The KC-46 trainer contract is now expected to be awarded in the third quarter of this fiscal year. (Boeing illustration)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s decision to award a training contract for its new tanker has slipped again, even as the government’s watchdog arm has declared the program to be on budget and schedule.
An Air Force spokesman told Defense News that the trainer contract is now expected to be awarded in the third quarter of this fiscal year, meaning April, May or June. Bids for the KC-46 Aircrew Training System (ATS), the primary training simulator for the Boeing-designed tanker, originally were solicited in May 2012 with an award expected that August. Since then, the date has slipped first to December and then February.
Considered a key program by Air Force officials looking to replace the service’s aging fleet of tankers, the KC-46 is operating under a government-friendly contract that requires contractor Boeing to pay for cost overruns.
Boeing deferred to the Air Force for all timing questions, but “we continue to be hopeful we’ll get some word soon,” Alma Dayawon, a Boeing spokeswoman, said. “As far as the program is concerned, we’re still on track.The training will be key for making [the KC-46] a useable and ready system.”
CAE, one of the bidders for the KC-46 ATS, confirmed it was informed of the new date by Air Force officials, but declined to comment otherwise.
Spokeswomen for L-3 and Lockheed Martin both declined to comment on the timeline, but confirmed their companies both bid on the program. A spokesman for FlightSafety did not return requests for comment.
The delay came months after DoD’s Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) recommended that testing, slated to begin May of 2016, be pushed back by six months or more “to allow additional time for completion of developmental testing and initial aircrew and maintenance training.”
On Wednesday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the tanker, calling it “generally stable” with Boeing running “very close to the planned budget and schedule.” On the whole, “The KC-46 program acquisition strategy and contract type are effective mechanisms for mitigating risks,” according to the report.
However, the GAO identified some areas of concern, including the proposed flight test schedule for 2015, a number of engineering schematics Boeing needs to provide for an upcoming critical design review, and the establishment of needed Boeing facilities to produce the tanker.
In addition, GAO warned that the Air Force and Boeing are burning through their cash reserves as a high rate, “which raises concerns because doing so early in a program is often an indicator of future contract performance problems.”
While any costs over $4.9 billion for the program are picked up by Boeing, the agency still urged the Air Force to investigate the cause of this spending.
Speaking at last week’s Air Force Association Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., the head of U.S. Air Force Mobility Command said the tanker was proceeding as scheduled.
“All of the assessments I’ve seen and the discussions I’ve had with representatives from Boeing, and the test community as well, is that the maturation of the technologies that would be put on the airplane are moving along well, that the integration of those technologies onto the airplane is moving apace,” Gen. Paul Selva said. “All of that is moving along according to the previously agreed-to schedule.”
However, Selva joined other Air Force officials in raising concerns over the impact sequestration could have on the tanker, including whether budget cuts could force the service back to the negotiating table for a new contract with Boeing.
“It is possible we will have to reopen the contract, although we will do everything we can not to,” Selva said. “We literally have to run out of money” for the contract to be recompeted, he added.