Air Force Weighs Penalties for Boeing’s Tanker Delay

SEATTLE (The Seattle Times/TNS) -

The Air Force is weighing what penalties it should apply to Boeing for the delay to the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker program, which breaches the company’s contract to deliver 18 tankers by next August.

“As with any contract schedule breach, the Air Force will seek consideration commensurate with the impact of the breach … from Boeing,” Air Force spokesman Maj. Robert Leese said in an email.

A week ago, after a thorough review of the schedule with Boeing, the Air Force announced that the initial 18 tankers will be delivered five months late and they won’t be fully operational until nine months after that.

Those jets will be able to refuel aircraft in two ways: feeding fuel either from the rigid boom that extends from the fuselage or from a flexible hose released from the fuselage.

However, they will not be capable of refueling from similar hoses attached to pods on each wing. That capability, which allows two fighter jets to refuel simultaneously, won’t be added until October 2018.

Boeing last week attributed the tanker-program delay to “ongoing complexities associated with qualification and certification” of the aircraft’s refueling systems, as well as the extra time needed to retrofit changes to those systems in the production tankers already built.

At the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference in New York on Thursday, Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg elaborated.

“As we finish up flight test, we are concurrently completing development and rolling any incremental changes into the production aircraft. And that does cause some schedule impacts,” Muilenburg said. “We are not discovering new technical issues.”

However, he conceded that one previously identified issue is proving harder to solve than Boeing hoped.

When the tanker connects its refueling boom to a large aircraft such as the big C-17 military-transport jet, unacceptable stress loads are applied along the axis of the boom. To solve this problem, Boeing had been testing a software fix that attempted to better synchronize the in-flight movement of the tanker relative to the receiving aircraft.

Boeing has now decided to modify the boom hardware because the software changes didn’t fix the problem.

“While it worked to a degree in flight test, it wasn’t as robust as we wanted. So, we’ve decided to go with the hardware solution,” Muilenburg said.

Boeing currently has five tanker aircraft in flight test, including four test planes and the first production tanker.

At the Everett plant outside Seattle, a further seven production tankers are in final assembly and eight more are in various stages of production in the supply chain.

It’s unclear what compensation the Pentagon will seek for the schedule breach.

The contract with Boeing “does not contain pre-defined penalties for missing schedule deadlines,” Maj. Leese wrote.

Muilenburg said Thursday that Boeing is still assessing “the financial impacts” of the delay, which — apart from any potential Air Force penalties — will mean added costs to pay for the extra development and certification work.