KC-46A Aerial Tanker: The USAF’s Top Priority Program
Program remains on track so far, as last test plane begins construction. Testing will be the tough part.
Jan 16/14: Industrial. Boeing has begun assembling the 4th and final KC-46A test aircraft, and says that the program remains on track to deliver the initial 18 tankers to the Air Force by 2017. According to the current schedule, the 1st flight of a KC-46 test aircraft will take place at mid-2014 without its aerial refueling systems, followed by the first flight of a full KC-46A tanker in early 2015.
The first delivery of a production aircraft to the Air Force is planned for early 2016, but of course that depends on things going well during testing. Official reports to date have been skeptical, so no matter how things turn out, someone is about to be proved wrong. Sources: Boeing, “Boeing Starts Assembly of Final KC-46A Test Aircraft”.
DID’s FOCUS articles cover major weapons acquisition programs – and no program is more important to the USAF than its aerial tanker fleet renewal. In January 2007, the big question was whether there would be a competition for the USA’s KC-X proposal, covering 175 production aircraft and 4 test platforms. The total cost is now estimated at $52 billion, but America’s aerial tanker fleet demands new planes to replace its KC-135s, whose most recent new delivery was in 1965. Otherwise, unpredictable age or fatigue issues, like the ones that grounded its F-15A-D fighters in 2008, could ground its aerial tankers – and with them, a substantial slice of the USA’s total airpower.
KC-Y and KC-Z buys are supposed to follow in subsequent decades, in order to replace 530 (195 active; ANG 251; Reserve 84) active tankers, as well as the USAF’s 59 heavy KC-10 tankers that were delivered from 1979-1987. Then again, fiscal and demographic realities may mean that the 179 plane KC-X buy is “it” for the USAF. Either way, the stakes were huge for all concerned.
In the end, it was Team Boeing’s KC-767 NexGen/ KC-46A (767 derivative) vs. EADS North America’s KC-45A (Airbus KC-30/A330-200 derivative), both within the Pentagon and in the halls of Congress. The financial and employment stakes guaranteed a huge political fight no matter which side won. After Airbus won in 2008, that fight ended up sinking and restarting the entire program. Three years later, Boeing won the recompete. Now, they have to deliver.
KC-X: The Program
The KC-X Competitions
The KC-46A Development Phase: Budgets, Splits, & Dates
The KC-46A Production Phase: Risks & Numbers
KC-46A Export Prospects
Boeing’s KC-46A, and Its Team
KC-X: Contracts & Key Developments
Appendix A: KC-X RFP v2.0 – The New Structure
Appendix B: The Contenders and The Cargo Factor – KC-30B, KC-767… KC-777?
Airbus’ A330/ KC-30/ KC-45
Boeing’s KC-767 Advanced/ KC-767 NewGen/ KC-46A
Boeing’s 777 Option
Appendix C: Airbus KC-30/ KC-45A Team
KC-X Program and Contenders
Related Studies and Reports
The Protest Wars
The Lobbying War
Ongoing News and Views
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