Boeing’s International KC-46 Sales Pitch: Let USAF Pay For R&D

A KC-46A Pegasus connects with an F-35 Lightning II in the skies over California on Jan. 22, 2019. Air Force photo.

As Boeing gears up for the Paris Air Show, its sales pitch to countries shopping for a new or first aerial tanker capability will be that the US Air Force will pay to keep the worldwide KC-46 fleet up to date, saving countries money and assuring them the product will have long-term support.

In a briefing for international journalists on May 15, Boeing KC-46 and P-8 international sales director Matt Carreon said the Air Force is committed to a buy of at least 179 KC-46s, and supporting them with upgrades and modifications “for the next 30-plus years.” If a customer were to buy a tanker that didn’t have a large worldwide fleet, each customer would have to pay to develop upgrades, modifications, and new capabilities, he said. While the customer would pay for installations, the Air Force will develop the fleetwide enhancements at its own expense.

“We tell customers that’s the reason you buy the KC-46,” Carreon said. “If you buy a different tanker, a one-off, …who’s going to pay for that certification” of receiver aircraft types, and maintain certifications into the future? “The KC-46 will be certified for 64 aircraft, and any other aircraft the US Air Force deems appropriate,” he said, noting USAF will pay for performing those certifications, even those of aircraft it doesn’t operate, because of the value of being interoperable with allies. That means there’s a lot of cost avoidance for customers choosing the Pegasus, he argued. Allies can also be assured that “Boeing will be there” to support the product for decades, and customers won’t have to worry about logistical and technical support evaporating.

Carreon declined to discuss quality control issues experienced with the KC-46 relative to its remote viewing system or foreign objects left in aircraft during manufacture. “Every aircraft has its problems,” he said, insisting that Boeing and the Air Force “will handle those.”

The KC-46 recently completed certification trials with the F-35, after a five-month process that involved 300 contacts between the aircraft, Carreon reported. That certification went “flawlessly,” he reported.

A major push will be to market the Pegasus to international customers who will need tanking support for their F-35s, which he said needed additional fuel to reach relevant ranges. He mentioned Norway as a country that will have F-35s but no national tanker capability to support them. A number of customers or partners on the F-35 have already opted for the Airbus A330 Multi-role Tanker Transport (MRTT), however.

The KC-46 is set to conclude certifications on the planned 64 types of US and international aircraft in the 2020-2021 timeframe, and USAF may add more. The Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale are in the queue, he said. Countries need not rely on the Air Force to perform certifications, if they want to operate an aircraft USAF will not be certifying. However, the customer would bear those costs.

Each aircraft takes a different amount of time to certify. The C-130, he said, will take less time because it is so similar to the EC-130, which will be certified first. Two other aircraft now in certification are the MV-22 tiltrotor and the C-5 strategic airlifter.

Japan has ordered two KC-46s to complement their KC-767s, and Israel is interested in buying tankers, as well, Carreon noted. Boeing is in negotiations with many countries on tanker sales, but he declined to name them. He also said the company prefers outright sales but has discussed leasing arrangements, both “through third parties” and through Boeing Global Services. The tanker may also be sold to consortia of several countries who individually can’t afford the capability but could afford to buy time-sharing use of a collectively-owned airframe. Such an approach was taken with the sale of three C-17s to the 16-country Heavy Airlift Wing, a group of NATO and non-NATO users who operate their jointly-owned C-17s out of Hungary.

Carreon also said nations that can’t or don’t want to contribute combat aircraft to an alliance or coalition could buy and offer tankers as a meaningful way to participate in future air operations.

Boeing expects to deliver 36 tankers in 2019, aiming for 18 by mid-year.

Carreon said he expects at least 200 KC-46s to be operating worldwide, including the 179 ordered by the Air Force, of which 52 are on contract. There are 50 tankers in some stage of production and three aircraft were delivered last weekend, he noted.

It takes nine months to build a KC-46, Carreon said: six months to build the basic 267-2C freighter airframe and then three months for Boeing to install the military-unique refueling, self-defense, and avionics equipment at its Everett, Wash., facility.

When it won the KC-46 contract in 2011, Boeing acknowledged underbidding what it thought the program would cost, saying it expected a long-term support and foreign sales market would more than make up for its initial losses on the program. Since that time, Boeing has absorbed more than $3.5 billion in cost overruns on the fixed-price development contract.

Boeing provided travel and accommodations for reporters covering the event.