airliner. This gives Boeing significant experience with which to base any bid to supply new tankers. In addition, there are welcome advantages to the US domestic economy and the US aerospace industry.
The RAAF and RAF are committed to buying the subsidized Airbus tanker
The European Airbus consortium therefore starts from a position of much less experience in providing an aircraft to meet the USAF requirement.
However, the European bid faces three additional challenges politically.
1. It will offer limited benefit to the US aerospace industry and domestic economy.
2. Europe has just been found guilty of unfairly supporting Airbus through public money in breech of international trade agreements.
3. Boeing is already supplying KC-767 tankers to a growing number of customers, including European air forces. That increases the strength of the argument in favour of USAF procurement of the KC-767 from Boeing.
Naturally Boeing is mounting a marketing communications campaign to point out all of the considerable advantages of awarding the contract to them. The FIRE Project editorial team can find no problem with that and the Airbus consortium is free to embark on its own marketing campaign. We will be happy to reflect both campaigns in our news coverage and it is down to the Airbus team to send us information in the same professional manner than Boeing already does.
Pork barrel politics only comes into the equation if US politicians begin to lobby for Boeing to increase jobs and money for their voters. Boeing would be unlikely to object, and the only organization that can resist any unfair promotion is the USAF procurement team who are tasked with issuing specifications, evaluating the bids and placing an order. There is also the issue of prime contractors. The airbus-based bid could be presented by a consortium of non-US companies but the reality is that US DoD expects to see a US-based company fronting a bid. That makes sense because DoD can directly reach the prime contractor within its national legislative environment. Pork barrel politics surface if potential US prime contractors are ‘warned off’ by politicians or US commercial interests.
The AW101 Merlin Mk 3 is a very capable machine that can be further enhanced by more powerful engines and gearbox systems
The requirement for Marine One helicopters is in a somewhat different situation.
The Sikorski Sea King proved to be a very effective machine in its time and has been built under license by Westland and Agusta Westland, but it has been showing its age for several decades
The two competing helicopter manufacturers were originally Sikorski and Agusta Westland. During the trials, the Sikorski machine was shown to require significant and costly development to be able to meet the requirement for a new Marine One helicopter to transport the US President. Currently a Sikorski Sea King is employed as the Marine One machine. However, the specification since this machine was delivered has increased. New threats have to be catered for in the post 9/11 environment. This requires a larger and much more powerful helicopter with an increased suite of protective and commincations systems. During trials, the Agusta Westland machine was seen to require some further development, much of which was already in hand for new versions of the Merlin.
The AW101 in Canadian service in the SAR role
When the Merlin was originally built, it was intended to replace the smaller and less powerful license-built version of the Sikorski Sea King in the anti-submarine role for the Royal Navy and to provide a more powerful transport helicopter for the RAF. Westland then became Agusta Westland and the Merlin has been continuously enhanced with more role varients being developed including very capable heavy search and rescue versions. The airframe is capable of taking more powerful engines and new gearboxes. This work is underway for new varients and the Mk3 has been equipped for in-flight refueling.
The AW101 Merlin therefore offers the best prospect to meet the Marine One specification and the Sikorski option requires either a reduced Marine One specification or some considerable expenditure to develop the helicopter to come close to meeting the requirements.