Fiscal Turbulence Could Clip Air Force Tanker's Wings (Updated)
The replacement for the aging KC-135 fleet is one of the Air Force’s highest acquisition priorities. Still in the nascent stages of its engineering and manufacturing development process, “the only challenges we see are very much typical for any development program,” Air Force Maj. Gen. John. F. Thompson, KC-46 program executive officer, said.
Speaking at the 2012 Air & Space symposium hosted by the Air Force Association, Thompson said he found everything to be stable with the tanker’s progression, but warned that “there’s plenty of opportunities for challenges to come before us both on the industry side of the equation and the contractor side.”
The automatic defense cuts set to take effect in January are a huge concern, Thompson said. “Just like every program manager in the Department of Defense, I’m in the back room running drills on what sequestration will do to my program,” Thompson said. “Depending on how it’s implemented it’s not a pretty story. ... Sequestration is a definite risk to the program.”
The aircraft is scheduled to enter a critical design review next year, a developmental milestone Thompson repeatedly said was his top priority.
A supplier-level critical design review is scheduled to begin in fall 2013 followed by an overall flight system review beginning in December that Thompson said would be “a major indicator” of whether the current design will be certified to progress through development. A separate CDR on subsystems, including the refueling mechanisms, is set for early 2014, he said.
If the current design passes the CDR phase and otherwise stays on track, the Air Force plans to take delivery of 18 by 2017. At that point, production at The Boeing Co. will ramp up to 15 per year, concluding a buy of 179 jets in 2027.
Thompson said the program could be better positioned than other Defense Department efforts to withstand tight budgets because the military aircraft is derived from a commercial Boeing 767. In partnership with Boeing, which is under a fixed-price contract to deliver the initial 18 aircraft, the commercial version is stripped and repopulated with military grade components, including a digital glass cockpit, palette-load and midair refueling systems.
Through around 2018 the Air Force will be reliant on Boeing for operational- and depot-level maintenance and supplies. By that point, the service plans to have set up a dedicated depot to house and maintain the fleet, at which point it will transition to “organic management” of the aircraft, Thompson said.
The KC-46 is designed to be between 15 and 20 percent larger than the aircraft it is replacing. It will hold three time as many cargo palettes, twice the passengers and 30 percent more medical patients. Those roles are in addition to its primary role as an air refueling platform. Unlike the KC-135, the new tanker will be able to refuel multiple aircraft at once from a central tail boom and wing-tip hoses. It also will be capable of mid air refueling from another tanker.
Construction of a new, 1,200-gallons-per minute refueling boom has already begun. Thompson said it was an auspicious indicator of the stability of the program. “Now, if someone says it’s an all-paper airplane, you can look at them and say ‘Liar!,” he said. “We’re bending metal.”
Correction: Previous story misstated amount of fuel that could be offloaded per minute.
Photo Credit: Air Force