The KC-46A tanker program is off to a good start, but there are some challenges ahead.
—Michael C. Sirak
Boeing and the service have established the baselines for the tanker's cost, schedule, and technical performance, said David Van Buren, Air Force acquisition executive.
The KC-46 preliminary design review is scheduled for next year, followed by the critical design review in 2013, he told the House Armed Services Committee's seapower and projection forces panel Oct. 13.
Boeing intends to fly its 767-2C—the 767 commercial derivative upon which the militarized tanker is based—for the first time in 2014. The inaugural flight of the first KC-46 test aircraft is anticipated by the end of that same year, he said.
Brig. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, KC-46A program executive officer, told the lawmakers that Boeing is under contract to deliver to the Air Force 18 "fully ready-to-go-to-war-on-day-one airplanes" with all the support equipment by August 2017.
Overall the company will supply 179 KC-46s, including four test aircraft, to replace the Air Force's oldest KC-135s.
Bogdan said Boeing has set an internal timeline to deliver those 18 airplanes five months earlier, by March 2017. He said that's a more risky endeavor.
"We came to the conclusion that it is likely that Boeing will meet the August 2017 date," he stated.
Nonetheless, the KC-46 program still faces several challenges to meet that schedule, said Bogdan.
First is Boeing's plan for in-line provisioning, meaning installing some of the military modifications to the tanker airframes on the 767 commercial production line in Everett, Wash., such as the military wiring and the tanker's fuel lines. That approach is different than building the commercial derivative in Everett and then making all of the military modifications in Wichita, Kan.
"They are passing down through their sub-tier suppliers an additional requirement to build the airplane as if it were a military airplane, even though it's going to be put together on a commercial line," said Bogdan.
For example, the 767-2Cs that come out of Everett for military modification in Wichita already will have the hole in their tail section for the tanker's aerial refueling boom, he said.
"I have let Boeing know, and I have put them on notice, that I think that that inline provisioning is something that they are going to have to pay particular attention to, and we, the Air Force, are going to have to pay particular attention to, to ensure that their sub-tier suppliers can do the job right," he said.
"If you don't get that right, you're not going to build your four test airplanes on time, and then everything propagates from there," he added.
Second is FAA certification. Before it is deemed air-worthy, the KC-46 will require two types of FAA approval: an amended type certification for the 767-2C, and a supplemental type certification for the militarized tanker configuration.
"It is very typical in the commercial world to do an ATC certification and an STC certification in serial," said Bogdan. "In this instance here, as a result of some of that inline provisioning, Boeing is actually going to do part of the ATC and the STC simultaneously. There's some concurrency there."
The concern, Bogdan continued, is that "if a problem arises during the FAA certification on the ATC side, there is not a whole lot of time for them to recover before they get to the supplemental type [certification]."
Accordingly, "that concurrency of the ATC and the STC worries me a little bit," he said.
Third is flight testing, as Boeing's plans are somewhat "aggressive," said Bogdan.
Fourth is the tanker's software development, he said. But software maturation is a risk item for any acquisition program and is not a unique challenge to the KC-46, he noted.
There also are some potential funding issues on the horizon.
Bogdan said the Air Force would fall $203 million short for the KC-46 program in Fiscal 2012 if Congress does not finalize a defense appropriations bill and instead lawmakers opt to fund the Pentagon under a continuing budget resolution that provides funding at Fiscal 2011 levels.
Beyond that, there is the 2011 Budget Control Act's sequestration mechanism that will kick in if the new congressional joint budget deficit committee cannot agree where to make cuts across the federal government. In that case, the Pentagon would face much more severe cuts than the $450 billion or more over 10 years for which it already is preparing.
"The EMD contract on this program is a fixed-price contract, all 175 production airplanes have already been priced," said Bogdan when discussing the effect of more severe cuts. "We know exactly how much we're going to pay for both EMD and for every one of those airplanes and we got a good deal."
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