Boeing’s KC-46 Tanker to Receive Production Green Light

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Boeing’s KC-46 tanker successfully refueled an A-10 combat aircraft, clearing the final hurdle before the Air Force approves the first production order.

The “milestone C” testing was completed July 15 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. During a four-hour flight, the KC-46 offloaded 1,500 pounds of fuel to the A-10, at 15,000 feet.

“This completed the required air refueling demonstrations needed for the upcoming production milestone decision,” said Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey. The program has racked up more than 900 flight test hours with five aircraft.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein is expected in August to approve the tanker to begin low-rate production. The Air Force will award a contract for the first two production lots for 19 aircraft, followed by a third lot in January 2017.

“It is great to see the KC-46 boom back in action and the program moving forward to a production decision” said Col. John Newberry, the KC-46 system program manager.

The A-10 refueling at marks “the final step we needed to see on the boom fix in order to request production go-ahead,” said Brig. Gen. Duke Richardson, the Air Force program executive officer for tankers.

The tanker program is the first major weapons-acquisition test for the Air Force’s new chief of staff, who was sworn in July 21.

Congress in last year’s defense policy bill gave the chiefs of the military services a frontline role in weapons procurements.

Goldfein, with an extensive background leading combat forces, is likely to take a more disciplinarian role overseeing big-ticket procurements.

“Goldfein comes in with no significant background in acquisition,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Charles R. “CR” Davis, a former weapons acquisition official and now CEO of Seabury Global Aerospace & Defense.

Being in charge of combat operations is all about “accountability and performance,” he added. “Those are key attributes that are missing from the acquisition community.”

One of the hardest jobs managing procurements, he said, is to “establish accountability,” regardless of whether government officials or contractors are to blame for the problems.

“The sense of responsibility and accountability in the field doesn’t exist in acquisitions,” Davis said. “To me, that is the single biggest failing of our acquisition process.

Laws and regulations over decades have focused on “oversight and process, and that does not foster leadership and accountability at the program level,” Davis said. “That’s the biggest challenge the services have in acquisitions.”

A litany of KC-46 troubles in the past two years had stunned military and industry watchers. The fixed-price development phase of the program set Boeing back nearly $1.5 billion.

Goldfein will need to make sure he gets to the bottom of what happened and try to prevent similar setbacks in future programs, Davis suggested.

“He’s got some big ones coming right on the heels of the tanker.” The Air Force in the coming years will be acquiring a new jet trainer aircraft and ground-surveillance radar planes.

“He needs to make sure the right accountability is in the right place,” Davis said. “We’re very bad across DoD on following up on the root causes of problems.”

The tanker has been a development rollercoaster. In the span of the past several weeks, the news has gone from gloom to cheer.

Due to a technical hitch with the refueling system, or boom, the Air Force announced May 27 that the KC-46A had failed to refuel a C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft, just weeks after senior Boeing executives had assured investors and industry analysts that the problems were under control.

Good news came July 13 when the Air Force reported the tanker had successfully refueled a C-17.

That happened after the company decided to abandon attempts to fix problems through software reprogramming and instead moved to modify the hardware.

Ups and downs surely are to be expected in airplane developments, Davis noted. “Everything is good one day and a disaster occurs the next,” he said.

“Coming from the flight test world, it seems to be a way of life with flight tests.” But the tanker should raise many red flags for the Air Force, he said.

“If you have the right people and leadership in place, this should not have been that hard, I just cannot believe that.”

The five air refueling demonstrations required for milestone C were with the C-17 Globemaster III and F-16 Fighting Falcon using the air refueling boom, the Navy’s F-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier II using the centerline and wing drogue systems, and the KC-46 as a receiver aircraft.

In the July 12 C-17 refueling test, the tanker, with the latest boom hardware, offloaded 2,200 pounds of fuel to the C-17. In earlier tests, higher-than-expected axial loads on the boom were detected, which required installing hydraulic pressure relief valves.

The boom axial loads hardware fix, designed by Boeing engineers, is performing as expected to alleviate the loads, the Air Force reported.

“I’m encouraged by these results,” said Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James.

President and CEO of Boeing Defense & Space Leanne Caret has been insistent that the company is taking a long view of the tanker program.

“We were very aware of the bid we made on KC-46, we’re very focused on the fact that we’ve recognized it’s a franchise program that’s going to be in service for decades with 400 aircraft,” Caret said last month at the Deutsche Bank Global Industrials and Materials Summit.

The company is focused on strengthening the “development organization” in the tanker program, she said. “I know there has been a lot of debate about what was known when and where.

… We made the decision after tests that the software solution wouldn’t work that we could pivot instantly to a hardware solution because from a development organization perspective, we were operating down two paths.”

“While it took some time, this week’s results confirm my confidence the Boeing team will get this figured out,” Goldfein said in a news release after the C-17 test. “It’s reassuring to see the program take this important step toward the production decision in August.”

The Air Force signed a fixed-price development contract with Boeing in February 2011, and intends to acquire 179 KC-46As. Boeing was awarded a fixed-price incentive contract with a ceiling price of $4.9 billion to develop the first four aircraft.