Aerospace sector giants Airbus and Lockheed Martin are teaming up against rival Boeing as the U.S. steps up demand for aerial refuelling tankers.
In aerial refuelling, fuel is transferred from one military aircraft, the tanker, to another while in flight. Tankers are in high demand from the U.S. Air Force, and the chance to win orders for them was the impetus for the new partnership. Having an American firm, Lockheed Martin, on its side will position the European multinational to better compete with Boeing, a bigger American rival. In turn Boeing, which won a $49 billion contract to build refuelling tankers for the U.S. Air Force in 2011, will have to fight harder for additional orders.
Todd Blecher, Director of External Communications for Boeing, said the company is working with the U.S. Air Force to deliver the first tanker by the end of the year, and that the new aircraft would be “the backbone of global mobility for generations to come”. Boeing, Airbus and Lockheed Martin, in this order, are the world’s top three companies in the global aerospace sector. The fourth, United Technologies, recently announced a restructuring which will put more focus on its aerospace arm.
The new partnership with Lockheed marks Airbus’s first substantive break into the coveted U.S. military market. While it has an ongoing relationship with Northrop Grumman, Airbus has experienced more than one setback in this arena. In 2008 it landed – and then lost – a $35 billion contract for air refuelling tankers when it came under political pressure. The competition was re-run, and Boeing emerged victorious. In 2012, Airbus failed in a bid to merge with Britain’s BAE Systems, which has a large U.S. business.
According to Reuters, demand for refuelling tankers is growing as armed forces stage more long-range operations around the world, particularly in the vast Asia-Pacific region. The U.S. Air Force is ultimately looking to replace its fleet of tankers. It is exploring various options with senior executives from Airbus and Lockheed, such as fee-for-service arrangements, additional aircraft purchases, and the development of a stealthy tanker, to meet the growing need.
Airbus and Lockheed hope to win orders for Airbus’s A330-based tankers, as well as design work on a next-generation tanker. “We will be well-positioned to provide the United States Air Force with the advanced re-fuelling solutions needed to meet 21st century security challenges,” said Marillyn Hewson, Chief Executive of Lockheed Martin.