Lockheed Is Bringing Back The Airbus A330 Tanker To Compete Against Boeing

Still, the most significant component of the LMXT package may actually be the one that seems the most mundane, the added fuel capacity. The standard A330 MRTT, with its maximum fuel load of 111 tons, already carries more gas than the KC-46A. Lockheed Martin says adding 13 more tons on top of that will only allow the LMXT to refuel more aircraft per sortie, as well as give the tanker itself greater overall range and time on station.

However, the LMXT, like typical A330 MRTTs, lacks a main cargo deck with a large side-opening door for oversized loads. This is a feature on the Air Force’s existing KC-135s, KC-10s, and KC-46As. All of these tankers have important, if largely underappreciated secondary cargo and passenger-carrying roles – the whole reason they carry the “KC” or “Tanker-Cargo” nomenclature.

The even greater emphasis on aerial refueling, rather than other roles, makes the LMXT distinct from previously rejected pitches to the Air Force involving the A330 MRTT. It’s important to note that those proposals were also submitted to competitions that were mired in controversy, part of a long-range tanker acquisition saga that dated back to the early 2000s. This included one scandal the emerged between 2003 and 2004 that was so severe that it resulted in Darleen Druyun, who had served for a time as the Air Force’s top acquisition official, being convicted on corruption charges and serving a nine-month prison sentence

Lockheed Martin clearly hopes now that the LMXT’s massive fuel load, along with its other features, will set it firmly apart from the KC-46A, which has struggled for years, due to a host of technical issues and quality control problems, to live up to the Air Force’s expectations. The company’s press release notably says that its A330 MRTT-based offering will have a “proven fly-by-wire boom” and “operational and combat proven advanced camera and vision system.” These reflect major issues that the Air Force is dealing with on its Pegasuses that have limited their ability to serve in their primary role as tankers.

Many earlier tanker designs, such as the KC-135 and KC-10, have the boom operator physically lie at the rear of the aircraft. From there they steer the end of the boom into the receiving aircraft. The A330 MRTT puts the boom operator in the aircraft’s main cabin, where they use a remote vision system, linked to an array of cameras at the back of the plane, to perform their task. 

The KC-46A also has a hybrid 2D/3D remote vision system that has been riddled with issues and can be dangerous to use in some situations, as you can read about more here. Earlier this year, the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General also released a report slamming the Air Force and Boeing over the design process behind the Pegasus’ boom itself. Boeing is in the process of developing fixes for both the remote vision system and the boom, which are both years away from being integrated into the majority of KC-46As that the Air Force has in service now. 

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