Thursday, June 19, 2008

KC-787, pros and cons

Yesterday soon after I fell off my chair when the GAO recommendation came out and the dust had somewhat settled, I got to thinking what can Boeing's possible actions (or reactions) to what looks to be the KC-X rebid. Trolling the forums many people including myself said that it could be the 777 and/or the 767.

Then I really got to thinking, why not the KC-787, a tanker based on the 787? Jon Ostrower told me that a KC-787 would absolutely destroy the KC-30 in a tanker competition (depending on the selection criteria that the Air Force puts out).

So here are the pros and cons of Boeing doing the a 787 tanker.


Well in a nutshell, take all the advantages in weight and fuel efficiency that the 787 has over the A330 and translate that over to the tanker version. The 787 would be larger but lighter than the A330. Boeing can utilized the advantage of better fuel burn and the lighter structure of the 787. The 787 would have a more advanced and modern cockpit compared to the A330. The 787 would beat the A330 on range, usable cargo carried (fuel and/or cargo), and weight. The KC-787 would certainly demolish the KC-30 on life cycle costs and this metric can certainly make the Air Force stand up and seriously look at the 787 as a tanker.

Secondly, because Boeing would probably have to strengthen the 787 in order to carry the weight of fuel and other cargo required by the Air Force as well as a cargo door, Boeing would essentially have designed the 787F. Wow two birds with one stone though Airbus certainly would have a lot to say about DoD Tanker money going to design a commercial cargo aircraft.

Lastly, the Air Force would not have to modify airfields due to the weight of the 787 vs the A330 which is heavier. This was a bone of contention with Boeing as the Air Force underestimated the cost of modifications in operating the KC-30 from existing airfields.


Production - Boeing is already suffering from the production problems with the 787 and then the ramp up of production is looking to be long and painful. They would have no capacity at all to build tankers based on the 787. In order to do so would require 1) additional investment by Boeing and its suppliers to support increased production of the 787 (more autoclaves, larger facilities, more LCFs), 2) a second assembly line that is ITAR compliant. Now the Air Force would probably take anywhere from 12 to 24 tankers a year meaning a rate of 1 to 2 airplanes, these airplanes can be constructed on the existing assembly line but that would mean up to 2 less commercial 787s being delivered to customers who would none too pleased about their delivery slots going to the Air Force. A second line would be required and later can be used to support commercial production if needed.

Development - Boeing will need significant investment in terms of time, money, resources and personnel to turn the 787 from a commercial passenger aircraft into a military air refueler. Right now they're still grappling with the fall out from the production and supply issues that hurt them over the past year. They will still need a lot of these same resources in order to finish the 787-8 development as well as to develop the -3, -9 and -10 variants for commercial customers. Now since this product would come from Boeing IDS, it is possible to transfer engineering resources from the KC-767 and to work on the KC-787 along with a few of the 787 program engineers. Boeing had earlier transfered some engineers and other resources at IDS to the 787 to help alleviate the issues due to the travelled work and production problems. They could do this again to help develop the 787 into a tanker platform.

Boeing might need to develop a new refueling boom (though I wonder if they could adopt the KC-767 boom for the KC-787) as well as floor strengthening and perhaps landing gear strengthening.

Lastly, timing - the Air Force needs these tankers 4 years ago. There would be little to no timing to get a KC-787 design, tooling, and production going. My guess is that it would take up to two years to get the design going and then another 2-4 years for development, testing and operational evaluation. This on top of doing the rebid (which I think would take another 2 years). So assuming the rebid takes place and that Boeing wins the rebid with the KC-787, it would be another 6 to 8 years before a KC-787 is in the hands of USAF pilots. The KC-30 won't certainly take as long.

These are some broad brush details...those can be filled in by people who would certainly know better and more information but the KC-787 might be an option that Boeing can look at if they can effectively reduced the risks, timing and costs of doing a KC-787.

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