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KC-46A development passes halfway point

Apr. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The KC-46A is intended to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers. (Kevin Flynn/Air Force)
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Development of the Air Force’s KC-46A tanker is about 57 percent complete, with the first flight of the test aircraft planned for this summer, according to the top program official.

The schedule announcement comes as the KC-46A program faces increased costs for the contractor, the Government Accountability Office outlines possible delays for the program and the looming threat of sequestration targets one Air Force tanker fleet.

“There’s always some risk in acquisition programs, and the KC-46A program is executing as well as any acquisition program that I’ve ever been involved in in 27 years,” Maj. Gen. John F. Thompson, the tanker’s executive program officer, told lawmakers April 2.

The Air Force has scheduled the first flight of the 767 derivative this summer, when it will head straight into the flight test program.

The plane is in the factory and set to go through ground testing, such as vibration tests to ensure its stability.

That aircraft, while the first for the Air Force, will be the 1,065th 767 airframe produced, Thompson said. The established history of the plane will be helpful to the airmen maintaining it.

“Airmen will actually appreciate being able to conduct maintenance on aircraft that they know that the tech data and the FAA certification has literally been there for decades,” Thompson told Air Force Times.

The second aircraft will move from the factory in Everett, Wash., to a Boeing facility in Seattle for finishing, including the installation of the refueling boom and other military-specific equipment such as the boom operator’s station before heading to the flight test program in January, Thompson said.

Production on the first aircraft has encountered setbacks, including problems with the aircraft’s electrical wiring systems and outer paneling, he said.

In March, the Air Force estimated that the development for the aircraft will be about $1.1 billion over budget. However, the Air Force’s end of the contract has been held up and the service’s liability is capped at $4.9 billion, meaning the additional cost will have to be covered by Boeing.

“The rest of this will be borne by the contractor so long as I haven’t changed requirements, I’ve paid my bills on time,” Thompson said. “It’s really not a big issue for us from the standpoint of execution.”

While officials have said that the progress is mostly smooth on the program, there are issues that will impact continued development and production of the tanker. On March 31, the Government Accountability Office released its assessment of Defense Department acquisition programs, including assessing issues with KC-46A development.

According to the report, Boeing has delayed production of the refueling boom by almost a year due to design changes and late parts deliveries.

The January 2015 test flight of the KC-46A is about 18 months after its critical design review, which was released in July 2013.

“Best practices call for completing a full system-level prototype demonstration by the critical design review in order to show that the design is capable of meeting performance requirements,” the GAO report said.

In response to the GAO, Air Force program office officials said they are working to mitigate risks by negotiating a fixed-price incentive development contract with firm fixed and not to exceed pricing for production.

Additionally, the program said software-related issues are a risk with the system in concurrent testing and production, similar to problems that have delayed the F-35 program.

“The program further stated that it plans to mitigate the risk posed by concurrency by ensuring that adequate testing is completed prior to the production decision,” the GAO said. “In addition, Boeing’s contract requires it to incorporate fixes into production aircraft at no additional cost.”

The KC-46A development comes at a time of uncertainty over the future of the Air Force’s tanker fleet. While the Pegasus is planned to replace the KC-135 Stratotanker fleet, the service has said that if sequestration continues, it will be forced to divest the entire fleet of 59 KC-10 Extenders.

Maj. Gen. James Jones, the assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, told lawmakers April 2 that if the Air Force is forced to cut this fleet, it would do so as the KC-46A comes online.

The KC-10 is the likely casualty of budget cuts because an Air Force assessment of its mobility fleets found that losing those 59 tankers would impose the least amount of risk on operations.

To save the same amount of money, the service would be forced to cut 152 KC-135s, its entire C-5M fleet or 80 C-17s, which would be too big a loss for the Air Force’s mobility mission, Jones said.■

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