KC-46 progress hinges on requirements, funding stability

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- On September 17, an Air Force official announced that production has started on KC-46 flight test aircraft. The high-priority program is charged with delivering 18 combat-ready KC-46 aircraft by 2017, and will eventually replace about a third of the KC-135 Stratotanker fleet.

In a presentation at the Air Force Association's 2013 Air & Space Conference & Technology Exposition, Maj Gen John Thompson, Air Force Program Executive Officer for Tankers, outlined continued progress in the aerial refueling aircraft's design and acquisition timeline.

"The tanker crews -- pilots, boom operators, maintainers -- are conducting about 150 sorties and refueling about 450 aircraft a day, keeping the 'global' in global reach, global vigilance and global power," Maj Gen Thompson said.  "The KC-135s are nearly 51 years old. It is a fantastic weapon system, but our operators and maintainers need something new and better."

In August, Air Force officials closed the KC-46 weapon system's critical design review, taking ownership of the design and moving forward in the acquisition timeline.

The closure, Maj Gen Thompson said, represented the culmination of 10 months of component and subsystem design examinations which allowed the program to progress into its manufacturing and test phases.

The review processes benefited from commercial and Department of Defense best practices, leading to overall improvements and projected cost-savings, Maj Gen Thompson said.
 
Concurrent with preparations for the flight test phase of the program, officials are working to ensure technical performance is verified.

Boeing, meanwhile, is continuing integration, verification and production of four Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) aircraft to support flight testing which is scheduled to begin in mid-2014 with one 767 modified to a 767-2C freighter provisioned configuration. The first KC-46 configured tanker, which is the second EMD aircraft, is projected to fly in early 2015 -- with an expected delivery of 179 tankers by 2028, Maj Gen Thompson said.

As the process moves from drawing to metal, Maj Gen Thompson said the program hit a number of milestones this year, including the award of a training contract and base selection for the tanker in May and the start of production on the first EMD aircraft in late June.

Assembly of the second EMD aircraft began in August, putting the program on track to have four test aircraft assembled by the middle of next year.

"We are 40 percent done with the development program ... and most of the requirements have been met early," Maj Gen Thompson said. "Our way forward is to continue with good contract execution, to prepare for and execute an efficient test program, and to develop the long-term sustainment strategy for the future KC-46 fleet."

Maj Gen Thompson said that while there is a considerable amount of uncertainty relative to sequestration in fiscal 2014, maintaining stability and support for the program is essential to keeping the pace of the process.

"Requirements and funding stability are absolutely key," the General noted. "As the No. 1 modernization program, I'm sure (Air Force leaders) will do what they can to protect this very critical program as we go forward."