Boeing Is Likely to Miss Another Tanker Deadline, Air Force Says

Boeing Co. is expected to once again miss the key deadline for the contract on its KC-46 refueling tanker, the U.S. Air Force said.

Boeing’s program schedule continues to show that it plans to deliver the first 18 tankers, two spare engines and nine sets of wing-mounted refueling pods by October, which is already 14 months later than the initial date of August 2017.

But the Air Force now says that the required deliveries are “more likely” to be completed “in late spring 2019,” spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in an emailed statement that reflects the findings in a new schedule-risk assessment. “The top issues slowing progress” are Federal Aviation Administration airworthiness certifications “and completing the flight test program,” Stefanek said.

“These potential delays will not result in additional program cost to the taxpayer,” Stefanek said. That’s because Boeing is required to use its own funds under its “fixed priced-incentive fee” contract, which caps the Air Force’s liability at $4.9 billion. The Air Force estimates Boeing will complete the contract for $6.3 billion, or $1.4 billion over budget. Boeing estimates it will complete the development work for $5.9 billion.

Repeated Issues

Boeing has “worked closely with the U.S. Air Force on the updated” schedule assessment for the KC-46 and discussed a range of delivery dates, the Chicago-based company said in a statement. “While there is always risk on any development program, we’re relying on our partnership with the Air Force to help mitigate those risks, complete KC-46 testing and deliver 18 game-changing tankers to them as quickly as possible,” the contractor said.

The tanker’s flight testing program has been beset by technical issues for what was once envisioned as a low-risk development project. The first KC-46 aircraft was originally expected to be delivered between April and June 2016; Boeing expects it now between April and June of this year, according to the Air Force statement. The Air Force said the first delivery “is more likely” to occur later this year.

Currently, the Air Force is trying to find a fix for a problem, discovered last year, of the tanker’s fuel probe scraping other aircraft during mid-air refueling operations. So far, the damage has been minor, according to the service.

Stealth Coating

But the Air Force lists it as a serious Category One issue out of concern that the scraping during refueling could damage specialized coatings used on F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters and B-2 bombers, or cause structural damage, according to the service’s KC-46 program office. There’s also the chance a KC-46 tanker would need to be grounded if the refueling probe was contaminated with stealth coating, it said.

The Defense Department’s fiscal 2019-2023 budget outline calls for the Air Force to spend $20 billion buying 75 tankers. That includes $15 billion in procurement spending.

The KC-46 will carry about 212,000 pounds of fuel and is designed to resupply any U.S. warplane in midair. The wide-body plane, based on Boeing’s 767 jetliner, will be capable of carrying as many as 18 cargo pallets and performing medical evacuations of as many as 58 patients. It’s intended to replace the Air Force’s aging fleet of KC-135 tankers, also built by Boeing. The Air Force plans to initially buy 179 tankers with the potential for more.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis bluntly warned Pentagon weapons buyers late last year that he won’t let the Air Force accept new refueling tankers from if they’re flawed or don’t meet all contract obligations, Bloomberg News reported in December, citing a person familiar with the issue.

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