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Airbus, Lockheed partner in bid to build refueling tankers in Alabama, Georgia

By JEFF AMY, Associated Press

ATLANTA (AP) — Lockheed Martin Corp. said Monday it would seek to build new aerial refueling tankers for the U.S. Air Force, using Airbus jets assembled in Alabama and converting them for military use in Georgia.

The deal could create 1,000 new jobs in Georgia and 300 in Alabama, Lockheed Martin spokesperson Stephanie Stinn said.

It’s a second run at building tankers for the U.S. Air Force by Airbus. The European-based aircraft manufacturer’s defense unit initially won a bid to build tankers in 2008, but saw the $35 billion deal overturned and instead handed to rival Boeing Co in 2011.

Airbus had planned to assemble those planes in Mobile, Alabama, and decided to start building planes there anyway after the loss, assembling commercial A320 jets starting in 2015. Monday’s bid would involve creating a second line at the 1,200-employee Mobile complex that would assemble larger A330 jets. Commercial demand for the A330, assembled in Toulouse, France, is declining. Airbus has already built A330-based refueling tankers for 14 other nations, converting them in Spain.

Maryland-based Lockheed Martin would convert the planes for American military use, creating what it is calling its LMXT tanker, just outside Atlanta at its 4,700-employee Marietta, Georgia, complex.

“We need to get the tanker fleet updated, modernized and reliable, and the LMXT is going to deliver that for our country,” Lockheed Martin CEO James Taiclet told people at an event in the cavernous hangar at the Marietta facility where the conversions would take place. “It’s also going to help Georgia win, earn and compete for more high tech jobs.”

Lockheed Martin said the proven design would offer “distinct U.S. Air Force-only capabilities” including longer range and better ability to transfer fuel.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have an aircraft flying with the US Air Force yet,” Airbus Americas CEO Jeff Knittel told an audience in Georgia. “The LMXT is going to change all of that. It is the world’s best tanker, built for the world’s best air force, in Mobile and here in Marietta, Georgia.”

The Air Force is trying to replace its fleet of aging KC-135 tankers, and could decide who will build the next round of tankers in late 2024 or early 2025, with deliveries starting in 2029. It’s currently buying 176 KC-46 tankers from Boeing, based on that company’s 767 airliner. That program has been troubled, with Boeing absorbing $5 billion in cost overruns. Boeing builds those tankers in Everett, Washington, and they’re based in Wichita, Kansas.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, alluded to those problems Monday when he told people gathered in Mobile that Lockheed Martin and Airbus are “joining hands to build what the Air Force and Navy and everybody needs — a tanker that works.”

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