Wilson: Boeing is 'overly optimistic' on KC-46

In Congressional testimony Tuesday, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Boeing has been "overly optimistic" on the delivery schedule for the KC-46 tanker. (Jeff Martin/Staff)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s top civilian has blasted Boeing over delays and deficiencies plaguing the KC-46 tanker program, accusing the company of focusing too much on its commercial business at the expense of defense projects.

“One of our frustrations with Boeing is they’re much more focused on their commercial activity than on getting this right for the Air Force and getting these aircraft to the Air Force. And that’s the message we took to them in Seattle last week,” Secretary Heather Wilson said of a recent meeting between Boeing and Air Force officials.

The remarks came as Wilson, Army Secretary Mark Esper and Navy Secretary Richard Spencer testified before the House Armed Services Committee about the defense budget and implementation of acquisitions reform legislation.

Boeing responded after the hearing with a statement:

“There is no greater priority at The Boeing Company right now than the delivery of the KC-46. Boeing has continued to demonstrate its commitment to deliver the tankers as soon as possible and believes in our partnership with the US Air Force.”

Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rob Wittman, R-Va., asked during the hearing how a series of deficiencies with the KC-46, recently reported, were impacting schedule delays: “Boeing is still saying they will deliver on time, the Air Force is changing the timeline; can you give us some perspective on where things are?”

“Boeing is saying they are going to deliver in the second quarter of 2018,” but the Air Force believes it will slip, Wilson said.

“Boeing has been overly optimistic in all of their schedule reports,” she asserted.

Wilson outlined unanticipated test delays Boeing faced — and the Air Force was skeptical about its schedule when it was put forward — as well as deficiencies involving the remote vision system and centerline drogue systems.

Air Force Under Secretary Matthew Donovan went to Boeing headquarters for a “deep dive,” Wilson said.

“We have asked them to put their A-team on this to get these problems fixed and get this aircraft to the Air Force,” she added.

Rep. Donald Norcross, D-N.J. — whose district is near to Joint Base McGuire–Dix–Lakehurst, where the KC-46 would be based — lamented the schedule slippage and pressed Wilson.

Wilson noted that the Air Force’s fixed-price contract means the delays are costing time, but not money. Boeing compensated the government over a previous schedule slip, “and I anticipate that will be an issue in the coming months with Boeing, as well, for these most recent slips.”

“In this case, having done a fixed-price contract with Boeing was the right thing to do,” Wilson said.

“I’m not the kind of person who thinks about what I would have done in the past, had I been here,” she said. “My focus right now is to get the aircraft from Boeing and get them up there flying so we can modernize the fleet.”

The Air Force will likely have to keep the KC-10 in service longer than planned, she added.

Valerie Insinna contributed to this report.