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Will the Air Force Ever Get Their New Tanker Aircraft?

Plagued by Delays, Cost Overruns, and Challenges

A KC-46 refuels a C-17 Globemaster III. Photo: Boeing
The Air Force has been trying to replace their aging KC-135 tanker aircraft…for decades. There is a replacement aircraft, the KC-46, which is nearly ready to go, but the program has been plagued by scandal and delays for many years. And now, on the eve of the new aircraft’s introduction into operational service, more delays have been announced. Let’s take a look at the long and sorry history of this program.

First fielded in the late 1950s, the KC-135 Stratotanker has been the mainstay of the Air Force’s aerial tanker fleet. Supplemented by the addition of the KC-10 tanker variant of the DC-10 airliner in the early 80s, USAF’s tanker fleet has grown advanced in age and maintenance requirements to stay mission ready. A re-engining program which replaced the original Pratt and Whitney J-57 turbojets with modern CFM-56 high bypass turbofans did help to extend the life of the KC-135, but these 1950s era aircraft are entering their seventh decade of service and are in need of replacement.

Enter the KC-767

By Tripiz at Italian Wikipedia (Transferred from it.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Starting in 2002, the Air Force explored the replacement of the KC-135 with a tanker variant of the Boeing 767 airliner to be known as the KC-767. Other potential aircraft considered to be used as a platform for the new tanker were the 747, the MD-11, the A-310, which had already been converted into a tanker in Germany, and the C-17. An Airbus version of the A-330 airliner to be known as the KC-330 was also evaluated with the decision eventually made to go with the Boeing KC-767 plane.

After the decision awarding the contract to Boeing was announced, allegations of corruption surfaced. A resulting congressional investigation turned up evidence that the competition had been rigged in favor of Boeing. An Air Force program manager and Boeing executive were eventually convicted and served jail time for their roles in the scandal.  KC-767 aircraft went on to be built by Boeing and sold to the Italian Air Force and Japanese Self Defense Force.

The KC-767 acquisition program was cancelled by the Air Force in 2006 followed by a request for proposals for a new tanker replacement program to be known as the KC-X. Boeing offered a different variant of the 767 airliner after deciding against a 777 version. Airbus partnered with Northrup Grumman to propose an A-330 based tanker now known as the KC-30.

This time the contract was awarded to the Airbus tanker over the Boeing entry. Alleging bidding improprieties, Boeing started a public relations campaign to have the decision reversed. After the GAO confirmed Boeing’s allegations, the program was opened for a rebid with Boeing winning the award over Airbus in February of 2011, nearly 10 years after the start of the process.

The KC-46 Pegasus Comes to Life (Sort of)

Design work began on the new aircraft immediately with the contract calling for the first deliveries of operational aircraft in 2017. Snafus in the program followed shortly thereafter. In 2014 it was discovered that a significant amount of wiring had to be redesigned due to safety concerns. Boeing took a $425 million charge in 2014 due to the delays and extra costs essentially guaranteeing that the program would be unprofitable for the company after winning the contract on a fixed cost basis.

More delays and charges were taken in 2015 due to problems identified in the fuel system. The first flight of the aircraft in its final configuration occurred on September 25th of that year, but delays nearly ensured that an already aggressive test flight program would be difficult to achieve in the allotted time. In May of 2016, another six month delay was announced due to supply chain problems. By that time Boeing had already taken nearly $1.5 billion in cost overruns against the program.

By mid 2016 it became apparent that there was a growing likelihood that Boeing would not be able to deliver the first 18 KC-46 aircraft to the Air Force by the agreed upon date of August 2017. At that point discussions were started as to what sort of penalties would be levied against Boeing. Additional cost overruns by this time had raised Boeing’s out of pocket costs for the program to about $1.9 billion.

New technical problems with the boom refueling system and delays in the certification of the centerline drogue and wing refueling pods pushed the projected delivery of the first 18 aircraft into the first half of 2018.

As the program currently stands, ongoing boom refueling control problems, lack of a supplemental FAA certification, and problems with the HF radio system which may result in arcing on the skin of the aircraft (generally bad in a refueling aircraft) are pushing initial delivery well into 2018, over a year late.

In Conclusion

The military procurement system has always been somewhat of slow motion train wreck resulting in weapons systems designed by committee and costing taxpayers billions of dollars over what they should, but this program should win an award for dragging a simple tanker replacement out decades.

Many times the delivered systems then do not work as advertised or are so laden down with useless features so as to be worse than the systems they replace. Expensive fixes then need to be designed and installed to fix poor initial design. There has to be a better way.

Add to this the overly aggressive bidding and promises made by Boeing in order to ensure that they got the contract and it seems like this decades long disaster will leave no winners on the field.

Boeing Flight Test & Evaluation – Boeing Field – KC-46, VH004, EMD2, Initial Contacts with F-16, Boeing KC-46 Pegasus Tanker Refueling F-16, Edwards AFB 412th TW,

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Rob Graves

Written by Rob Graves

Captain Rob Graves is a veteran airline pilot and retired Air Force officer. He currently flies a Boeing 737 for a major American airline where he has over 25 years of experience. His Air Force career included flying the T-37 primary trainer, the KC-135 Stratotanker, and the C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft for worldwide operations. He is the author of This is Your Captain Speaking, an aviation blog. It can be found at robertgraves.com. We’re proud to have him on our Avgeekery.com team.

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