The US Air Force is set to reopen a bidding war between Boeing and its big rival Airbus over the replacement of its aging fleet of refueling aircraft essential to Washington’s ability to project its power beyond its borders.
In a torturous and scandalous procurement process in which two contracts were canceled, Boeing finally landed a $ 35 billion (€ 30 billion) deal in 2011 to develop and supply 179 KC-46 refuellers. by 2029.
Even though the project was plagued by cost overruns and delays, Boeing appeared poised to pull out with the next phase of the Air Force’s fleet replacement project – without which much of its capacity would be tied up.
But the Pentagon has changed its plans.
The US Air Force published in mid-June a so-called wanted sources notice for the supply of between 140 and 160 aircraft at the rate of 12 to 15 per year from 2029 to replace the rest of the fleet until a new one. mothership model. is developed.
It has created new competition between Airbus, with its A330 MRTT which it sells in around ten countries, and Boeing with its KC-46 Pegasus, derived from the B767 and exported to Japan and Israel.
“Even if we have some scars from previous campaigns, we will obviously see this with a lot of interest and try to offer a competitive offer,” Guillaume Faury, CEO of Airbus, told AFP.
Initially awarded to Boeing in 2003, the mega-contract was canceled after revelations of espionage and conflict of interest from a former Pentagon official who left to join Boeing.
The bidding war was relaunched in 2007, won the following year by the European EADS (European Aeronautic Defense and Space) – since renamed Airbus – which was at the time allied with the American Northrop Grumman.
But this contract was also canceled due to “material errors” in the evaluation of the offer as determined by the US General Accounting Office.
Reopened in 2009, the tender was finally won two years later by Boeing, which had no choice but to lower prices.
Since then, the KC-46 program has been plagued by problems, which had already cost the Seattle giant more than $ 5 billion.
The first plane was delivered to the US Air Force in 2019 two years late.
– “Boeing still has a chance” –
The 46 planes currently in flight are hampered by a faulty fuel delivery system and other issues, and will not be fully operational until 2023.
In the grip of the Covid-19 pandemic, Airbus delivered only 19 A330s last year, up from 53 in 2019.
“It sounds like an attempt by the USAF to put competitive pressure on Boeing, and also to deflect criticism of the KC-46 acquisition,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aeronautics expert at the Teal Group.
“In other words, Boeing still has a chance here. They just need to get their program back on track and submit a competitive bid,” he said.
“However, with billions in losses and similar execution problems on other programs, Boeing could continue to struggle with the KC-46. So Airbus may stand a chance, especially if it teams up with Lockheed Martin. “said Aboulafia.
Airbus and Lockheed have been working together on refuellers since the end of 2018.
If Airbus wins the tender competition, “the program will be largely Americanized,” Faury said, as US law requires the purchase of goods produced in the United States.
But even with a production unit in Mobile, Alabama, which Airbus planned to use a decade ago, “that would be really good news for production levels and the whole line. supply “made up of several European suppliers if the European aeronautics giant came out on it,” he said.
mra / ak / lys / gd / pbr