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GAO: Air Force shifting money to KC-135 because of KC-46 tanker problems

The Air Force plans to re-allocate $57 million from the KC-46 program to the older refueling tanker, the KC-135 Stratotanker, as issues persist and commanders refuse their aircraft be refueled by it.

By Allen Cone

June 14 (UPI) -- Because of ongoing problems with the KC-46 Pegasus, the U.S. Air Force plans to initially re-allocate $57 million from the program to the older refueling tanker, the KC-135 Stratotanker, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The report, which was released Wednesday, also noted that some Air Force commanders don't want their their aircraft refueled by the KC-46. This in turn is further delaying the scheduled use of the plane developed by Boeing, officials said.

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The House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee received the report.

Boeing remains three years behind schedule on the program and won't deliver the first 18 aircraft with all three refueling subsystems by June 2020. The aircraft has been in development since 2011.

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"Program officials expect the KC-46 to meet key performance goals over the next few years as it accumulates 50,000 fleet hours," the report said. "However, the Air Force is accepting aircraft that do not fully meet contract specifications and have critical deficiencies."

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The three Category 1 deficiencies are lack of visual clarity in the remote vision system, undetected contacts with receiver aircraft, and boom stiffness while refueling lighter aircraft.

"The deficiencies could affect operations and cause damage to stealth aircraft being refueled, making them visible to radar," the report said.

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Program officials estimate it will take three to four years to develop fixes for these deficiencies, and a few more years to retrofit up to 106 aircraft.

Also, there there are 160 Category 2 deficiencies can be addressed through workarounds, according to the report.

The Air Force's estimated costs for the fixes are more than $300 million. The Air Force is withholding 20 percent payment on each aircraft until Boeing fixes the deficiencies and noncompliances.

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The GAO analyzed cost, schedule, performance, test, manufacturing, contracting, and sustainment planning documents. Interviewed were officials from the KC-46 program office, other defense offices, such as the Defense Contract Management Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing.

"Air Force major commands have been reluctant to allow their receiver aircraft to be tested with the KC-46 over concerns that the lack of visual clarity in the remote vision system and the boom's stiffness could cause the boom to strike and damage the receiver aircraft," the report states. "Program officials told us that, as a result, negotiations between the KC-46 program and Air Force major command officials concerning the use of receiver aircraft are taking longer than expected."

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Air Mobility Command in fiscal 2020 plans to reallocate $57 million from the KC-46 program to fly and maintain KC-135s, which were manufactured between 1955 and 1965 -- meaning they will be in use far longer than planned.

"The funding would cover the cost to fly and sustain some KC-135 aircraft above what the command had planned, including the associated personnel costs," the report states. "Air Mobility Command officials said that decisions about retaining some legacy KC-135 aircraft would be reviewed annually thereafter. If these aircraft are retained, funding would be reallocated from the KC-46 program to support the decision."

Amid issues, the report notes that the costs of the KC-46 program have been coming under cost. As of January, the Air Force estimates that its total cost, including development, procurement and military construction, will be $43 billion, about $9 billion less than the 2011 estimate of $51.7 billion.

The military aerial refueling and strategic military transport aircraft are built from empty Boeing 767 jet airliners in Everett, Wash., then transferred to a facility at the south end of Paine Field called the Military Delivery Center. That's where the jet's military systems, including the refueling and communications equipment, are installed.

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In January, the first two KC-46s were flown from Boeing's facilities to McConnell Air Force Base, Kan.

On Feb. 21, the Air Force halted deliveries of the aircraft due to foreign object debris, including trash and industrial tools. Eight tools were found in aircraft under production at Boeing's facility, and two more in tankers delivered to the U.S. Air Force, according to an internal Boeing memo.

After inspections by the Air Force and the creation of an additional inspections plan, deliveries resumed about one week later.

But the Pentagon again halted deliveries of the aircraft in April due to foreign object debris. At the same time, in April, Boeing was awarded a $5.7 billion post-production contract for combat capability for the K-46 Pegasus.

The KC-46A can accommodate a mixed load of passengers, aeromedical evacuation and cargo capabilities, including maximum takeoff weight of 415,000 pounds and fuel capacity of 212,299 pounds, according to the Air Force.

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