Boeing faces a well-known crisis with the 737 MAX, but a second challenge is also confronting the company: its new tanker for the U.S. Air Force.
The flying branch twice stopped deliveries of the KC-46A Pegasus in recent months because of loose tools and foreign debris discovered in closed compartments of the plane.
“If you drop a wrench you have to find a wrench,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told a House committee earlier this month. “You have to wipe down surfaces so you don’t have pieces of aluminum that over time get in the midst of things and cause serious problems.”
Such a breakdown in “manufacturing discipline” is especially perilous with an airplane carrying more than 212,000 pounds of jet fuel.
The tanker, a modified 767, is assembled in Everett.
On Tuesday, the Air Force decided to start accepting new KC-46s again, subject to tougher inspections. If deliveries continue, it’s a milestone for the good in a project worth big money to the company.
Boeing’s annual report cited government estimates that taxpayers will spend $41 billion on development and procurement of the tankers, of which approximately $30 billion will go to Boeing. Potential foreign sales are also valuable.
Whether Boeing finally turns around a snakebit program with a legacy of scandal and delays is the critical question.
And even when the bugs are worked out, the Pegasus will see a very different environment than its predecessors. Threats to tankers from new battlefield technologies are proliferating at a rate not seen in decades.
What’s often called a flying gas station may not sound sexy, but it’s been essential to U.S. air superiority since the years after World War II.
When Gen. Curtis LeMay whipped a motley postwar bomber force into the fearsome Strategic Air Command, it depended on American proficiency in midair refueling.
This made it possible, in theory, to send B-47, B-52, B-58 or B-1 nuclear-armed bombers to targets in the Communist bloc and back. Refueling, a complex and dangerous maneuver, spread to fighters and other military aircraft, too.
Almost all the way, tankers were a Boeing specialty, beginning with a specially modified B-29. They hit their stride with the jet-powered KC-135 Stratotanker, which has been in service since the mid-1950s. (A smaller number of McDonnell Douglas KC-10s have been operating since the 1980s.)
In 2002, the Air Force proposed leasing new tankers from Boeing. This brought the wrath of Sen. John McCain, who saw it as a waste of money.
Worse was to come: In 2003, the company fired two top executives over improprieties in defense acquisition, specifically related to the tanker deal. Both served prison terms.
Broader questions over the company’s defense unit were also raised. “Boeing has sold itself for years as a systems integration company, as somebody who can be trusted with the government’s money,” John Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, said in 2003. “For the last several years, we keep peeling back the layers on why we can’t trust that company.”
Later that year, the scandal forced the resignation of Chairman and CEO Phil Condit.
With the lease deal dead, the Air Force put out a request for proposals for a new tanker, initially labeled KC-X. In the tortuous drama that followed, a joint venture between Northrop Grumman and EADS, the European parent of Airbus, won. But Boeing protested and forced another round of bids, finally winning the deal. Development and production of the first planes brought further delays, and Boeing has absorbed budget overruns of more than $3.6 billion. Even once deliveries started this year, the Air Force was withholding up to $28 million per plane until fixes were made to the tanker’s remote vision system.
When the Pegasus becomes the refueling backbone of the Air Force, it will encounter new challenges that are different from during the Cold War or the years of safely loitering to top off fighters before those jets struck targets in Afghanistan or Iraq.
As “near-peer competition” resumes among great powers, tankers are no longer safe. They make inviting targets because fighters, bombers and support aircraft would be crippled if they couldn’t refuel on long distances to targets.
In a 2015 article on the War on the Rocks blog, Greg Knepper and Peter Singer wrote, “The tanker historically had the luxury of range and defense-in-depth to remain well behind the forward edge of the battle area.
“However, the combination of short-range tactical assets and a suite of new advanced threats that may be able to reach out and touch our logistics tail means this old assumption must be questioned.”
These threats include stealth technology, fighters with better range, advanced missiles including hypersonic weapons, and missiles fired by enemy ships.
They wrote, “Not only may tanker aircraft no longer enjoy the safe haven of operating many miles away from danger, but additional threats may be floating directly beneath them.”
The Pegasus can refuel more planes faster, and is equipped with advanced electronic countermeasures. It can network with other aircraft, detect threats sooner and even withstand electromagnetic pulse weapons.
It would need these capabilities and more, including support from a combat air patrol, in a major war we should all hope never comes.
In the meantime, Boeing must get busy delivering the new tankers with no more glitches.