Air Force ac­cepts flawed Boe­ing aerial tankers

The ser­vice will take de­liv­ery of the first eight of 179 KC-46s even though cam­eras still need to be fixed.

Los Angeles Times - - COMPANY TOWN - By An­thony Ca­pac­cio

The U.S. Air Force has ac­cepted the first de­liv­ery of Boe­ing Co.’s long-de­layed aerial re­fu­el­ing tanker de­spite flaws that re­main to be fixed, the ser­vice said Thursday.

The first eight of 179 planned KC-46 aerial tankers in the $44-bil­lion pro­gram will be ac­cepted from now through Fe­bru­ary. That’s more than two years late — and it may take as long as four more years to up­grade the trou­bled cam­era sys­tem used in re­fu­el­ing op­er­a­tions.

The Air Force is with­hold­ing as much as $28 mil­lion from the fi­nal pay­ment on each air­craft as a fi­nan­cial hook to en­sure Boe­ing makes the nec­es­sary im­prove­ments.

“We have iden­ti­fied, and Boe­ing has agreed to fix at its ex­pense, de­fi­cien­cies dis­cov­ered in de­vel­op­men­tal test­ing of the re­mote vi­sion sys­tem,” Capt. Hope Cronin, an Air Force spokes­woman, said in a state­ment.

The Pen­tagon’s ap­proval of the Air Force’s plan to ac­cept the flawed planes was caught up in tur­moil at the top of the De­fense Depart­ment. The de­ci­sion was wait­ing on the desk of De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis when he an­nounced his plan to re­sign by the end of Fe­bru­ary.

Pres­i­dent Trump or­dered him to clear out be­fore Jan. 1. Mat­tis had pre­vi­ously chafed at ac­cept­ing the planes with de­fi­cien­cies. In Novem­ber 2017, he sent a sticky note to his chief of staff say­ing that he was “un­will­ing (to­tally)” to ac­cept de­fi­cient tankers.

In­stead, the de­ci­sion to take de­liv­ery of the planes was made by Ellen Lord, the un­der­sec­re­tary for ac­qui­si­tion and sus­tain­ment, be­cause act­ing De­fense Sec­re­tary Pa­trick Shana­han, a for­mer Boe­ing ex­ec­u­tive, has re­cused him­self from de­ci­sions on the Chicago com­pany’s projects.

Once the first four air­craft are de­liv­ered to Mc­Connell Air Force Base in Kansas, pos­si­bly by the end of this month, the tanker pro­gram will move into op­er­a­tional com­bat test­ing that’s ex­pected to last un­til about June. Those tests will de­ter­mine whether the air­craft is ef­fec­tive for com­bat and can be main­tained.

Leanne Caret, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Boe­ing De­fense, Space & Se­cu­rity, said in a state­ment that the tanker is a “proven, safe, multi-mis­sion air­craft that will trans­form aerial re­fu­el­ing and mo­bil­ity op­er­a­tions for decades to come.”

Boe­ing is un­der con­tract for 52 of the tankers, which are built on the air­frame of the com­pany’s 767 pas­sen­ger plane.

Mem­bers of Con­gress are likely to ask ques­tions about the de­ci­sion to ac­cept the air­craft with the flaws. But Air Force of­fi­cials said that tak­ing them with a clear plan for fixes to be made at Boe­ing’s ex­pense will en­able crews to fly train­ing mis­sions rather than have the planes sit un­used at a com­pany air­field.

The tanker’s 59-foot ex­tended re­fu­el­ing boom is guided with a joy­stick by an air­man us­ing a sys­tem of seven cam­eras. But shad­ows or sun glare can hamper the view in rare in­stances, pos­si­bly re­sult­ing in scrap­ing of the other plane or dif­fi­cul­ties in per­form­ing a re­fu­el­ing, ac­cord­ing to the Air Force. The ser­vice says that could lead to un­de­tected dam­age to spe­cial­ized coat­ings used on F-35 and F-22 stealth fight­ers and B-2 bombers, or cause struc­tural dam­age.

The de­fi­cien­cies don’t pre­clude most re­fu­el­ing mis­sions, and many mil­i­tary air­craft, such as Lock­heed Martin’s F-35, have been ac­cepted with de­fi­cien­cies that will be fixed later.

The first KC-46 was orig­i­nally ex­pected to be de­liv­ered be­tween April and June 2016. The Air Force said that the tanker has demon­strated its key ca­pa­bil­i­ties in more than 1,000 flights and 4,000 re­fu­el­ing con­tacts that in­volved trans­fer­ring 4 mil­lion pounds of fuel.

Still, the tanker’s devel­op­ment has been be­set by tech­ni­cal is­sues for what had been en­vi­sioned as a low-risk project when Boe­ing won the con­tract in 2011 af­ter the Air Force acted on the com­pany’s protest of an award to a team of Air­bus and Northrop Grum­man.

Boe­ing al­ready has ab­sorbed al­most $4 bil­lion in cost over­runs on the KC-46.

Mar­ian Lock­hart Boe­ing

THE AIR FORCE is with­hold­ing as much as $28 mil­lion from the fi­nal pay­ment on each KC-46 tanker as a fi­nan­cial hook to en­sure Boe­ing fixes the cam­era sys­tems. Above, the first KC-46 takes off in 2014.

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