Boeing’s delays on the Air Force KC-46 tanker program mean it will have just three months of flight testing, rather than the originally planned 13 months, before the Pentagon is scheduled to decide whether to start building the first production models.
Boeing’s delays on the Air Force KC-46 tanker program mean it will have just three months of flight testing, rather than the originally planned 13 months, before the Pentagon is scheduled to decide whether to start building the first production models, according to a government oversight report released Thursday.
In those three months, starting mid-2015, Boeing will have to hustle to demonstrate that the tanker can reliably perform its in-flight refueling mission. If not, it risks another serious delay.
So far, only a single flight test has been conducted on a 767-2C airframe that is the baseline for the tanker but doesn’t have any aerial refueling equipment.
While the first flight test of an actual KC-46 tanker has been pushed out to midyear, the Pentagon is supposed to decide in October on whether Boeing can go ahead with production.
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“Significantly less testing will now be conducted prior to the (production go-ahead) decision,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report states.
“Boeing remains at risk of not being able to demonstrate the aerial-refueling capabilities in time to meet the new production decision date due to late parts deliveries, software defects, and flight test cycle assumptions, which could result in additional delays,” the report adds.
The GAO report is the latest status update to Congress on the troubled tanker program, which suffered delays last year due to wiring issues on the first four test airplanes built and subsequent software-integration problems.
The good news in the report is that Boeing’s airplane design is expected to meet the Defense Department’s performance goals.
In addition, the GAO’s estimate of the total acquisition cost for a total of 175 production tankers and four test airplanes has declined by about 5.4 percent since February 2011, from $51.7 billion to $48.9 billion.
“Most of the estimated cost decline is due to fewer than expected engineering changes,” as well as a reduction in planned construction costs to build or modify aircraft hangars, maintenance and supply shops, and other facilities, the GAO said.
The initial development phase of the tanker program has a contract-budget ceiling of $4.9 billion, above which any extra costs must be borne by Boeing.
The report notes that as of the end of 2014, the Air Force tanker program office estimated that those early development costs would exceed the ceiling price by about $1.4 billion, though Boeing’s estimate of the overrun is just $380 million.
“The program-office estimate is higher because it includes additional costs associated with performance, as well as cost and schedule risk,” the GAO states.
Boeing tanker spokesman Chick Ramey said the jet-maker is “confident” about its revised flight-test plan.
He said only the sequence of tests has changed.
“We’re not skipping any testing,” Ramey said. “Some testing not required for the production decision has been resequenced and will be completed later.”
The GAO analysis notes that “the small schedule margin that was built into the program has eroded.”
Boeing’s revised timetable raises the risk that the Pentagon will have insufficient flight-test data before it’s supposed to decide on whether production should go ahead.
“The flight-test pace (Boeing) now hopes to achieve to support the … production decision is in jeopardy,” the report says, then warns the Pentagon to “be careful not to … award a production contract before it has adequate knowledge that the KC-46 can perform its aerial refueling mission.”
“The next several months are critical,” the GAO report concludes.