The U.S. Air Force formally accepted its first KC-46 tanker from Boeing earlier this month, and that aircraft is expected to touch down at McConnell Air Force Base on Friday for a delivery ceremony. However, acceptance of the initial aircraft has been marred by ongoing technical problems, and Boeing may be unable to meet its requirement of delivering 18 aircraft and nine wing-mounted refueling pods until late 2020, three years later than planned.
The KC-46 is still plagued by two significant technical issues: problems with the remote vision system, which is used by the crew during the refueling process; and issues with maximum loads being placed on the refueling boom. These problems could take several years to sort out.
Another major hurtle concerns the refueling pods, being made by Cobham, which the Defense Contract Management Agency has said will not be ready until the third quarter of 2020. The delivery milestone for the first batch of aircraft therefore appears to hinge on completion of the refueling pods. The delays stem from the process of certifying the pods with the Federal Aviation Administration, rather than any technical production problems. Still, Boeing withheld payments to Cobham last year due to the delays. Likewise, the Air Force has the option to withhold $28 million from Boeing per aircraft upon delivery of each KC-46. There are currently 52 aircraft on contract, meaning the Air Force could hold back around $1.5 billion until these issues are addressed.
The service plans to eventually buy 179 aircraft to replace a portion of its KC-135 fleet. Future competitions will be held to replace the remainder of the KC-135s.