USAF to Receive First KC-46 in October

KC-46As undergoing final assembly at Boeing’s Everett, Wash. facility in May. The Air Force has announced it will accept the first operational KC-46 in October. Staff photo by John A. Tirpak.

Under a deal announced Wednesday, the Air Force will accept the first KC-46A tanker ready for operational duty in October, with the balance of the first 18 contractually obligated aircraft to be delivered by April of next year.

The announcement puts firm dates to a plan that had been in flux, as Boeing missed delivering the first tanker by the original target of last summer. Recently, the company said it would deliver the first jet by the end of this year, while the Air Force said by its reckoning the milestone wouldn’t happen until next spring or summer. In May, the service refused to accept any KC-46 deliveries because of deficiencies in its boom refueling system. The Air Force did not say whether the boom issue has been resolved to its satisfaction.

“While the KC-46A flight test program is nearly complete, significant work remains,” Undersecretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan said in a statement. “The Air Force is looking forward to KC-46A first delivery and will continue to work with Boeing on opportunities to expedite the program.”

Boeing, in its own statement, said the announcement shows the team has made “great progress.”

“With first delivery now set, the men and women of the Air Force know when they will start receiving this warfighting capability,” Boeing noted. The company asserted that the KC-46 is “a top priority” for Boeing, adding, “We have the best of Boeing working to ensure the US Air Force gets [its] tankers as quickly as possible.”

Boeing Defense President Leanne Caret said recently the KC-46 was the single top priority for the company, after USAF leaders complained Boeing was overly attentive to its commercial aircraft business, at the expense of the tanker.

The KC-46A, which is a derivative of Boeing’s 767 freighter, has suffered a number of setbacks since the company prevailed over Airbus in the KC-X competition in 2011. The fixed-price development program for the aircraft has a ceiling price of $4.7 billion, but Boeing has already written down more than $3 billion in cost overruns on the new tanker. Boeing is to deliver 179 tankers in total to the Air Force by the end of 2028, at an expected rate of about 15 per year. The original estimate of the program’s value was $35 billion.

The Air Force also plans a KC-Y tanker program to replace most of the rest of its Eisenhower-era KC-135s and Reagan-era KC-10s. Air Mobility Command has said it may opt for a small, stealthy aircraft to complete its modernization of the tanker fleet, in a program still notionally called KC-Z. AMC has also said it may forego a KC-Y competition and simply buy the next batch of tankers from Boeing.