CAPITOL HILL: The Air Force’s troubled KC-46 fuel tanker will probably be delayed “a couple of months” more, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told the Senate this morning. An Air Force spokesperson confirmed to Breaking Defense that this means they expect contractor Boeing to miss the December deadline to deliver the first aircraft — but a Boeing spokesperson insisted that they’d meet the schedule.
Wilson came to the hearing on the 2018 budget after just a month on the job and just a day after her first public speech as Air Force Secretary. But the former Air Force officer, NSC staffer, and congresswoman calmly held her own during her inaugural shellacking from Senate Armed Services chairman John McCain.
The irascible ex-fighter pilot lambasted Wilson and Goldfein over two of the service’s three top priority programs, the KC-46 tanker and the B-21 bomber. Surprisingly, the third — and most expensive — aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, got away almost unscathed. McCain grumbled about the plane’s past problems but reserved his ire for the president’s budget buying only 46 of them, instead of the 60 that the Air Force had targeted or the 80 the chairman said were necessary to “put a dent” into the service’s growing shortfall of fighters. In a sign of how accepted the program has become, the other senators focused on where the F-35 would be based or gave Goldfein openings to extol the plane’s performance at the recent Red Flag wargames.
The nascent B-21 Raider, by contrast, got hammered with skeptical questions, not about the need for a new bomber but about the secrecy and ambiguity surrounding the program. South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds lamented the lack of clarity over how many bombers the Air Force planned to buy. Wilson and Goldfein stated unambiguously it would be 100 B-21s — though Goldfein later said “at least 100” — which together with some 65 older aircraft would make up a total fleet of 165 bombers.
The service is now “socializing” a bomber basing roadmap on Capitol Hill, Goldfein said, a plan for reducing excess infrastructure while ensuring every base with bombers today still has bombers in the future. That’s a subject that will excite far more passion among legislators than strategy, stealth or aeronautical engineering.
McCain, meanwhile, tore into the Air Force for over-classifying the B-21 program, saying he understood the need for secrecy but the taxpaying public had a right to know more about what they were being asked to pay for.
“We are very open with the appropriate committees….” Wilson began.
“That is not true,” McCain cut in. “That is simply not true…. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
Tanker Delayed Into 2018
For all the sturm und drang on bombers, however, it was on the tanker program where Wilson and Goldfein made news.
McCain noted with satisfaction that the fixed-price contract for the first 18 planes had kept Boeing from charging the taxpayer for cost overruns. (That said, if there could be such difficulty with a low-tech conversion of an existing airliner, what kind of program is safe for a contractor to offer a fixed price for?). But the Air Force still has to suffer the program’s delays, McCain said: “When will the first aircraft be delivered and when will the eighteenth be delivered?”
“Senator, there’s a meeting this morning in the Pentagon about the risk on the schedule,” Wilson said. “We think there’s some risk, particularly in the testing schedule; and Boeing does not believe, does not agree with that risk.”
“The meeting’s actually going on right now,” Wilson went on. “We did an independent assessment on timing and we may see a couple of months’ slip, is what I’m hearing informally.”
Goldfein added more detail later in the hearing. “Right now this morning, our (acting) service acquisition executive (Darlene Costello) is actually holding a schedule review and looking at exactly where we are. We think that there may be a couple months (that) we’re delayed,” he said. “It’s a combination of the contractor not anticipating some of the challenges with FAA certification, a little bit in the testing and getting the data points that are required.”
KC-46 basing should not be delayed, however, Goldfein reassured the senators: “Our best estimate right now is we’re going to be able to absorb the delays at McConnell (in Kansas) and Altus (Oklahoma) and we’ll be back on track by the time we get to Pease (New Hampshire).”
An Air Force spokesperson made clear that Wilson now believes Boeing will miss its December 2017 deadline to deliver the first aircraft, which will instead be delivered to the Air Force early next year.
Boeing acknowledged that there have been delays. Indeed, the contractor and the Air Force already agreed to slip the delivery of the first KC-46 from September of this year (the end of the fiscal year) to December (the end of the calendar year). But Boeing spokeswoman Caroline Hutcheson reached out to Breaking Defense before the hearing was even over to emphasize the company is “confident” they can meet that December deadline.
“We hold firm to that end of the year delivery date… for the first aircraft,” Hutcheson told me. For the other aircraft on this initial contract — No. 2 through No. 18 – “we agree there is risk until flight testing is complete and are working to make sure we’re aligned (with the Air Force) on delivery schedule,” she said.
Being a Boeing employee, Hutcheson of course couldn’t speak to the internal Air Force meeting this morning. It’s that meeting that Wilson and Goldfein seem to be saying will make the formal recommendation for some kind of delay. Wilson assured McCain that “as soon we get the read-out from that meeting, we will let you know.” So will we.