Sept. 21, 2015, © Leeham Co.: This Friday, Sept. 25, is the date that at long last, Boeing and the US Air Force expect the first flight of the KC-46A that is equipped with the fueling system.
A “bare” KC-46A made its first flight last December. Then it spent the next six months or so on the ground. First flight of the second KC-46A, the one with the fueling system, has been delayed several times. All the program margin is gone and it’s going to be a challenge for Boeing to stay on schedule to deliver 18 combat-ready KC-46As to the USAF by 2017–two short years away. To try and stay on schedule, Boeing started production of the the airplane concurrent with the flight test aircraft, a risky proposition that could result in major rework or other difficulties if Murphy’s Law comes into play.
The KC-46A is the successor to the KC-767 International tanker program, which was an industrial disaster. Only eight airplanes were produced, four for Italy and four
for Japan. It ran years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. There were flutter and design issues. These problems became part of the risk assessment by the USAF in the KC-X competition evaluation between Boeing and Northrop Grumman/EADS–and one of the reasons why the Air Force selected the Northrop KC-330 offering (later named the KC-30).
Boeing successfully challenged the contract award and won the next round with what became known as the KC-46A. Boeing claimed it benefited from lessons learned from the KC-767 International program.
Airbus, which lost the second round when Boeing’s pricing was 10% less than that offered by Airbus on what was called a Technically Acceptable, Lowest Price (TALP) approach, harrumphed that Boeing would never be able to deliver the airplanes on time or on budget at that low price. So far, Airbus seems to be on track to be proven correct. The KC-46A is late and to date, Boeing has taken $1.3bn in pre-tax charges against the program.
Meanwhile, Airbus has been delivering the KC-330 MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) to customers. Until last week, it won every foreign competition. Boeing finally
received its first non-US order for the KC-46A, from Japan, an award that was hardly surprising given that Japan was operating the KC-767 under the troubled International program.
At its opening of the A320 Final Assembly Line (FAL) in Mobile (AL) last week, several Airbus executives couldn’t help but tweak Boeing over its problems with the KC-46A, saying the KC-330 is already refueling a number of US-built fighters in forward theaters.
The connection between the KC-330 and the A320 FAL, of course, is because the entire KC-X competition was about capabilities, deliveries, and (among other things) the Airbus plan to assemble the tankers in Mobile. When Boeing won the re-run of the competition, Airbus punted and proceeded with Mobile with the A320 plant.
The refueling tankers are a critical element of air forces around the world. For the US, refueling tankers make it possible to extend air power well beyond the reach of operating ranges of fighters and bombers. China’s military policy includes isolating Guam, a US territory and military base, in the event of a conflict. The US would have to fall back to Australia and this is one of the reasons (of many) the USAF chose the KC-330 in the first round of the KC-X competition: the KC-330 has greater range and loitering time than the KC-46A.
On Friday-the day of the KC-46A’s first flight-Leeham News and Comment’s Bjorn Fehrm will give his perspective of the two tankers. As a former fighter pilot with the Swedish Air Force and an aeronautical engineer, his perspective should be particularly interesting reading.