The general public is aware of the problems with the new Boeing 737 Max airliner being grounded because sloppy software and poor quality control resulted in two crashes that left over 346 passengers and crew dead. The software and flight system flaws were identified in March 2019 and since March 13 all 737 Max aircraft were grounded until further notice. That means 387 aircraft that airlines cannot use and a major loss of reputation for Boeing. Major 737 Max sales have been canceled or lost.
It is now widely known that Boeing is having major problems with how it builds aircraft and supervises those who do. Less well known is that the U.S. Air Force already knew this because another Boeing airliner, the 767 had been selected to serve, after modifications, as the new air force aerial tanker; the KC-46. The air force was dealing with KC-46 quality control and related problems for several years. Boeing kept insisting it had the situation under control but Boeing regularly demonstrated that this was not the case. This indicated that something was seriously wrong with how Boeing was building aircraft. Apparently there had been a number of changes in how assembly workers and their supervisors followed long-accepted (for good reason) safety and quality control procedures. In short, Boeing had tolerated the spread of sloppy assembly work. Worse, senior management appeared unaware or unconcerned about this development. To air force procurement officers that was even more disturbing.
The primary air force problem with the KC-46 is the discovery of obvious sloppiness in the assembly of KC-46s delivered. Too many of them had FOD (Foreign Object Debris), including tools and other metal objects, being found in various parts of the aircraft. This indicated a serious lapse in the management of assembly and quality control while producing these aircraft. Deliveries were supposed to begin in January 2019 but air force maintenance personnel began encountering more FOD. The air force halted deliveries and told Boeing to deal with their problem before resuming deliveries. By March Boeing said they had taken care of the FOD problem and the air force allowed deliveries to resume. Air force maintenance personnel went over the new aircraft more thoroughly than usual and found there was still a lot of FOD. Boeing and air force officials worked out a temporary arrangement whereby air force inspectors would give each new KC-46 an unusually thorough inspection and refuse any KC-46s that were not delivered as specified in the contract. It was up to Boeing to clean up problems on their end. Meanwhile the air force, instead of accepting three new KC-46s a month was getting less than half as many because of the delays caused by additional inspection of the Boeing aircraft. By mid-2019 the air force had only 11 KC-46s instead of the 18 and it is unclear if the air force will end the year with the 36 it expected.
In light of the 737 Max disaster, the air force is also double-checking any other components on the KC-46 where Boeing was responsible for quality control. On an aircraft like the KC-46, which is a militarized version of a commercial transport, many of the electronics are supplied by the air force which retains more control over the quality control over those items. But there are some Boeing built items and these are all now suspect and subject to time-consuming and expensive (ultimately for Boeing) inspections by the air force.
These problems with the new KC-46A tankers are bad but not unexpected. American defense manufacturers, in general, have been suffering more and more management problems, especially when it comes to manufacturing and quality control. The navy has an even worse situation because many navy shipbuilders only build warships and have no commercial customers who are quick to note deficiencies and threaten to switch suppliers.
In the United States, there are not a lot of companies that can build warplanes and warships. Plus the military procurement system is subject to political interference because politicians can stay in office a long time if they get defense-related production moved to their district. In addition, defense manufacturers donate large sums to politicians who will help those firms keep getting contracts. That form of corruption has been around forever but for obvious reasons, politicians don’t have a lot of incentive to do anything about it, especially in peacetime. But now something as mundane as FOD is forcing these practices into the headlines, sort of.
What is most absurd, and thus newsworthy is that FOD is such a big deal. Most FOD comes from small parts that come loose or are picked up by an aircraft from small objects on the airstrip that ends up in the aircraft during landing and takeoff. Nearly half of FOD incidents are because objects are sucked into the engines that cause visible or catastrophic damage. Bird strikes are the most common cause.
FOD found in newly built aircraft after delivery, or by customer inspectors during final checks at the assembly plant, indicates more serious problems with the work done at the assembly plant and how it is supervised. The KC-46 assembly plant had noted eight incidents of FOD being discovered during assembly, plus at least two that were not found and were instead discovered by air force personnel after delivery of the first six KC-46s. The led to the six KC-46s being grounded for a week while all of them were thoroughly checked for FOD. At the same time, the air force told Boeing that further KC-46 deliveries were suspended until a joint Air-Force-Boeing team could investigate work done and work practices at the Boeing plant producing the KC-46s. The air force has already had problems with quality control and key systems on the KC-46 that did not work as specified and had to be fixed. The first KC-46s are being used to train flight crews and maintainers so this delay is added to the two years of other delays the KC-46A has already experienced.
The air force was relieved to finally start receiving its long-awaited (and long overdue) new aerial tankers in 2019. Two KC-46As were delivered to an air force base in January 2019. That’s 18 years after the air force went looking for a new tanker and eight years after the KC-46A was selected. The first 18 of these was supposed to be delivered by 2017 but that is now delayed until 2020. The last series of delays were caused by a component provided by Cobham, a British firm that had developed the pods that are carried under each wing to allow two aircraft to be refueled at once. These pods ran into development delays and then there were further delays waiting for British aviation authorities to approve the Cobham design in its final form. There are still some problems but not so bad that production cannot continue. The air force now has eleven KC-46s, all but four of them production models delivered so far in 2019.
All these final delays were preceded by lengthy ones encountered with the competition (AirBus). In 2011 the competition between the American KC-767/46A and European KC-330, to replace the aging U.S. Air Force KC-135 aerial tankers, was won by Boeing's KC-767 (as the KC-46A). In 2008 the air force had selected the KC-330, but lawyers and politics upset that award and the selection process had to be repeated. Before that, the KC-767 had won the original 2002 competition, but corruption tainted that award, and the order was canceled. The 2011 award was not challenged in court. There was also a lot of resistance in the air force and Congress to any further squabbling over who should build the replacement for the KC-135. Corruption and endless litigation is another aspect of military procurement that keeps getting worse
The total value of the project, to replace the aging fleet of KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, could be as high as $44 billion. The initial order was for 18 aircraft at about $150 million each. That initial order also came with about a billion dollars for development work plus $4 billion in additional development costs that the American manufacturer absorbed. The air force might order over a hundred KC-46As, but the exact number depends on what kind of future aircraft the air force will be using. If there are a lot of unmanned aircraft (UAVs), fewer tankers will be needed because UAVs are smaller, and need less fuel.
The competition between the American (Boeing) and European (AirBus) candidates was actually quite close. The KC-330 carries 20 percent more fuel than the KC-767, plus more cargo pallets (26 versus 19) and passengers. But this apparently worked against the KC-330, as the KC-767 is closer in size to the KC-135, and thus will not require as many new maintenance facilities. The KC-767 is also considered easier and cheaper to maintain. The KC-330/45A was to have cost about $175 million each (17 percent more than the KC-46A).
The KC-46A is based on the Boeing 767-200 airliner, which sells for about $120 million. The 767 has been in service since 1982, and over 1,100 have been manufactured so far. Production continues mainly because of KC-46 orders, and FedEx buying freighter (non-military) models. Boeing developed the KC-47A at a cost of nearly a billion dollars, on its own. Boeing also developed the original KC-135 tanker in the 1950s and has since built over 2,000 of those.
The two engine KC-330 (KC-45A) was based on the AirBus 330 (which costs about $160 million each). Over 1,400 330s have been produced since the aircraft entered service in 1994. Both candidates are replacing the four-engine KC-135. This older aircraft carries 90 tons of fuel and can transfer up to 68 tons. Typically, aerial tankers have to service B-52s (which carry over 140 tons of jet fuel) and fighters like the F-15 (over five tons). The KC-135 has long made itself useful carrying cargo and passengers, as well as fuel, and both the KC-767 and KC-30 have more capacity for this. The KC-46A can pump 1,200 gallons (4,900 liters) a minute while each of the underwing pods can deliver a third of that per minute.
The KC-767 was developed partly because it is about the same size as the KC-135 (wingspan is 50.3 meters/156 feet, 6.8 percent larger than the KC-135). Thus the 767 could use the same basing and repair facilities as the 135. In the meantime, Japan and Italy have ordered eight KC-767s but with the continued delays most export sales went to the KC-330s, now called the A330 MRTT or KC-30A. So far, 60 of these have been sold to Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, Norway, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, South Korea and Britain.