WASHINGTON — The top official for the U.S. Air Force’s new tanker says the program is “on track” and should complete its critical design review this summer, despite potential furloughs due to budget cuts.
Maj. Gen. John Thompson, program executive officer and program director for the KC-46, said the tanker will meet its target dates and begin first flights in early 2015.
In the run-up to sequestration, there was speculation that budget cuts could force a renegotiation of the tanker program contract with Boeing. That contract, which caps the government’s liability at $4.9 billion and requires Boeing to cover any overruns, is widely considered to be government-friendly. (For his part, Thompson calls it “a fair contract to both parties.”)
However, Thompson believes that threat has passed and the program will receive adequate funding.
“We are evaluating at a very tight tolerance the numbers that we believe we’ve been given authority to use, based on the bill that the president signed,” Thompson said in a March 28 interview.
The department is still running numbers, but “it looks like from a sequestration standpoint the KC-46 will have a positive outcome and we won’t be unduly impacted by sequestration.
“We understand that sequestration is not just a [fiscal year 2013] thing,” he added. “We’ve analyzed our current program status, how the program looks in those out years. I’m not ready to provide a final assessment but it looks positive at this point for the program.”
Another concern from sequestration is the potential impact of furloughs to the civilian work force. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said civilian workers could lose up to 14 days each as part of an attempt to cut costs.
Of the 160 individuals working on the tanker at Wright-Patterson Air Force base, about 95 are civilians, according to Thompson. To handle the potential loss of work force, Thompson plans on using what he calls “surge” capabilities with the military work force — moving enlisted workers around to help cover work that civilians will miss.
In Thompson’s eyes, keeping the KC-46 program on schedule takes priority over other needs.
“Obviously the [critical design review] is my number one priority for the fourth quarter of this year,” he said. “There are other things on my plate that don’t rise to that level of importance. So some of those things,” such as management and training for civilians, “we’ll just stop doing.”
“We have, as part of our contract, obligations which the government has to meet in executing the program,” Thompson said. “The actions we’ve taken to date are to ensure we have the right number of people, military or extra government civilians, to make sure we meet our obligations. It won’t be easy but I think we can accomplish our goals.”
In addition to the critical design review (CDR), Boeing plans to begin the first major assembly process on the tanker this summer.
“While we’re heavy in the CDR process, testing and production of this aircraft are also underway and we’re moving forward,” Col. Shaun Morris, KC-46 system program manager, said. “Right now the program is in a good place, but 30 percent in, we’re watching everything very closely.”
Thompson said he is “very confident” that the program will award a contract for the aircrew training system (ATS).
Bids for the 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.
The KC-46 is one of the key modernization programs Air Force officials have focused on over the last year. It aims to produce 179 new planes to replace the aging KC-135 tanker fleet, with 18 tankers delivered by 2017 and completion of production ending in 2027.
But it is only the first in a three-stage process to replace the entire U.S. Air Force tanker fleet. The next step, the KC-Y, will begin formulation next year, according to Thompson.
“Beginning in [fiscal year 2014] we’ll have some very serious requirements work going into the initial capabilities documents for the KC-Y program, which will follow the KC-46,” Thompson said.
That program will draw directly on the knowledge the service gained while working on the KC-46.
“The lessons learned from this program in terms of requirements and being able to meet the warfighter’s needs will definitely transition into that,” Thompson said. “The lessons learned from this program on the acquisition side will also be a part of that eventual source selection.”
The first quarter of this year saw the release of two reports evaluating the KC-46 program, one from Operational Test & Evaluation Office of the Secretary of Defense (DOT&E), and one from the Government Accountability Office (GAO.) Both reports said the program was doing well, but raised similar questions about whether the schedule is moving too fast.
The program was awarded in February of 2011 and is scheduled for its first flight in early 2015.
Thompson acknowledged that the KC-46 program schedule is more “aggressive” than other government programs. But he argued that the pace is not out of line with commercial projects that Boeing has developed in the past.
“We understand the risk they have expressed, but in the end this will be an event-based program and it will accomplish everything we need it to,” he said.
The GAO report also raised concerns over how quickly Boeing was burning through a reserve fund for the program.
“Boeing is currently working on those assessments,” Thompson said. “I think the Boeing folks will execute here over the next number of months to replenish that reserve.”