Air Force accepts first new Boeing tanker despite problems

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The Air Force has accepted delivery of Boeing’s first new tanker airplane, despite problems that leaves the plane “years away from reaching their full operational potential.”

The U.S. Air Force has accepted the first Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker, an important milestone for the troubled program. However, the initial batch of aircraft will still have serious problems with their remote vision and refueling boom systems, meaning that the planes remain years away from reaching their full operational potential.

Foreign Policy was the first to report on the agreement between the Air Force and Boeing to proceed with the deliveries of the aircraft, citing anonymous sources, on Jan. 10, 2019. Defense News then reported that the Chicago-headquartered planemaker had agreed to fix the remaining deficiencies and that the Air Force’s top leadership reserved the right to withhold full payment for the planes – up to $1.5 billion in total if the service docks the company for each of the 52 aircraft in the first batch of planes – until it sees real progress.

…The acceptance and up-coming deliveries are a big deal for the KC-46A program, which has been mired in delays and controversy since Boeing won the Air Force’s KC-X competition in 2011. That decision itself followed nearly a decade of earlier, scandal-ridden Air Force attempts to procure a new tanker aircraft. Notably, in 2004, Darleen Druyun, a Boeing executive who had previously been the Air Force’s top procurement official, went to federal prison after receiving a conviction on corruption charges relating to an earlier tanker program.

The Air Force was supposed to have received a fleet of 18 KC-46As, the first tranche in the total initial buy of 52 aircraft, by the end of 2017 and reach an initial operational capability with the type shortly thereafter. Between 2011 and 2017, continuing technical difficulties…repeatedly pushed this schedule back. This continued into 2018, leading to an unusually public spat between the two parties over the program’s progress. Boeing’s contract is firm, fixed-price, and that company has already had to pay more than $3 billion of its own money to cover cost overruns. [emphasis mine]

Why is it that it seems to me that every single government program today is always “troubled” and “mired in delays and controversary?” Or maybe the question answers itself. These are government programs after all.

The one saving grace of this story is that the Air Force issued a fixed price contract here, so that the cost overruns fall on Boeing’s head, not the taxpayer (though Air Force errors in issuing the contract might negate this advantage). The delays however are shameful. It should not be so hard to build a tanker plane.



  • mivenho

    This is likely one of the reasons that military logistics is in trouble.

  • Eric Elsam

    One of life’s constants is that military procurement is ALWAYS in trouble. Army , Navy, Air Force, Marines. I think the Romans had their problems. Much of the blame lies, of course, with human greed; but also that the military is usually trying to create weapons and systems that push the technology. Alas, a fixed-price contract isn’t a blessing. The service procurement people constantly revise specifications; that translates into the iconic “change of scope” and many contractors are very aware how to exploit each change. In the end, it’s the grunts, swabbies, etc. that bear the brunt. Sometimes things do work on time and budget and we all should be happy.

  • commodude

    From the cited article:

    Apparently, the Air Force did not specify the lower thrust resistance in the original contract and has now asked Boeing for a design change to meet this requirement. As such, since this is officially a new stipulation, the service has agreed to give the planemaker additional funds on top of the fixed deal to pay for the work.

    The USAF screwed up the specs, then reissued changed specs and expects the manufacturer to make changes mid stream.

    This happens constantly with DoD programs. Someone screws up a spec in the original RFP, and by the time the program actually starts to result in cut steel, the specs change, or gets corrected, or a flag officer wants to include the newest shiny, resulting in a snowball effect of changes.

    This has occurred with the boondoggle called LCS, as well as the F-35, and frankly every program the DoD runs which isn’t part of the Rapid Fielding Initiative.

    The replacement for Marine One was being bid on by a manufacturer in my area prior to the contract being chopped for ballooning costs. I forget the exact number, but there were hundreds upon hundreds of post RFP changes in the airframe and electronics systems for the bird that added to the time and cost. The contractor COULD have met the original price, but changes made after steel is cut are insanely expensive, and they kept adding change after change. The Pentagon simply cannot be trusted to run programs, and there is zero accountability. I’m not defending the contractors, they’re as much of the problem as the Pentagon, but the puzzle palace is simply inept at procurement.

  • Orion314

    These God Dammed Sheeple of the USA must drop this insane idea that the only action required is voting and prayer.
    Every day it seems I am assaulted with the ilk of schumer and pelosi whom seem to get bolder every day. Seems the folks who go to trial/prison are republicans. When will some high profile democrats be required to submit to deep body cavity searches prior to a terminal visit to Gitmo? It appears as though all “leaders” are blackmailed. This whole [deleted] deal looks like business as usual, i.e , “We will get down to business, right after the next election,,,, 2020..the same rhetoric I’ve heard since 1963. When voting and calling our leaders fails so miserably, what next? Sorry for the course language, but you know what? When Ford’s theatre is ablaze, THEN, it’s okay to yell FIRE FIRE FIRE in the crowded theatre…

  • Orion314: I have deleted from your post the obscenity. I have also suspended you from commenting here at BtB for the next week. You have been a regular commenter here for quite awhile, so you definitely should have been aware of the rules. I do not allow obscene language on BtB, and have said I will suspend those who break this rule the first time, and ban them the second..

    I have also previously been somewhat willing to relax this rule. However, this keeps happening, and I am tired of it. If you don’t want to behave like a civilized adult, go elsewhere.

    I will reinstate you in a week. I hope you return, but I will also no longer bend these rules. You (and everyone) have now been warned.

  • Poster

    Back in 1990 congress realized the DoD acquisition process was flawed. The obvious solution was to create a university to teach the process to the acquisition workforce. Enter the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) and the Defense Acquisition University (DAU).

    Web search DAWIA wall chart to see the entire acquisition process. I found:

    Well, I don’t understand what could go wrong with this tanker? It’s all right there. (sorry, sarcasm).

    The process is required for large acquisitions, they can bypass it for smaller acquisitions, or emergency war requirements.

    The mantra from the DAU professors is that the process is very expensive, but it produces weapon systems that are second to none, and will maintain American military superiority.

    The idea that they are bleeding the country dry doesn’t even occur, but they will give lip service to ‘affordability’ as a acquisition parameter. The idea that results could be flawed does not compute, because the acquisition process can fix it. You can clearly see where on the chart. The idea it takes decades to acquire major systems is fine. Good for careers too. The idea that a nice Harvard university with campuses, classes, professors, buildings, and students and lots of online training is even needed is logical.

    I hope the F35, Ford class carriers, Boeing tanker, etc. etc. etc. end up up being worth the massive treasure expended on them. I guess it’s not even money anyway, it’s just funding. BTW, We need more funding, where is it?

  • commodude


    If the current DoD spec’d the OHP class FFGs, they’d have aegis, triple shafts, dual CoGAG shafts, no berthing space, piss poor reliability, no weapons, and triple redundant automation systems that would fail.

    THey’d also be utterly useless at their intended job of a/Sub warfare.

  • commodude

    Explanation of the above for those who aren’t familiar with the refernces:

    The Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates were the low cost FFG purchased for utility duty in the 1970s, and were designed to be jacks of all trades. They’re being retired as being worn out, however, other navies want them, and they could have been SLEP’d (service life extension program) to save and refurb the very capable hulls. They were a success of the procurement process.

    Their replacement? LCS, Littoral Combat ships, which can barely sail and cannot fight at all, yet their costs have ballooned from $275 million per hull to 600-700 million per hull.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Both Boeing and its acquisition McDonnell-Douglas have designed tanker aircraft before – KC-135 and KC-10, respectively. The airframe upon which the KC-46A is based is the 767 airliner, which Boeing turned out in the hundreds for the civil aviation market. So why did this program take so many years to complete and why are there still significant problems with the aircraft? Has Boeing suffered so much brain drain that it has no institutional memory remaining anent the design of tankers?

    The defense industry needs a half dozen or more Elon Musk types to kick over the jams and shake things up. Our greatest military enemies are now Congress, the legacy primes and the Federal Acquisition Regulations – in that order.

  • Col Beausabre

    The ultimate is the Navy is buying $4.4B destroyers that CAN NOT SHOOT. You read that right, the 155 mm ammunition programmed for their guns was too expensive ($800K a round) so it was cancelled. They can not fire 155 mm conventional rounds. This is the sort of failure that is so….Colossal? Monumental? Catastrophic? that no one inside the Beltway says a word about it. Do the Guardians Of The Republic in the media want to dig into a scandal of legendary proportions? No, they’d rather spin a fairy tale about “Russian Collusion” and “interference”. Is anyone being court-martialed? Hung from the yardarm?

  • Orion314: I must apologize, but I was very late in reinstating your posting privileges. I have now done so and you are free to comment once again on BtB. Just keep the language clean.

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