As the U.S. Air Force works to resolve the remaining Category 1 deficiencies on its Boeing [BA] KC-46A tankers, the service is preparing to move forward on a commercial “bridge tanker” program to fill the gap between the final delivery of the 179th KC-46A tanker in 2029 and the future KC-Z tanker.

“The United States Air Force, Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, in support of the Bridge Tanker Program Office (AFLCMC/WLQ), is seeking information from interested companies with the capability to deliver approximately 140-160 Commercial Derivative Tanker Aircraft to supplement the Air Force tanker aircraft fleet at the end of KC-46 production to bridge the gap to the next tanker recapitalization phase,” per a July 19 Request for Information business notice.

“The Commercial Derivative Aircraft must be operational by 2030,” the notice said. “The Air Force is still finalizing the requirements for this acquisition, but the baseline for aircraft capability will be based on the KC-X (awarded as KC-46A) requirements from phase one of tanker recapitalization, with subsequent and emerging requirements defined by the Air Force.”

Interested companies are to submit white papers on the topic by Aug. 2.

The Air Force may have to move to a “bridge tanker” sooner, if the delivery of 179 mission capable KC-46s slips past 2029. Boeing has delivered 46 KC-46s to the Air Force so far.

Last October, Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the chief of Air Mobility Command, said that the service’s tanker fleet in 2029 would consist of 179 KC-46As and 300 remaining KC-135s, if the service meets its fielding plan for KC-46s by that date (Defense Daily, Nov. 4, 2020).

The “bridge tanker” would supplement the KC-46s and the remaining KC-135s, as the service develops the next-generation KC-Z.

Van Ovost has said that the Air Force has been looking at a number of options for KC-Z, including stealth, large size, autonomy, and piloted.

Lockheed Martin [LMT], for its part, has broached the idea of a stealthy, autonomous tanker.