April 11, 2016, © Leeham Co.: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes that the Boeing KC-46A aerial refueling tanker for the US Air Force has “challenging testing and delivery schedules” ahead in its annual review of the program.
It’s been a long, long time since I wrote about aerial refueling tankers. Having delved into this topic during the long-running saga of the USAF recapitalization effort, and the competitions between Northrop Grumman/EADS and later Airbus alone and Boeing, the topic had been beaten to death.
But as we who follow such things know, Boeing’s current effort to build the winning KC-46A for the Air Force has run into more than a few problems. These have led Boeing to be at least eight months late and write off $1.2bn pre-tax on the program.
And the problems aren’t over.
“KC-46 tanker aircraft acquisition cost estimates have decreased for a third consecutive year and the prime contractor, Boeing, is expected to achieve all the performance goals, such as those for air refueling and airlift capability,” the GAO writes in its latest report. The cost to the government has decreased “about 7 percent, due primarily to stable requirements that led to fewer than expected engineering changes. The fixed price development contract also protects the government from paying for any development costs above the contract ceiling price.”
That’s the good news. The not-so-good news follows.
“Boeing has a challenging road ahead to complete testing and deliver aircraft, the GAO continues. “Test officials believe Boeing’s test schedule is optimistic and it may not have all aircraft available when needed to complete planned testing. Boeing also has not gotten several key aerial refueling parts qualified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and cannot get final FAA certification of KC-46 aircraft until this occurs. Program officials estimate there are four months of schedule risk to delivering 18 aircraft by August 2017 due to testing and parts qualification issues. Boeing is working on ways to mitigate the schedule risks.
Flight Global reported last week that the Boeing KC-46A ran into trouble refueling the Boeing C-17.
According to the report, a hook-up with the refueling boom was made, but the aerodynamics were such engaging in actual refueling wasn’t achieved.
Reuters has this report of the C-17 issue.
Refueling all aircraft in the US inventory was a requirement. In addition to failure to refuel the C-17, the KC-46A as yet hasn’t refueled the A-10 Warthog.
The refueling system has been a vexing problem. Aviation Week reported last September about some of the issues, including the potential for internal leaks.
More recently, the GAO said the refueling system supplier is failing to perform as required, according to an Everett Herald report.
Boeing claimed, during the bitter competition with Airbus, that the KC-30 Airbus proposed (based on the KC-330 MRTT) couldn’t refuel the Osprey, a key point at the time.
However, Jamie Darcy, now a spokesman for Airbus Americas, said this was a misleading campaign point.
“I was V-22 Public Affairs Officer when this question first came up in the tanker competition,” Darcy wrote LNC in an email, “and when asked by (many) reporters whether either aircraft could refuel the V-22, my answer was no…but only because it had never been tested and certified. We (the V-22 program office) never offered an opinion on whether it was possible. In the case of the Boeing offering, it did not yet exist; and in the case of the Northrop Grumman offering (A330 MRTT), we had no data, nor did we (the program office, or the operators) have any need/desire to gather such data. The Marines and AFSOC used KC-130s and had expressed no desire to do otherwise.”
The KC-330 MRTT is also known as the KC-30A, the name the USAF gave the MRTT when Northrop Grumman/EADS won the contract in the first competitive round. (Britain calls it the Voyager.) This award was later overturned by the US Government Accountability Office after Boeing protested the USAF procurement procedure. EADS, later renamed Airbus Group, kept the name for the second competitive round, which Boeing won with the 767-200ER-based tanker, which was named the KC-46A.
The KC-30A has refueled the C-17. It’s also refueled the US-made F-18A/B/F Hornets. The tanker has been refueling aircraft involved in the fight against ISIS.
“The Airbus Multi-Role Tanker Transport first began refueling U.S. aircraft on combat missions against ISIS in September of 2014,” says Darcy. “The MRTT operators were Australia and the UAE. The US receiver aircraft included F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, and AV-8B Harriers.”
Darcy said some “receiver” aircraft have been “qualified” by air forces other than the US, but not yet by the USAF. For example, the F-15 has been qualified by the Saudis; the USAF should qualify this aircraft this summer. The Lockheed Martin C-130 has been qualified by Britain’s Royal Air Force but not yet by the USAF. Other aircraft with limited refueling receiver capabilities include the AV-8 and Rafale. Although these two and the F/A-18s have been refueled in combat operations since late 2014 against ISIS but don’t actually have full certification completed by NAVAIR and the USAF.
Fully qualified receiver aircraft include the F-15, F-16, RAAF F/A 18, the A330 MRTT buddy-to-buddy, the Tornado, Typhoon, the C-130 with select nations, the E-3D AWACS, Mirage 2000 and the 737-based Wedgetail.
Qualification for the C-17 and F-35A are underway.
Development of the Airbus tanker was not without its challenges, however. Deliveries to the Australians were late. During testing, the extendable/retractable tail boom separated from the tanker.
Airbus has 49 firm orders for the tanker from seven countries. These are South Korean, Singapore, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Contracts are pending from India (6), Qatar (2), Spain (3), and OCCAR representing Netherlands, Norway and Poland (4+). Germany has stated that it will join the OCCAR program at a later date.
The KC-46A is slated to obtain orders for 179 aircraft from the USAF. Japan, which operates four Boeing KC-767s (an early version sold only to Japan and Italy), also committed to the KC-46A.