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Another Boeing Tanker Delay; How Long, Oh Lord?

Posted by Colin Clark on

KC-46 lands (1)

WASHINGTON: When Boeing really, truly and finally won the airborne tanker competition by underbidding what was then EADS North America (now Airbus) by at least 10 percent, the chairman of the losing company, Ralph Crosby, said he believed it important that Boeing be watched closely to make sure they delivered at that price and on schedule.

“If they aren’t, then they should be held accountable,” he said at the press conference announcing EADS would not protest the win.

Well, Boeing’s KC-46 is quite late and very over-budget. It was supposed to be ready for a spring 2017 arrival at Altus Air Force Base, Okla. and McConnell AFB, Kansas. That will not happen, Air Force Brig. Gen. Duke Richardson, the program executive officer for tankers, said in a statement late Friday on the Memorial Day weekend (in the best tradition of government trying to avoid the news cycle).

“Technical challenges with boom design and issues with certification of the centerline drogue system and wing air refueling pods have driven delays to low rate production approval and initial aircraft deliveries,” Richardson said.

The government now expects to make the Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) decision, known as Milestone C, in August 2016 to give Boeing more time to fix the problems. It appears the current problem lies with one of the aircraft’s most important roles — refueling the C-17 cargo plane and the A-10 due to because of high loads on the refueling boom.

Boeing had similar problems with the Italian tankers, the first tankers based on the 767. That drogue system exhibited serious stability problems that took years to find fixes for. In the end, the Italian tankers came in six years late. They performed their first tanking of a foreign aircraft only recently. However, it was a substantial milestone, with the Boeing-built KC-767A becoming the first foreign tanker to undergo refueling certification trials with a U.S. aircraft.

The KC-46 has refueled an Air Force F-16 using the boom. The tanker has also transferred fuel to a Navy F/A-18 and a Marine Corps Harrier, which use the hose-and-drogue system for refueling,

The tanker uses a boom to refuel Air Force planes and hoses that extend from the wings and center body to refuel Navy, Marine Corps and allied aircraft.

What is the Air Force or the Office of Secretary of Defense doing to hold Boeing accountable? Not much, so far.

“Throughout KC-46 development, the Air Force remained cautiously optimistic that Boeing would quickly address these issues and meet the original goal,” he continued. “However, we understand that no major procurement program is without challenges and the Air Force remains committed to ensuring all aircraft are delivered as technically required.”

What many may have forgotten is that Boeing won the deeply troubled tanker competition because it offered a lower price and promised that technical risk was low, so cost overruns and schedule delays were unlikely. I still remember asking Boeing about the technical risks of integrating a glass cockpit — which the Italian version of the tanker does not have — and being told essentially that it was competition sensitive so the company wouldn’t detail the risks. Those risks have clearly been greater than most of us knew from the beginning.

The good news for the taxpayer is that none of the more than $1.3 billion cost overruns Boeing has incurred so far are costing us a dime because of the fixed price contract used. The last of the first 18 aircraft will be delivered by January 2018 instead of by August 2017.

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