Air Force accepts first Boeing modern air tanker after years of delays
WASHINGTON — The Air Force on Thursday accepted the first KC-46A Pegasus jet tanker from Boeing following years of delays to the modernized air-refueling plane program due to technical issues and allegations of corruption.
The first of 52 KC-46 aircraft that Boeing is contracted to build is expected to arrive later this month at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, where the service will begin testing and training for pilots and airmen who operate the refueling booms, Air Force Capt. Hope Cronin, a service spokeswoman, said in a statement. Boeing, in a separate statement, said it anticipated delivering at least nine more aircraft to the Air Force soon, and it expects to build 179 by 2027. The company is also under contract to build a single KC-46 for Japan.
But the aircraft, which was slated for delivery by 2016 and designed to replace the more than 50-year-old KC-135 Stratotanker, comes with lingering problems, according to the Air Force.
Those issues primarily rest with the aircraft’s advanced cockpit vision system that allows boom operators to control refueling remotely from the plane’s front via video and other sensors, instead of manually from the rear of the plane as they have done in legacy tankers.
“We have identified, and Boeing has agreed to fix at its expense, deficiencies discovered in developmental testing of the remote vision system,” Cronin said. “The Air Force has mechanisms in place to ensure Boeing meets its contractual obligations while we continue with initial operational testing and evaluation.”
The first 18 KC-46s cost $4.9 billion, according to a fixed-price contract signed in 2011. To date, the program is worth about $44 billion. However, Boeing has forfeited some $3.5 billion so far due to problems in the program, according to the Air Force.
The service first turned to Boeing to replace the aging KC-135 tanker plane in 2001 with an adapted model of its 767 aircraft. But the program was frozen in 2003 amid allegations of corruption that would end with a prison term for a former Pentagon official who later went to work for Boeing. That program was officially scrapped in 2006.
In 2011, Boeing received the Air Force contract to build the first 18 KC-46As after the Washington state-based aerospace company successfully protested the service’s initial 2008 decision to award the contract to a joint team from Northrup Grumman and the company now known as Airbus.
The KC-46A is a 165-foot tanker plane built on Boeing’s 767 platform that can carry some 210,000 pounds of fuel and is capable of refueling every aircraft in the Pentagon’s inventory able to do so, according to company. It is capable of flying about 650 mph and carrying 15 crewmembers.
Boeing said the aircraft has undergone rigorous testing during its development including flying more than 3,800 hours and has offloaded more than four million pounds of fuel to fighter, bomber, cargo and tanker aircraft.
The aircraft is equipped with advanced sensors that allow it to detect, avoid and defend itself from threats in war zones, according to Boeing.
A Pentagon spokesman said acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was not involved in the decision to accept the KC-46A from Boeing, where he was employed for some three decades before arriving at the Defense Department in 2017. Those decisions were handled by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a spokesman for the Pentagon.
Shanahan has recused himself from all decisions involving his former employer while he is acting as the secretary of defense, a defense official said last week. Shanahan, formerly the undersecretary of defense, was forced into the Pentagon chief role following former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ sudden resignation last month and subsequent dismissal by President Donald Trump.
Andrews said the Pentagon agreed with the Air Force’s decision to accept the KC-46A even with its known issues so pilots and crewmembers can begin training on the aircraft.