CAPITOL HILL: While deliveries of Boeing-built KC-46 tankers have resumed, the Air Force’s acquisition chief has sent a very clear message to Congress that the service will act if the company doesn’t do more to improve controls on its production line.
Will Roper, assistant secretary of the of Air Force for acquisition, told the House Armed Services seapower and power projection subcommittee that Boeing’s management of Foreign Object Debris (FOD) has improved, but that is not enough: “If we don’t see progress, we will have to raise the stakes.”
The Air Force briefly refused deliveries of new KC-46s March 1 after government inspectors found tools and other debris left behind on KC-46s at Boeing’s plant in Seattle: Such loose objects can fly about the cabin during aerial maneuvers, damaging equipment and endangering crew. Deliveries resumed March 11 to Altus Air Force Base.
Roper told the subcommittee it is taking five sweeps per aircraft to ensure there are no tools, nuts and bolts or other debris left in the planes: “That’s not how we should be accepting planes– sweeping them five times.”
The Air Force and Defense Contract Management Agency, who represent the government on factory floors, are doing their own spot checks of the line in addition to Boeing’s five sweeps, Roper said Thursday, and the number of inspections will increase.
(For some perspective, when reporters go on board aircraft carriers, visit runways, or tour factory floors, we are regularly reminded to watch our pens, notebooks and other objects to ensure the area is FOD free. Jet aircraft in particular can suck debris into their engines, doing catastrophic damage).
Here’s how Roper characterized the problem with FOD on the KC-46 line: “To say it bluntly, this is unacceptable.” Speaking like the physicist and experienced analyst he is, he added, “Boeing’s processes are valid…. They simply must follow them.”
Roper also discussed the state of redesign for the KC-46’s Remote Vision System. The boom operator uses these Rockwell Collins cameras and sensors to guide the boom into the other aircraft, but, sometimes, depending on conditions, the operator simply can’t tell what’s happening. Part of the system can be fixed with software changes, but Roper made clear there is hardware to be redesigned as well. That, he said, will take three to four years “to completely redesign and retrofit.” Four of nine fixes involve hardware and they will further jack the cost up of the supposedly low-risk KC-46 program.
The 2020 budget requests 12 KC-46 tankers. Whatever happens with this, the American taxpayer will not pay a cent, because Boeing signed what’s called a fixed-price contract under which the government doesn’t have to help them cover cost overruns — a formula long advocated by the late Sen. John McCain. The company has already shelled out $3 billion above the $4.9 billion contract price for the first tranche of the 179 aircraft the service plans to buy.