WASHINGTON — The KC-46 tanker program is heading toward a production decision later this August, during which Pentagon officials will determine whether to move forward with low-rate initial production of the Air Force's newest refueling tanker, the service's top civilian said Wednesday.
"The key meeting for that is going to happen later on this month," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said during a briefing to reporters. "We believe that the aircraft has met all of the wickets that are required to meet milestone C, but of course that remains to be seen, so I'll say stay tuned on that."
During the meeting, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall and other officials will have the opportunity to ask questions and give input on the program. James appeared optimistic that the aircraft would move on to low-rate initial production (LRIP) despite delays and repeated cost overruns—which, under the terms of the fixed-price contracting agreement, are paid for by KC-46A manufacturer Boeing.
"We'll see how that goes, and then hopefully we will shortly thereafter get the decision," she said.
A milestone C decision was originally slated for June, but that milestone was pushed off until August when Boeing ran into problems in flight tests of the tanker's aerial refueling capabilities. Operators experienced trouble using the aerial refueling boom to refuel heavy aircraft such as the C-17 Globemaster III.
After Boeing made hardware and software fixes to the boom, the program in July wrapped up flight tests of all aircraft needed before proceeding to LRIP, including the KC-46 itself, A-10 Warthog, C-17, F-16, F/A-18 Hornet, and AV-B Harrier. The latter two aircraft, flown by the Navy and Marine Corps, are refueled via the probe and drogue system, while the others are refueled with a refueling boom.
Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg in July said he was confidence that aircraft production would move forward as planned.
"With the aircraft recently refueling an F-16, A-10 and C-17, we have now completed all necessary milestone C testing to receive customer approval to enter production — a major step forward for this multi-decade production and support program," he said in a statement made before the company announced its second-quarter earnings. "We remain confident in the long-term value of the KC-46 for our customers and our shareholders."
However, the company isn't out of the frying pan yet. The company will miss a contractual deadline to deliver 18 certified KC-46 aircraft to the Air Force by August 2017, instead delivering them in January 2018. That is, if there are no further delays.