The U.S. Air Force has accepted the first delivery of Boeing Co.’s long-delayed aerial refueling tanker despite flaws that remain to be fixed, the service said Thursday.
The first eight of 179 planned KC-46 aerial tankers in the $44-billion program will be accepted from now through February. That’s more than two years late — and it may take as long as four more years to upgrade the troubled camera system used in refueling operations.
The Air Force is withholding as much as $28 million from the final payment on each aircraft as a financial hook to ensure Boeing makes the necessary improvements.
“We have identified, and Boeing has agreed to fix at its expense, deficiencies discovered in developmental testing of the remote vision system,” Capt. Hope Cronin, an Air Force spokeswoman, said in a statement.
The Pentagon’s approval of the Air Force’s plan to accept the flawed planes was caught up in turmoil at the top of the Defense Department. The decision was waiting on the desk of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis when he announced his plan to resign by the end of February.
President Trump ordered him to clear out before Jan. 1. Mattis had previously chafed at accepting the planes with deficiencies. In November 2017, he sent a sticky note to his chief of staff saying that he was “unwilling (totally)” to accept deficient tankers.
Instead, the Air Force’s decision to take delivery of the planes was accepted by Ellen Lord, the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, because acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has recused himself from decisions on the company’s projects.
Once the first four aircraft are delivered to McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, possibly by the end of this month, the tanker program will move into operational combat testing that’s expected to last until about June. Those tests will determine whether the aircraft is effective for combat and can be maintained.
Leanne Caret, chief executive officer of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, said in a statement that the tanker is a “proven, safe, multi-mission aircraft that will transform aerial refueling and mobility operations for decades to come.”
Boeing is under contract for 52 of the tankers, which are built on the airframe of the company’s 767 passenger plane.
Members of Congress are likely to ask questions about the decision to accept the aircraft with the flaws. But Air Force officials said that taking them with a clear plan for fixes to be made at Boeing’s expense will allow crews to fly training missions rather than have the planes sit unused at a company airfield.
The tanker’s 59-foot extended refueling boom is guided with a joystick by an airman using a system of seven cameras. But shadows or sun glare can hamper the view in rare instances, possibly resulting in scraping the other plane or difficulties in performing a refueling, according to the Air Force. The service says that could lead to undetected damage to specialized coatings used on F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters and B-2 bombers, or cause structural damage.
The deficiencies don’t preclude most refueling missions, and many military aircraft, such as Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35, have been accepted with scores of deficiencies that will be fixed later.
The first KC-46 was originally expected to be delivered between April and June 2016. The Air Force said that the tanker has demonstrated its key capabilities in more than 1,000 flights and 4,000 refueling contacts that involved transferring 4 million pounds of fuel.
Still, the tanker’s development has been beset by technical issues for what had been envisioned as a low-risk project when Chicago-based Boeing won the contract in 2011 after the Air Force acted on the company’s protest of an award to a team of Airbus and Northrop Grumman.
Boeing already has absorbed almost $4 billion in cost overruns on the KC-46.