By Tony Capaccio / Bloomberg News
The US Air Force has accepted Boeing's long-delayed supply of the long-haul tanker, despite unresolved defects.
The first eight of the planned 179 KC-46 tankers assembled at Everett will be accepted by February. It's over two years late – and it may take another four years to upgrade the failed camera system used during refueling operations. At this point, Boeing is under contract for 52 tankers, which are built on the company's 767 commercial model cell. The whole program is worth 44 billion dollars.
The Air Force retains up to $ 28 million on the last installment of each aircraft as a financial means to provide Boeing with the necessary improvements.
"We have identified, and Boeing has agreed to remediate at his expense, the deficiencies discovered in the remote vision system development tests," said Captain Hope Cronin, spokesman for the Army's Air, in a statement.
The Pentagon's approval of the Air Force plan to accept defective aircraft was caught in the midst of the storm at the top of the Ministry of Defense. The decision was awaiting Defense Secretary Jim Mattis when he announced his intention to resign by the end of February.
President Donald Trump ordered him to disengage before January 1st. Mattis had already made fun of accepting planes with flaws. In November 2017, he sent a sticky note to his chief of staff stating that he did not "(totally)" want to accept the deficient tankers.
The decision on the tanker was made by Ellen Lord, Undersecretary for Acquisition and Sustainment, because Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, had recused herself from the decisions on the tanker. projects of the company.
Once the first four aircraft have been delivered to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, probably by the end of the month, the tanker program will move to operational combat trials, which are expected to last until the end of the month. in about June. These tests will determine if the aircraft is combat effective and can be maintained. A second batch of four aircraft will be delivered next month at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma to begin training the flight and ground crew, Cronin said.
Leanne Caret, chief executive officer of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said in a statement that the tanker was "a proven and secure multi-mission aircraft that will transform in-flight refueling and air mobility operations for decades to come."
Congress members are likely to ask questions about the decision to accept the plane with defects. However, Air Force officials have stated that by clearly indicating the cost of repairs to Boeing, crews could conduct training missions instead of leaving unused planes on an airfield at the airport. company.
"The Air Force has mechanisms to ensure that Boeing meets its contractual obligations as we pursue," said Cronin, Air Force spokesman.
The Department of Defense is "totally in agreement" with the Air Force's plan to accept the tanker's delivery, according to Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, Pentagon spokesman.
The tanker's extended 59-foot supply boom is guided with a joystick by an aviator using a seven-camera system. But shadows or sunlight can hinder the view in rare cases, possibly resulting in scratching the other plane or difficulties in refueling, according to the Air Force. The service says it could result in undetected damage to specialty coatings used on F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters and B-2 bombers, or cause structural damage.
These deficiencies do not prevent most refueling missions and many military aircraft, such as the Lockheed Martin Corp. F-35, have been accepted. Dozens of deficiencies will be corrected later.
Separately, the air force has agreed to pay the cost of overhauling the ramp through which fuel is flowing to eliminate its deficiencies, said Cronin.
The first KC-46 was originally scheduled to be delivered between April and June 2016. The Air Force said the tanker had demonstrated critical capabilities in more than 1,000 flights and 4,000 refueling contacts involving the transfer of 4 million pounds of fuel.
Nevertheless, the development of the tanker was hampered by technical problems for what had been considered a low risk project when Chicago-based Boeing won the contract in 2011.
Boeing has already absorbed nearly $ 4 billion in cost overruns on the KC-46.
Before deciding to accept the first tankers, Air Force and Boeing officials conducted a thorough review with a "Human Factors Unit" to improve the camera-based system. . Human factors studies are studying how people interact with technology.
They have developed nine new, highly technical performance parameters that "make pretty big changes," said Cronin. The parameters will be incorporated by Boeing at its expense and should last about three to four years, Cronin said.
In the meantime, as the planes are delivered, the Air Force will retain up to $ 28 million on the price of each aircraft until the nine agreed fixes and enhancements are installed and verified. said Cronin. The Air Force currently estimates the average purchase cost of each tanker at $ 203 million for 179 aircraft.
Cronin noted that if the 28 million aircraft to date were held on Boeing for all of the $ 28 million, it would be close to $ 1.5 billion.
Julie Johnsson from Bloomberg contributed.