This month, what will be the first new-build Air Force strategic tanker in 25 years will roll out of Boeing’s Everett, Wash., plant: the first of four aircraft that will comprise the KC-46 test force. While USAF’s 12-year journey to the milestone has been politically harrowing, so far the technical program is making solid progress and is expected to deliver the urgently needed aircraft at the time and price promised.
“We think Boeing has a greater than 90 percent probability of meeting RAA—which is required assets available—18 aircraft by August of ’17,” said Maj. Gen. John F. Thompson, USAF’s program executive officer for tanker programs, in an October interview. The schedule risk assessment, he said, was made in May. Since then, the KC-46 passed its biggest preflight test milestone: the critical design review. It passed with flying colors, he reported.
The KC-46 program is now 35 months along, following several abortive attempts at tanker recapitalization since 2001. At the time, then-Air Force Secretary James G. Roche suggested leasing Boeing KC-767s, examples of which have since joined air forces in Italy and Japan. After Congress nixed the idea of a lease or sole-source buy, a competition was held and an Airbus A330 tanker derivative dubbed KC-45 was chosen. That award was thrown out after a heated protest, and Boeing won a second competition with its 767-based tanker, named KC-46 by USAF.
What is so extraordinarily frustrating is that technically, this is a layup of a program. Boeing and the Air Force have been building and buying tankers almost immediately since the end of World War II.
But the complexity of the acquisition process have made what should be a simple buy into a lengthy, and thus very costly, nightmare.
Until DoD can find a way to buy simple systems simply, this sort of thing will continue to suck useful dollars from the budget, wasting the precious funds best used for other purposes.