The new U.S. Air Force aerial tanker, the KC-46A, has been a development disaster, with one flaw after another discovered and many of them not amenable to a quick fix. The latest problem is leaky toilets. Most tankers are based on commercial freight transports, with the addition of more onboard fuel and aerial refueling equipment. There is a lot of space left for passengers and cargo. The KC-46 can carry over a hundred passengers and when it does the crew toilet is not sufficient to meet the need. There was already a cargo pallet based ATGL (Air Transportable Galley-Lavatory) in use with the C-17 and C-130 transports. These aircraft alternate between carrying all cargo, mixed (cargo/passenger) and all-passenger modes. Boeing, the developer of the KC-46 was told to make sure the KC-46 could easily handle the ATGL. It was a simple request for a simple task; just note the ATGL specs and their use on the other transports and the job is done. Like so many other simple design and construction tasks on the KC-46, Boeing got it wrong. They moved the orientation of the ATGL 90 degrees to fit into the KC-46 and did not note that the ATGL anti-spill valve did not work reliably in the new orientation. Boeing did not discover that until the ATGL underwent testing on the KC-46 and the leak problem became obvious. Now a new valve has to be developed and tested, and there is no certainty when that will get done. Based on the many past problems with the KC-46, these avoidable problems take longer than anticipated to fix. Some problems discovered several years ago are still unresolved. It’s not just the KC-46 but all Boeing aircraft developed or modified in the 21st century, and this is mainly due to a management decision to change the selection criteria for senior management to deemphasize an engineering background. That meant upper management had fewer and fewer people with career experience with designing, developing and manufacturing aircraft. Management underestimated how risky that would be.
In the past Boeing management always seemed to be an effective last line of defense against the many current problems showing up with the 737 and 777 airliners and aircraft like the KC-46 which is based on the 737. In hindsight, you could see management problems developing in the 1990s long after Boeing became the most successful aviation company in history. As a result of that, most of the operations in the growing company had little to do with engineers and the production of complex items like aircraft. Promotions to senior management jobs no longer emphasized engineering experience and skill at dealing with tech problems. In 2001 Boeing moved corporate headquarters from the American northwest (Seattle, Washington) where the firm had been founded in 2016, to the larger and more centrally located city of Chicago. A lot was left behind in Seattle and within a decade the impact of that began to appear. In 2018 Boeing had its largest profits ever ($10.4 billion). In 2020 there were record losses of nearly twelve billion dollars.
These recent financial losses threaten the survival of Boeing as a major aircraft developer and manufacturer. The management problems at Boeing are not unique because for several generations the United States has been producing fewer college graduates who majored in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). After World War II the GI Bill made it possible for far more Americans to attend college and because of the growing appearance of impressive new technologies, many of these new college students eagerly took the more difficult STEM subjects and fueled an unprecedented explosion of new companies developing new tech to change the world. Subsequent generations were not as eager to major in and succeed at all those STEM subjects. Colleges cooperated by producing more majors that had good career potential but were not as difficult as STEM. The U.S. was able to get the STEM talent it needed from foreign students who eventually came to be the majority of STEM graduates and faculty. The foreign STEM grads preferred to start their own companies in the U.S. or return home and do it there. Management in American industries gradually lost much of its STEM component and what happened to Boeing is not unique.
Meanwhile the KC-46 continues stumbling towards widespread use by increasingly apprehensive customers. Just before the ATGL problem was revealed, Boeing received its sixth production order for another twelve KC-46s for about $142 million each. This raises the number on order or in service to 79. The air force needs about 200 KC-46s as soon as possible, preferably fit to fly and at least refuel other aircraft. Currently only about 45 KC-46s are operational and the air force is resigned to more delays in full operational capability. The most optimistic estimate of when this would happen is 2024. For generations Boeing was the aircraft manufacturer that got it right the first time and did so more often than anyone else. That tradition has been lost and it was angry customers who noticed it first.
Delivery delays for export customers is already costing Boeing sales because European competitor AirBus has a similar tanker design that works reliably. Some customers prefer buying American. About the same time the new order of KC-46As was made official, and the U.S. and Israel agreed on the sale of eight 46As to Israel. This request came after a year of negotiating and some political opposition by the new American government. The Israelis did not get all they wanted. For example, the IAF (Israeli Air Force) originally asked the United States to supply them with two new KC-46As as soon as possible. While the KC-46A has had some manufacturing problems, once checked over carefully it is good to go as a modern aerial tanker and transport. Moreover the U.S. and Israel have been increasingly dependent on each other for new military technology. The Israelis have proved capable of coming up with solutions to problems with American weapons faster than anyone else. Boeing sees the Israelis as being helpful with getting the 46A to work reliably. Despite all that Israel has to wait two or three years for their first KC-46As.
On the plus side, the elderly U.S. KC-135 tanker fleet is in much better shape than Israeli B-707 tankers. The main problem Israel has is that its 707 based aircraft are very old. The oldest 707 was built in 1958 and the youngest ones are from the 1970s. Most commercial 707s retired decades ago. The last one in commercial service crashed in January 2019, killing fifteen people. Obtaining spare parts has become increasingly difficult. In 2018 the IAF paid Brazil $400,000 for a 707 that was retired ten years earlier, plus a stock of 707 spare parts. The Brazilian 707 was then taken apart for spares. All of the IAF tankers were grounded for more than a month in 2019 because inexperienced civilian maintainers caused an accident that had to be investigated to ensure that there was not a more fundamental problem with the aircraft. Production of civilian 707s ended in 1978 but the production of military versions, which mainly went to the U.S. Air Force, continued into the early 1990s. The United States used to be a primary source of spare parts but now those parts are needed to keep dozens of American military 707s operational.
Earlier in 2019, the air force resumed, after a two-month delay, accepting new KC-46As. That two-month delay was because of FOD (Foreign Object Debris), including tools and other metal objects, still showing up in various parts of the aircraft. This indicated a serious lapse in the management of assembly and quality control while producing these aircraft. By March, after nearly a month of effort to check out aircraft nearly ready for delivery as well as factory inspection procedures, the air force agreed to begin accepting KC-46s once more. Deliveries continued despite a recently discovered cargo lock (unreliable cargo tie-down latches) problem. There were still unresolved software problems with some of the aerial refueling equipment. Similar problems were showing up in Boeing airliners. Americans are now concerned about Boeing, the manufacturer, while also needing the KC-46As as soon as possible. This is the same firm that is having even worse, and more publicized problems with its new 737 Max commercial airliner.
In mid-2019 Boeing planned to deliver 36 KC-46As by the end of 2019 and later expected to meet that goal even though only 19 had been delivered by early September. At the end of the year, the goal of 36 was missed but Boeing did fix the cargo lock problem and this allowed cargo to again be carried. There is one problem left with the accuracy of the remote viewing system used by the 46A boom operator. That does not prevent refueling operations, it just slows down refueling in some cases. Boeing is in a hurry to deliver nearly 200 KC-46As to the air force.
All this was a big change from the success Boeing had with the older and still operational KC-135 tankers. The Boeing 707 commercial transport is actually a civilian version of the original KC-135 of which 732 were built between 1956 and 1965. The KC-135 evolved from the World War II Boeing B-29 heavy bomber. The U.S. Air Force used to be a major player in the second-hand 707 market as the military was, until a decade ago, converting them to military uses (AWACS and J-STARS), but even that has shifted to more modern aircraft designs. By the early 2000s, you would buy an old 707 for less than a million bucks, then spend $25 million turning it into an aerial tanker or several times that to produce an AWACs. These days, the Boeing 737 is preferred for this sort of thing.
That led to the new U.S. Air Force KC-46A tanker aircraft. There were a lot of problems converting 767s to the KC-46, but most were caused by sloppiness at Boeing manufacturing plants. Like the 707 tankers, the KC-46 can also carry cargo, a lot of it. The KC-46A can carry 29.5 tons of cargo in up to 18 pallets. The KC-46A can also carry up to 114 passengers or 58 patients (plus medical personnel).
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 manufacturer absorbed.
The competition between the American (Boeing) and European (AirBus) candidates was actually quite close. The AirBus candidate carries 20 percent more fuel than the Boeing KC-46, plus 37 percent more cargo pallets and passengers. But this apparently worked against the AirBus tanker, as the KC-767 is closer in size to the KC-135, and thus will not require as many new maintenance facilities. The KC-46 is also considered easier and cheaper to maintain. The AirBus KC-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. Boeing developed the KC-46A on its own, at a cost of nearly a billion dollars. Boeing also developed the original KC-135 tanker in the 1950s and has since built over 2,000 of these.
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 were selected for their ability to replace 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 total while each of the underwing pods can deliver a third of that per minute.
With the continued KC-46A delays most export sales went to the KC-45A, now called the A330 MRTT or KC-30A. So far, 50 of these have been ordered by or delivered to Australia, France, NATO, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, South Korea and Britain. The KC-46A has two export customers so far; Israel (8 KC-46As) and Japan (2). Several other nations are considering the KC-46A, but all these problems don’t help with turning consideration into orders.