KC-46 progress hinges on requirements, funding stability

An Air Force official here Sept. 17 announced production and high-priority upgrade plans to refresh its fleet of KC-135 Stratotankers.

In a presentation at the at the Air Force Association’s 2013 Air & Space Conference & Technology Exposition, Maj. Gen. John Thompson, the Air Force program executive officer for tankers, outlined continued progress in the cargo jet’s design and acquisition timeline.

“The tanker crews — pilots, boom operators, maintainers — are conducting about 150 sorties, refueling about 450 aircraft a day — keeping the ‘global’ in global reach, global vigilance and global power,” Thompson said. “The KC-135s are nearly 51 years old. They are fantastic weapons systems … but our operators and maintainers need something new and better.”

In August, Air Force officials signed off on the KC-46 weapon system’s critical design review, taking ownership of the design and moving forward in the acquisition’s timeline.

The closure, Thompson said, represented the culmination of component and subsystem design examinations and allowed the program to progress into its manufacturing and test phases.

Beyond the test phase, officials aim to ensure technical performance is on track with the Air Force’s first freighter flight scheduled in June.

The review processes benefited from commercial and Defense Department best practices, leading to overall improvements and projected cost-savings, Thompson said.

Boeing, meanwhile, is continuing integration, verification and production of four engineering and manufacturing development aircraft to support flight testing, scheduled to begin in mid-2014. The first operational KC-46 tanker is projected to fly in early 2015 — with an expected delivery of 179 tankers by 2028, Thompson said.

As the process moves from drawing to metal, Thompson said the program hit a number of milestones this year, including the award of a training contract and base selection for the tanker in May and beginning production on the first model in late June.

Assembly of the second model aircraft began in August, putting the program on track to have four test aircraft assembled by the middle of next year.

“We are 40 percent done with the development program … and most of the requirements have been met early,” Thompson said. “Our way forward is to continue with good execution … to fully fund the test program (and) develop the monitor and sustainment strategy.”

Thompson said that while there is a considerable amount of uncertainty relative to sequestration in fiscal 2014, maintaining stability and support for the program is essential to keeping the pace of the process.

“Requirements and funding stability are absolutely key,” the general noted. “As the No. 1 modernization program, I’m sure (Air Force leaders) will do what they can to protect this very critical program as we go forward.”

Source / Author: USAF