Lockheed Martin and Airbus have announced that the LMXT tanker aircraft will be equipped with Airbus’ refuelling system. The LMXT is Lockheed Martin’s answer to the future USAF KC-Y project. The project seeks to fill the capacity gaps that appeared after the retirement of the first KC-10 Extenders. It also plugs the KC-46’s vision system problem, dubbed RVS 2.0, which led to a $402 million charge for Boeing. The system is a network of cameras and sensors boom operators use to guide the refuelling boom into other aircraft. Boeing cannot fully confirm its system because the refuelling cameras are not 100% operational. Thus, it happens that in certain lighting conditions, due to blurry images, the refuelling operator (the boom) or the automatic program can’t detect the aircraft receptacle to be refuelled. At times, it has led to the boom making undetected contact with the aircraft being refuelled and damaging its coating. The issue is expected to be fixed by 2026, but a Government Accountability Office report warned that The U.S. Air Force (USAF) risks repeating its previous mistakes on the KC-46A Pegasus program by planning to accept a redesign of its troubled Remote Vision System without taking the right precautions.
The future KC-Y tanker
The KC-Y program has not yet been launched since the USAF is in the process of establishing specifications. For now, it is a tanker to fill the capacity gap created by the retirement of the KC-10 Extender. It is sometimes called Bridge Tanker because it must allow the U.S. Air Force to hold a sufficient fleet of tankers while waiting for the launch of the probable stealth tanker program KC-Z.
Sources within the U.S. Air Force have already announced the Pentagon’s desire to procure an “undeveloped” tanker under the KC-Y program. This term seeks to mark the interest of a civil aircraft that has been militarized and does not require heavy and complex development. It gives Lockheed Martin’s LMXT a better chance because it is based on the Airbus A330 MRTT. This aircraft has already demonstrated its capabilities for a long time since the A330 MRTT fleet has accumulated more than 250,000 flight hours in seven air forces and NATO’s Multinational MRTT Fleet.
A proven Airbus refuelling system
On May 18, Lockheed Martin and Airbus announced that Airbus would produce the LMXT refuelling system in a purpose-built factory in Arkansas (USA). This plant should probably create between 60 and 100 highly skilled jobs in the aerospace sector.
With this announcement, Lockheed Martin seeks to reassure the USAF on the LMXT because Airbus has a first-class refuelling system. Lockheed wants to create a tanker and carrier that will work from day one. On April 17, 2020, Airbus demonstrated that its automatic refuelling system (Automatic Air-to-Air Refueling, A3R) was functional. This system has also become the first automatic refuelling system in service globally.
It has already refuelled a large number of American military aircraft, including combat aircraft like F-22, F-35, F-15, F-16 and A-10; bomber B-1B; transport aircraft C-17; airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft E-3 and E-7; and submarine hunter P-8A.
A “Made in the USA” program
Lockheed Martin also insists on the American nature of the program. Admittedly it is based on a European-designed aircraft, but the A330s will be produced in the American Airbus plant in Mobile (Alabama, United States). Airbus will, however, make some changes since the LMXT will have to carry more fuel than the A330 MRTT. Moreover, the engines are not yet known, but given the “made in the USA” policy, we should probably expect a contract with Rolls-Royce or General Electric.
Once built in France, but without their military equipment, the A330s will be transported to the Lockheed Martin plant in Marietta (Georgia, United States) to be transformed into a transport aircraft and military tanker. Lockheed had previously used this plant for the modernization of the C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifter. Its large space will allow easy modification of the A330s while avoiding the need to expand another factory. On January 31, 2022, LMXT program director Larry Gallogly estimated that production of the LMXTs will take between three and four years per aircraft. It will take approximately two years for the A330 and 18 to 24 months for the conversion to LMXT. He also felt that this delay could be reduced when mass production was launched.
The tender should be published this year, and the USAF would like to acquire between 140 and 160 tankers. The first deliveries will probably be expected for 2029, at the same time as the last scheduled deliveries of the KC-46As.