EVERETT – The Boeing Co. will wait until at least December before deciding whether to offer the Air Force the 767 or 777 jetliner in a competition for a lucrative airborne tanker contract.
At a military conference in Washington, D.C., Boeing unveiled design details for a refueling tanker based on its large 777 commercial passenger jet.
The plane could be an alternative to Boeing’s midsize 767 tanker, which the company has pushed for nearly five years at a cost of more than $1 billion. It even has built a few 767 tankers for foreign air forces as commercial orders for that jet have dried up.
But a top official stressed that Boeing has not decided which plane to offer in the high-profile competition for the tanker contract, which could be worth more than $20 billion. Either plane, if chosen for the tanker contract, would be assembled in Everett.
Over time, the Air Force likely will have a mixed tanker fleet, said Mark McGraw, Boeing vice president for tanker programs. “We just want them all to be Boeing planes.”
Briefing reporters at a meeting of the Air Force Association, McGraw said Boeing is comfortable with either the 767 or 777 and will make a decision based on Air Force needs.
The proposed 777 tanker would have a much larger capacity for fuel, troops or cargo than either the 767 or a rival offer based on the Airbus A330. But it would cost more per plane and would need a longer runway, potentially reducing its flexibility in combat situations.
In documents distributed Tuesday, Boeing said the 777 tanker would have a maximum fuel capacity of more than 350,000 pounds, while the 767 has a maximum capacity of 200,000 pounds.
McGraw said both planes could do the job, depending on what the Air Force needs.
“It’s not necessarily how much fuel you carry, but how much you can off-load in real” combat situations, he told reporters.
The Airbus tanker – to be developed by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp. – would have a maximum fuel capacity of 250,000 pounds. EADS is the majority owner of jet maker Airbus SAS.
McGraw and other officials said the company will not decide which plane to offer until after the Air Force issues a final request for proposal, expected by the end of the year.
McGraw said he was pleased that the Air Force included what he called “neutral” language concerning a pending international trade dispute between Boeing and Airbus.
In a draft proposal for the tanker issued Monday, the Air Force said “treaty compliance” is among numerous criteria that interested companies must meet.
The language is a reference to a dispute before the World Trade Organization involving Chicago-based Boeing and European jet maker Airbus. The United States has complained that Airbus receives subsidies from European governments. Airbus in turn has argued Boeing also receives government support.
EADS and Northrop plan to build its KC-330 plane in Alabama if their team wins the work.
A Northrop spokesman said inclusion of the WTO dispute could favor Boeing and “does not represent fair and open competition.”
McGraw disagreed, saying the language merely asked bidders to take into account the WTO dispute.
“We want a fair and open competition. We want to win fair and square,” he said.
The possibility of offering the 777 to the Air Force is just the latest development in a years-long saga involving the tanker contract. Congress and the Pentagon have debated the possible replacement of the military’s fleet of more than 400 KC-135 tankers, which date to the early 1960s, since 2001.
Two years ago, a $23.5 billion contract called for the Air Force to lease or buy 100 KC-767 tankers from Boeing. That was canceled, however, after the revelation that a Pentagon weapons buyer had steered business to Boeing in return for jobs for herself and her family at the aerospace company.
In the running
A look at the two Boeing Co. airplanes under consideration for the airborne tanker project.767
Maximum takeoff weight: 400,000 pounds
Maximum fuel capacity: more than 200,000 pounds
Passengers: up to 200
Maximum takeoff weight: 750,000 pounds
Maximum fuel capacity: more than 350,000 pounds
Passengers: up to 320