Air Transportation: The Contender Flourishes

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December 27, 2014: France has ordered another twelve Airbus MRTT tankers for aerial refueling and carrying cargo, with the first one to be delivered in 2018. The Airbus MRTT is based on the twin engine Airbus 330-300, which normally sells for $180 million each. The 233 ton MRTT carries 111 tons of fuel, plus 45 tons of cargo (26 pallets). The MRTT can also carry 238 passengers, or 300 troops in more austere fashion or 130 casualties on stretchers (along with medical personnel). All this is possible because the main deck is available for passengers, cargo or fuel containers. Normally, all the fuel is carried in the wing and tail tanks. This makes the MRTT very flexible, and capable of moving lots of cargo or troops, as needed.

The MRTT is giving the usual American suppliers of aerial refueling aircraft some serious competition. Earlier in 2014 Singapore purchased six MRTT. So far 40 MRTTs have been ordered by six nations and negotiations are under way for the purchase of nearly a hundred more. Currently 18 MRTTs are in service. MRTT is the first serious challenger for American dominance in this area. The MRTT was also a serious contender to replace the aging American fleet of KC-135 tankers and might have won the competition had not political interference become a major factor. The American contender won and is now in production as the KC-46.

The MRTT carries 20 percent more fuel than the American KC-46, plus more cargo pallets (26 versus 19) and passengers. But this apparently worked against the MRTT, as the KC-46 is closer in size to the KC-135, and thus will not require as many new maintenance facilities. The KC-46 is also considered easier and cheaper to maintain. The MRTT was to have cost about $175 million each (17 percent more than the KC-46A).

The KC-46 is based on the Boeing 767-200 airliner, which sells for about $120 million. The 767 has been in service since 1982, and over 800 have been manufactured so far. Boeing developed the KC-46, at a cost of nearly a billion dollars, on its own. Boeing also developed the original KC-135 tanker in the 1950s, and has since built over 2,000 of these.

The two engine MRTT (KC-45) is based on the AirBus 330 and about 750 of these have been produced since the aircraft entered service in 1994. The four engine KC-135 is an older design that carries 90 tons of fuel and can transfer up to 68 tons. Typically, aerial tankers have to service B-52s, which carry over 140 tons of jet fuel, and fighters like the F-15 (over five tons). The KC-135 has long made itself useful carrying cargo and passengers, as well as fuel, and both the KC-46 and KC-45 have more capacity for this.

 


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