Aircraft manufacturer Boeing has lost $5 billion so far on its contract to supply the U.S. Air Force with new KC-46A aerial tankers. The problems were all on Boeing and now the air force has decided to proceed with their plan to order another 140 tankers. These are not automatically coming from Boeing. The air force is holding a competition to see who will get the follow-on contract for an existing (non-developmental) tanker. There are only two tankers that qualify; the KC-46 and the Airbus KC-30. Airbus lost the initial competition to Boeing but has been far more successful in getting its KC-30 (formerly KC-45A), now known as the MRTT (Multi-Role Tanker Transport) into production, and has already won over some tanker customers who were originally going to take whatever the Americans were using. Another irony here is that originally the KC-45A/30 was in the lead and won the initial competition. Boeing sued for a do-over and barely won that. The new competition may find Airbus as the only competitor as Boeing may decline to compete, if only to avoid more bad publicity.
KC-46A finally entered service in 2019 but was still dealing with new manufacturing and design problems. The first problem delayed the first deliveries in 2019 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. 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. Deliveries continued despite a recently discovered cargo lock (unreliable cargo tie-down latches) problem. The air force was concerned about Boeing, while also needing the KC-46A as soon as possible. Boeing is the same firm that is having worse problems with its new 737 Max commercial airliner.
Once deliveries began 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 was one problem left with the accuracy of the remote viewing system used by the 46A boom operator. That does not prevent the operation of the aircraft, it slows down refueling in some cases.
In 2021 a problem was discovered involving leaky toilets. Most tankers are based on commercial freighters, 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. 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 must 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.
Boeing was in a hurry to deliver nearly 200 KC-46As to the air force but the air force is now seeking ways to have someone else provide a more reliable tanker. The total value of the project, to replace the aging fleet of KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, was potentially 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 air force planned on ordering over a hundred KC-46As, but the exact number depended on what kind of future aircraft the air force will be using. The air force now wants the Airbus tanker to take over and the current contract with Boeing allows that.
On paper the capabilities of the American (Boeing) and European (AirBus) tanker candidates was quite close. The KC-330 carries 20 percent more fuel than the KC-767, plus 37 percent more cargo pallets 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. 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 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-330s, 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.