Air Force plans to collaborate with industry on tanker recapitalization program

By Apurva Minchekar / September 1, 2023

The Air Force is planning to release a "draft system requirements document for the KC-135 replacement aircraft system" later this month, according to a notice posted today.

The service aims to close the gap between the end of KC-46 tanker aircraft production and the delivery of the next-generation refueling system by recapitalizing the current tanker fleet.

“The draft SRD will capture the current requirements for the Tanker Recapitalization Program with projected deliveries to begin after the last KC-46A delivery,” the service said in the notice.

Unlike the traditional draft documents or requirements, this will be the first time industry will see formal service requirements and have an opportunity to respond, Scott Boyd, deputy program executive for mobility aircraft, said during the Air Force Life Cycle Industry Day in Dayton, OH last month.

In addition, the service will release a request for information along with the draft SRD, seeking partners to deliver new commercial derivative air refueling tankers.

The Air Force also outlined an estimated tanker recapitalization RFI timeline of six to eight weeks, which includes two rounds of industry one-on-ones with the government to discuss comments and responses, if required.

Additionally, the Air Force will release a separate Mobility Cross-cutting Operational Enabler RFI in the second week of this month and also host an industry day on or about Oct. 3 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH.

“The Tanker Recapitalization and the Mobility COE RFIs are separate and distinct,” the service clarified.

Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter recently said with the Next Generation Air Refueling System accelerating from the mid/late 2030s to the 2050s, the Air Force would likely procure fewer recapitalization tankers before NGAS.

Adding to it, the House Appropriations Committee, in its draft fiscal year 2024 spending bill, noted that “the fiscal year 2024 President’s budget request for NGAS will fund an Analysis of Alternatives, the refinement of future requirements and a development schedule.”

Due to the aging KC-135 and the uncertain delivery date of the NGAS, appropriators also expressed their concerns about tanker availability during the recapitalization phase and “reemphasized” their support to continue competition throughout all stages of tanker recapitalization.

The committee has also asked the Air Force secretary to submit a report to the House and Senate Appropriations panels that will provide details on a 10-year schedule for the recapitalization of the tanker fleet, planned tanker aircraft divestitures over the same period as well as a risk assessment of a reduced bridge tanker procurement prior to the delivery of NGAS.

The report should be created in coordination with the fiscal year 2025 president’s budget request, the committee noted.