On the heels of the Air Force Reserve (AFRES) celebrating its 67th birthday, the USAF has announced its Reserve candidate bases for the Air Force’s KC-46A tanker, for delivery starting in FY2019. Three of the four locations listed already have Air Refueling Wings (ARW) operating the KC-135 Stratotanker, including Grissom ARB, Tinker, and Seymour Johnson AFB. An interesting addition to the mix is Westover Air Reserve Base, Massachusetts. The 439th Airlift Wing, dubbed the “Patriot Wing” is already in the process of drawing down to just 8 of their massive C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifters. It’s entirely possible they will lose the rest if and when the Patriot Wing is chosen for the air refueling mission.
This news comes as Boeing faces mounting pressure regarding it’s KC-46A tanker program. According to the latest Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, Boeing has been contending with design issues with the development aircraft, in turn resulting in delayed flight testing since the initial 767 testbed flew at the tail end of 2014. The first new-build KC-46 was due to fly this month, but it has slipped further to the right. This delay has dramatically shortened the planned flight testing program, from 13 months to just three, and the GAO report warns the Air Force of biting on the KC-46 before the design has been proven.
Boeing and the USAF’s timeline for 18 KC-46s for an August 2017 IOC is in jeopardy, and the manufacturer wants to cut corners on the testing program. The Air Force has heeded the GAO report’s advice, insofar as they’ve agreed to hold off on a production decision until key capabilities are proven. Exactly what those “key capabilities” are is unclear the report, but Boeing thinks it can demonstrate that its KC-46 can successfully pass gas by completing just a portion of the planned 2400 hour flight test phase.
With 179 airframes on the line to replace a good amount of the aging KC-135 fleet, the KC-46 has a lot to live up to. Cutting corners is not the way to go, says both history and common sense. We know good and well that nobody kicks ass without tanker gas, but if the timeline keeps slipping, will there be any ass kicked in the future, other than Boeing’s for rushing their flight testing phase? The good news is that the KC-46 program has actually decreased in price. The GAO estimated a 5.4 percent drop in acquisition costs, putting the total cost at $48.9 billion, down from $51.7 billion.
Happy birthday to the AFRES, but please excuse the belated birthday gift.
(Featured Image Courtesy: USAF)