South Korea is moving to buy 4 long-range aerial refueling tankers with secondary transport capabilities, with a budget of WON 2 billion (about $1.8 billion). That capability isn’t a huge priority on the Korean peninsula itself, but it’s very useful for international operations. It’s useful as a way of projecting regional power, as territorial disputes flare with China.
As Asian economies grow and militaries modernize, these factors have made long-range aerial refueling a growing regional priority. China, India, Pakistan and China deploy the Russian IL-78. Japan fields 4 Boeing KC-767As, and may raise that to 8 under recent plans. Similar American KC-46As will join them in the region after 2017. Elsewhere in the region, Australia (5) and Singapore (4) picked Airbus Defense & Space’s larger A330 MRTT instead, and India looks set to buy 6 at some point. What will the ROKAF do?
Contracts & Key Events
November 11/21: Urea Deployment South Korea is sending a KC-330 aerial refueling tanker to Australia today to bring back 27,000 liters of urea solution. The solution is needed by the country’s diesel vehicles to reduce harmful emissions. The plane is expected to depart at 5p.m. Korean time from Gimhae International Airport.
June 2/21: Vaccine Transport South Korea’s Minister of National Defense Suh Wook told lawmakers that a KC-330 will head to the United States on June 2 to bring back the Johnson & Johnson (J&J)’s Janssen vaccines. US President Joe Biden had promise to provide one million doses so that the country’s military can be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. The aircraft is expected to return back home on June 5.
July 2/15:South Korea has selected Airbus’ bid to supply the country’s Air Force with four refueling tankers, beating competitors Israel Aerospace Industries and Boeing for the $1.07 billion program. The winning bid – the A330 MRTT – dashed Boeing’s hopes of securing its first export order for the KC-46A, which saw a strong dollar raise its bid price compared with a weakened euro for the European bid. The four tankers are scheduled for delivery in 2019.
March 13/15: South Korea opted to delay the deployment of the future acquired tankers, as the selection process is taking longer than anticipated.
Nov 23/14: The Korea Herald confirms that Boeing (KC-46A 767), Airbus (A330 MRTT), and IAI (B767 MMTT) are all competing in Korea, but there’s a hitch, as an unnamed DAPA official explains:
“We are nearing the tail end of our price negotiations. But the competitors’ proposals regarding the [industrial economic] offset agreements are yet to satisfy our targets. Thus, there may be a delay in choosing the winner…. we are trying our best now in consideration of our best national interests. We may need at least one or two more months to finish negotiations.”
Either plane type will have widespread support infrastructure, with about 1,000 planes of each type in global service. Boeing is touting the KC-46A’s NBC (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical) hardening in like of North Korean stockpiles, interoperability with the USAF, and lower operating costs for a country that may not need the A330’s extra size and range. Airbus touts a more capable A330/ KC-30B platform that will actually be ready, and is already proven in regional service. IAI touts the 767’s infrastructure and operating benefits at about half the cost of its rivals, freeing up funds for other military projects. On the flip side, IAI lacks their rivals’ easy resort to passenger airline production work for industrial offsets. Sources: Korea Herald, “Competition heats up for tanker procurement deal”.
Nov 19/14: KC-46A. The USAF publicly admits what KC-46A program watchers already know: Boeing is essentially out of schedule margin to deliver the 767-based KC-46As on time by 2017. The USAF is still describing the contract as “achievable,” but so many things have to go right that this isn’t a smart bet for outside observers. The USAF won’t really say anything else until disaster is certain, though, because the admission will make the service look bad. Airbus publicly predicted this exact outcome when the USAF overturned their A330 KC-45A in favor of Boeing’s developmental design.
South Korea wants to receive tankers no later than 2019, but any significant slippage getting the initial set of 17 delivered to the USAF and approved would begin to create delivery risks for Korea. Since testing hasn’t even begun yet, the ROKAF needs to think carefully. Sources: Reuters, “US Air Force sees challenges on Boeing KC-46 tanker program”.
June 30/14: Boeing. Boeing confirms that they’ve formally offered South Korea the KC-46A tanker being developed for the USAF, rather than the KC-767 model that’s already in service with Japan and Italy. They tout the KC-46A’s quick-conversion main deck cargo floor, but make a point of mentioning this in the face of North Korea’s WMD arsenal, and ability to target ROKAF bases with missiles:
“Unique among tankers, the KC-46 can operate in chemical, biological and nuclear conditions, features cockpit armor for protection from small arms fire, and can also operate from a large variety of smaller airfields and forward-deployed austere bases.”
Sources: Boeing, “Boeing Offers Next-Generation KC-46 Tanker in Republic of Korea Competition”.
May 21/14: Proposals are due in June 2014, and briefing sessions in Korea lead to the standard statements from the 2 main competitors. Airbus is touting the A330 MRTT’s larger fuel reserves, while Boeing touts the KC-46A’s lower cost due to volume production and its smaller size. They’re also promising that they can deliver KC-46As to Korea beginning in 2017, which is their deadline to finish the USAF’s development phase.
Other governments in the region have employed national airlines as maintenance contractors for their new fleets. In KAL’s case, they operate A330-200s, but no 767s in their Boeing-tilted fleet of 737s, 747s, and 777s. Sources: Korean Times, “Boeing, Airbus compete for Seoul’s flight tanker project”.
May 20/14: Boeing. Eric John is the new President of Boeing Korea, after a 30-year career in the US Foreign Service that included 3 tours of Korea. Sources: Boeing, “Boeing Announces New Leader for Korea”.
November 2013: South Korea finalizes its tanker program at a maximum cost of WON 2 trillion ($1.8 billion). Sources: Korean Times, “Boeing, Airbus compete for Seoul’s flight tanker project”.
Oct 22/13: Industrial. Boeing announces that assembly of the 3rd KC-46A aircraft and 2nd boom are underway. They sound confident that manufacturing of the initial batch of 4 aircraft remains on track to be completed by Q3 2014.
This would be good news for their USAF client, and would also help the company make its case in South Korea, where parliament is about to review whether to proceed with a competition for 4 tankers, to be delivered in 2017-19. Sources: Boeing, Oct 22/13 release.
Aug 7/13: Requirements. Yonhap reports that South Korea may acquire 4 aerial refueling tankers by 2019. It seems to be at the discussion level rather than a firm decision. If it proceeds, Boeing’s KC-46A and Airbus Military’s A330 MRTT are seen as the logical contenders, and the 2019 date makes the KC-767 a viable possibility.
The A330’s challenge is that, unlike Australia, South Korea’s zone of action doesn’t really need the A330’s range and size. That will make the extra expense problematic. It’s also worth noting that South Korea already has significant defense relationships with Israel’s IAI. That could create an opening for IAI’s much cheaper K-767 MMTT option, which is also on offer to Singapore. Sources: Yonhap News, “Air Force to acquire 4 aerial refueling tankers by 2019”.
* Airbus – A330 MRTT.
* Boeing – KC-46A tanker. The 767 variant that will be flown by the USAF.
* Boeing – KC-767 Global Tanker. Sold to Italy and Japan, and in service, but Boeing preferred the higher-risk, higher-rewards approach of promising the KC-46A.
* IAI – B767 capabilities [PDF]. The Multi-Mode Tanker Transport conversion involves used 767s, which saves money. On the other hand, neither Brazil nor Colombia ordered IAI’s boom unit, and most of the ROKAF’s aircraft need refueling booms.