Air Force to Respond to Recent Criticism of F-35 and KC-46 Aircraft

The first two operational F-35A Lightning II aircraft arrive at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Sept. 2, 2015. The jets were piloted by Col. David Lyons, 388th Fighter Wing commander, and Lt. Col. Yosef Morris, 34th Fighter Squadron director of operations. Hill will receive up to 70 additional combat-coded F-35s on a staggered basis through 2019. The jets will be flown and maintained by Hill Airmen assigned to the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing and its Reserve component 419th Fighter Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Alex R. Lloyd)

The Air Force will give an update next week at the annual Air and Space Conference on its two most needed yet controversial aircraft programs — the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the KC-46 Pegasus refueling tanker.

Both projects have recently come under fire from Congress – again. In addition to cost overruns on the $400 billion F-35 program, the fighter’s ability to perform close air support has come into question compared to the aging A-10 Thunderbolt.

The KC-46, developed by Boeing from its 767 series jetliner, has also been hit by cost overruns and questions about Boeing’s ability to meet a deadline to have the aircraft on the ramp and ready for missions by August 2017.

In an Aug. 31 letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wrote that “I am concerned that the recent problems with the tanker modernization program could prevent the Department of Defense from delivering this critical capability to our warfighters as promised and on schedule.”

The lineup for the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition at National Harbor, Maryland, on Tuesday includes a panel on the F-35 and the KC-46 led by the main officers in charge of getting both programs back on track – Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan for the F-35, and Brig. Gen. Duke Richardson for the KC-46.

Earlier this month on a visit to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Bogdan, the program executive officer for the F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office, said the F-35 had gone past the fits-and-starts stage. “We are now growing and accelerating rapidly on this program,” he said.

“We will do everything we can to give the Air Force everything they need” with the F-35, Bogdan said. “If we fall through, the responsibility falls on me.”

Richardson, the program executive officer for tankers at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, will be working with a new management team at Boeing to get the KC-46 program back on schedule.

In a letter to employees last month, new Boeing President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg said he was working “to ensure that the full extent of Boeing resources and expertise are applied to meet our commitment to deliver the initial 18 tankers in 2017.”

An artist's rendering of a KC-46A refueling F-16 Fighting Falcons (photo courtesy the Boeing Company)

About the Author

Richard Sisk
Richard Sisk is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.
  • Robert K

    It will be a political comment and opinion

  • rgw46

    politicos….pass around…they can not meet contract. They run behind-costs. THEY EAT THE COSTS..PERIOD…or give contract to someone else and DEMAND MONEY BACK. Breach of contract…DAH

  • veej7485

    How can you mess up building a tanker using off the shelf tech and existing air-frame ?
    Also, can we stop using the term “warfighter”….sounds ridiculous.

    • Eric

      This is actually a pretty easy question to answer. First, none of the aircraft is really “off the shelf.” Everything about the airframe is built from the ground up for its role. It’s based on an existing airframe which lowers cost and design time, but it’s not like Boeing is taking 767 bodies off the line and modifying them slightly.

      Beyond that, remember that the KC-46 has changed a lot since Boeing first bidded it. Boeing actually LOST this contract to a superior entry by Airbus. The initial reward of the tanker contract to Airbus (EADS) was protested both by Boeing AND Congress.

      Boeing said they didn’t realize the Air Force wanted a tanker as good or capable as what Airbus put forth, instead focusing on the absolute cheapest aircraft they could build. Boeing will actually take a loss on KC-46 production, making money only on follow-on upgrades and maintenance contracts. Congress protested because large portions of the EADS aircraft would be built overseas, and the only significant portion of production on US soil would be final assembly and delivery.

      So the Air Force had no choice but to re-bid the contract, which Boeing then won (no surprise) by severely underbidding their own tanker aircraft and promising upgrades to the existing proposal in production. Boeing is perfectly capable of doing this, but it takes time, money, investment, etc. All while having to meet the original production timetable.

      So really, you can’t necessarily blame Boeing here. The plane they’re trying to field is very different than the one they bidded, and they’re basically getting nothing for building them.

    • Dave

      it would also help if they would just accept airframes that do 90% of what they need instead of demanding 100%. Those extra changes push costs up significantly. Look at Japan and others who already received 767 tankers. My bet is if they were willing to accept a plane that had 90% of what they needed you would already have a bunch in service.

  • VTGunner

    I’m sure he’ll say they need more money and time to complete something that should already be sitting on tarmacs across the country in vast numbers

  • Monty

    Wrong Company got this contract award through a politically charged contracting process. Airbus the “Losing” contractor” has already delivered the product.

    The A330 MRTT is the only new-generation Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft fully certified, in operational service and combat proven now. The A330 MRTT uniquely offers military strategic air transport as well as superior air-to-air refuelling capabilities that have already been extensively proven in numerous real operations by current operators. With 46 aircraft sold to 6 Major Air Forces (Australia, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Singapore and France), the A330 MRTT is the preferred tanker/transport solution for current and future needs.

    • Sentry

      Monty-Perhaps you are right, but it is too late now to try to get the Airbus tanker into the US military inventory. The contract was awarded and the money, for the most part, is spent. And yes, Boeing eats the excess costs, if memory serves me.

      • Andy19K

        There is a 767 tanker in service with the Italian Air Force. Have they been having problems? I understand the KC-46 is different but….Sheesh! What’s the problem Boeing?!

      • OldFedVet1941

        Boeing don’t eat anything! We the Taxpayers are paying!

        • Garrett

          This information IS publicly available to anyone that bothers to look.

          “While the recently announced cost overrun on the Air Force’s KC-46A tanker is deeply unfortunate, it is encouraging that the contractor, and not the taxpayer, will bear this expense,” McCain said.

          Read more: http://live-defensetech.sites.thewpvalet.com/#ixzz3ls0DYRrR
          Defense.org

    • Garrett

      The A330 MRTT is not fully certified or fully operational. The Aussies just started retesting the boom in June, 2015 after a second A330 boom fell off mid air in 2011. Prior to the June, 2015 trials, they were using hose and drogue only (as do most other A330 operators). They have not called it fully operational, so it still isn’t yet fully operational four years into Australia’s service.

      I also can’t find any reference that the A330 MRTT has been used in combat operations. Italy used their KC-767 and Canada used their older A300-based A310MRTT aircraft in Libya. The USAF provided most of the refueling for the campaign and that is the only combat any A330 MRTT operators have been involved in. I dispute your claim that the A330 MRTT has been in combat as well.

      South Korea seems to be comfortable enough with the technical fixes to order the A330 MRTT in their September, 2015 bid award.

      The A330 MRTT is a great solution if you also need a transport in the same vein as the KC-10. The USAF doesn’t need that capability because we already have more airlift the rest of the world combined plus a worldwide network of air bases, so a smaller airplane fits our needs better.

      But Boeing is absorbing the loses on a fixed price contract and the KC-135 fleet is adequate to sustain a delayed entry into service; so I’m not sure why anyone cares other than to snicker some more at Boeing’s continual managerial incompetence.

    • sw614

      Nice company pitch. USAF needed a KC-135E replacement, not a MRTT that was what, $30 million more per airframe and would have required more in infrastructure upgrades to bed down at operational bases? Yes the USAF would get more for the money, but budgets are pretty tight right now. Plus the A330 has had issues of its own. It may well be a fine tanker, but the jury is still out on that. (although Gen. Art Lichte was high on it and as I worked for him for a while at Andrews I put great weight in his opinions)

  • BlackOwl18E

    Boeing’s messing up. We’ve potentially lost some orders for the tanker already and with them some good work for American’s here at home. They need to start kicking people in the rear and stop screwing around.

    There is no way to fix the F-35 Program and there’s no way this jet can do the job of the A-10. The Air Force can’t be trusted to tell the truth on this. They’ve had Air Force Generals already put under investigation for telling their subordinates that praising the A-10 to lawmakers is treason and they’ve produced data reports that were proven to be falsified. There’s no reason to trust whatever it is they say.

  • Dfens

    Remember when the Air Force was respected world wide? Now they’re the defense contractors complain. They must be so proud.

  • willy

    That’s why Boeing or Lockheed can’t sell Planes to other nations.. expensive and inefficient …selling F-15, F-16, F-18 which are obsolete by European and Russian standards. no selling point.

  • SMSgt Mac

    Heh. Gotta love the morphing of giving an address to a long-standing regularly scheduled “conference” into a ‘Respond to Critics” headline.
    Slow news day?

  • Huckebeine

    If they had cut out the STOVL version of the F-35, we could probably have had an airframe ready by now for multi role missions. The problems with crafting a VTOL or even STOVL aircraft with a lift fan or any sort of moving part as just are insane. It puts far too much stress on the aircraft, and if you don’t scratch build it versus trying to shove it into production as another easy to build variant of the same airframe, it pretty much tears your schedule and money reserves to shreds.

    The Navy and Air Force versions should’ve come first, to give us a new, viable platform with good commonality across the board. Then the Marine version should’ve come a bit later, changing the airframe as needed, experimenting with it, and making sure that most of the kinks were worked out before low rate initial production started and prototypical batches were ordered.

    The F-35 itself should share no blame, because The Pentagon is trying to force it to do everything at once day by day. It should be a capable fighter first, then they should start making multirole variants. F-16 was a fighter solely at first, but now it’s a pretty good multi-mission platform. Same with the F-15C/D and the E models.

  • D Kellogg

    It’s been said there are boom issues with the new tanker?
    How many failures have the old systems used in the KC-135 and KC-10 fleets have there been over the years? Too proud to continue using what works, so let’s waste $$$ on reinventing a wheel and making it even less functional by using glitchy software to only sometimes achieve what men and women service members have been able to do for decades manually (fly the boom) in these previous tankers.
    Just wow, Boeing.

  • OldFedVet1941

    Obviously Bogdon is cementing his future Job with the Contractor! I thought Boeing had told us that the 46 was ready to fly and perform it’s proposed mission. I guess Boeing has learned from Lockheed about how to screw the Taxpayers.

  • Big-D

    I can’t wait to see what Generalli “grape” Welsh has to say now about the F-35, “The F-35 was designed from the very beginning to be faster than Superman, stronger than Thor, but sexier than Batwoman”

  • BlackOwl18E

    By “we” I meant we as a country, not “we” as in Boeing.