Burying your bad KC-46 news

Industry analysts have expected for quite some time now that the US Air Force’s next-generation aerial refueller, the KC-46A ‘Pegasus’, would likely miss its intended delivery date of August 2017 due to ongoing, and numerous, technical glitches with the aircraft.

Those predictions were confirmed on 27 May when the USAF and Boeing both released statements saying that the delivery of the first 18 aircraft (known as Required Assets Available, or RAA, in acquistion speak), would now be delayed until January 2018, five months later than planned.

A Milestone C decision, which green lights a low-rate production contract, has also been pushed to the right with a decision now expected this August. That’s largely thanks to issues with higher than expected ‘axial loads’ on the KC-46A’s boom when refuelling the C-17A transport, which has delayed other receiver demonstrations including with the A-10.

In addition, due to ongoing certification issues, when the aircraft are eventually delivered they will be missing their wing aerial-refuelling pods (WARPs).

Overall, pretty terrible news for a programme that was meant to be a relatively straightforward ‘off-the-shelf’ procurement to replace ageing KC-135 tankers. Even worse for the air force, it comes the same week that officials admitted that another major USAF programme, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, is facing yet more delays.

In releasing the information about the KC-46A delay, it was a classic case of burying bad news. The statements were released just before Memorial Day in the US and a Spring Bank Holiday in the UK so most of Europe had already clocked off, Asia was asleep and many in the US had probably finished early to take advantage of a long weekend.

It didn’t get past a lot of the specialist journalists though, and some of the wire reporters as well. We have a story on the Shephard website here, along with several other analysis pieces on the programme.

Ultimately, the announcement of the delay is not surprising.

Several journalists, including myself, have been following the programme for quite some time and when we’ve questioned both USAF and Boeing officials, they’ve assured us that the programme was still on track, despite it becoming glaringly obvious that the programme had some serious problems.

KC-46A full-size

My last interaction with Boeing was March, where the company told me that it ‘still expect[ed] to meet the August 2017 RAA date’ and that it was ‘taking the right steps to fulfill our commitment to the Air Force’. Since then, both the USAF and Boeing have clearly come to accept that this was just too optimistic.

Admittedly, the programme has been hit with some rotten luck. WARPs, that Boeing thought would be quick to qualify as the technology is relatively mature, actually had design flaws meaning their qualification was delayed three years. Three years!

Just before the maiden flight of the first full-up KC-46A, a mislabeled fuel substitute provided by a third-party supplier was poured into the refuelling system. It turned out to be a highly-corrosive industrial cleaning fluid that damaged several key systems. Parts had to be harvested from another developmental aircraft, adding yet more delays.

Design flaws have also plagued the aircraft with the company having to redesign the aircraft’s wiring and fuel systems, yet again adding months of delays on the programme.

The extent to which Boeing was behind on the programme was laid out by the government accountability office (GAO) in a report released April, which stated that in January 2016 alone, Boeing had achieved only 7 out of 55 test activities that had been scheduled on the programme.

Credit to Boeing, all four test aircraft are now flying and contributing to developmental testing and even though an LRIP contract hasn’t been signed, the first production aircraft are being built (a risky strategy, maybe?).

The first tanker is now expected to be delivered to the USAF in August 2017, at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, the first formal training unit location. The question is whether Boeing can still meet this extended delivery date, so the pressure really is on.

As several analysts pointed out to me earlier this year, the USAF can mitigate the operational costs of KC-46A delays by running its KC-135 aircraft for a little longer. The longer-term damage may be for Boeing, which has been impacted financially by several charges on the fixed-price contract (it has to pay for delays and cost overruns) and a damaged reputation for delivering late.

Wayne Plucker, aerospace and defense director at consultancy Frost & Sullivan told me that: ‘[Boeing] have been in air force procurement’s dog house for some time due to mistakes [and] while Boeing still has a lot of defence work, they are not winning new major programmes and their older programmes are ending.’

‘There is a good chance that programme performance on the KC-46 program affected the decision on the B-21 [bomber],’ he added, referring to another major USAF programme.

In the words of the man responsible for the KC-46A tanker, Brig Gen Duke Richardson, ‘no major procurement program is without challenges’. That’s true, but the Pegasus programme has had several instances where delays could have been avoided and were not the inevitable process of developing a clean-sheet design.

It will be interesting to see how the Air Force’s relationship with Boeing progresses in the future and how its defence business is affected by this programme going forward.

2 comments

  • It may seem that the boom and ‘meatball’ ( the trailing basket reciever) are old hat , but Boeing went for all new technology for both. It seems like it was underfunded by Boeing for their suppliers (both systems are outsourced entirely- Boeing only builds the aircraft) and not enough money/time was available for development. Eventually it will work well but they are not out of the woods yet.

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  • Something went seriously wrong when it came to the WARPs and CDS, whether it was underfunding from Boeing, or just a gross engineering error, it’s caused a three year delay in qualification and a year-late RAA. This part from the GAO’s April report is revealing:

    “The supplier for the centerline drogue system and wing aerial refueling pods, however, built the systems without following FAA processes. Consequently, the supplier was told by the FAA in late 2014 that the FAA would need to inspect the individual parts to ensure design conformance. During this process, the supplier discovered a design flaw with the aerial refueling pods, which caused further delays. Originally, Boeing estimated that these components would be ready for the FAA to certify by February 2014, and it now projects that they will be ready by July 2017, over 3 years later.”

    The only way Boeing has been able to carry on testing with the WARP and CDS fitted is that the FAA granted Boeing special approval to use the unqualified system. Which is astounding really, not something you’d expect to happen with two companies (Boeing and Cobham) that have years of experience in putting together aerial tankers.

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