WASHINGTON — The US Air Force's chief of staff has last week called for increased oversight of Boeing's KC-46 tanker schedule, signaling the Pentagon's rising frustration with the program's repeated delays and cost overruns.

During an exclusive interview with Defense News, Gen. Mark Welsh called on Boeing to provide a "predictable" timetable the Air Force can track from now until August 2017 — the company's deadline to deliver 18 operational tankers to the fleet.

"We're at a point now where we really need to see the first flight of this tanker, the actual tanker variant," Welsh said. "Then, we need to have a predictable milestone chart between now and the required-assets-available date in August of '17 that we can track down with some definitive consistency from this point forward."

Welsh's remarks reflect the Air Force's growing concern that Boeing may not meet the critical deadline. Earlier this summer, Boeing was forced to postpone first flight, a key milestone, after a mislabeled chemical was mistakenly loaded into the aircraft's refueling line during testing. Boeing now anticipates the event will occur about a month later than planned, in late August or early September.

If problems with the integrated fuel system tank persist, or if delay in first flight sets back the overall test schedule, the Air Force is concerned the program could see a domino effect. Boeing must successfully demonstrate the required refueling capabilities during flight tests before the Pentagon will certify the program, an official stamp of approval the Air Force hopes to get between January and April of 2016.

In an effort to tighten Boeing's reins, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James announced late last month that the service is reviewing the company's schedule for the tanker to ensure it is on track to meet its deadlines.

When asked to rate his concern about a potential delay in production, Welsh said: "much more than I would have been a year ago, and a little more than I would have been six months ago.

"We've taken the slack out of the program now, and now we have to perform and deliver on a timeline that's predictable," he continued.

Welsh qualified his criticism, later in the interview, saying he is still "confident" in the program's leadership, on both the Boeing and Air Force side. The company has replaced the components that were damaged in the incident, and will soon resume testing, Welsh noted.

"I personally am still confident they can deliver," Welsh said. "They are back onto the fuel dock with this airplane to start the testing again. I'm very hopeful they can stay on track with that. If they do, [meeting the deadline] isn't an issue."

If Boeing can't meet its obligations, the Air Force may decide to rework the contract. However, Welsh said the Air Force is not even thinking about that option right now, pointing out that so far the company has met its contractual obligations.

"They have done exactly what they said they would do, and they've accepted the cost for things that have gone wrong to this point with the contract, and I appreciate that," Welsh said, referring to an $835 million pre-tax charge Boeing rang up earlier this summer stemming from developmental issues with the plane's integrated fuel system.

The Air Force is not alone in sounding the alarm over the recent hiccups. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter late last month expressing concern that recent challenges could prevent delivery of a critical capability to the war fighter.

"All too often under our current defense acquisition system, the department has started programs that were poorly conceived or inherently unexecutable, with the aim of getting programs into development and production where they can become notoriously difficult to change meaningfully or, if necessary, terminate," McCain wrote. "The KC-46A program must not become another such failure."

Aaron Mehta contributed to this report

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com
Twitter: @laraseligman

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