A critical component of the Air Force’s KC-46A aerial refueling tanker that has been caught up in a difficult development has made more progress in the past month than in the entire previous year, a sign the program is trending in the right direction, Air Force Acquisition Chief Will Roper told a House Armed Services Committee (HASC) panel on Thursday.
Eighteen months ago, the program didn’t know how to design the Remote Vision System (RVS) and whether it would work before it was produced, Roper told the HASC Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces. At that point, the program brought on scientists from the Air Force and Boeing to lead the way on the RVS and make sure it will work before it is built, he said.
“Over the last year Boeing has been trying to tweak the current design,” Roper said. “Over the last three weeks I’ve seen the team make more progress than they did during the year that preceded it, with the scientists really converging quickly on the designs that will pass.”
Just a little later in his testimony, Roper said “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a program make this much progress this fast,” referring to the work accomplished in the last three weeks.
Boeing [BA] is developing and producing the KC-46A for the Air Force.
Roper said Boeing has committed that “science will lead the future of the program,” he said, noting that this is a key element to future success even though there is still work to do. The Air Force is still negotiating with Boeing but the program is “trending in the right direction and trending quickly.”
“And as long as we stay in that technical framework, I’m very confident of getting to an agreement quickly that will pass muster for the warfighter and for the taxpayer as well,” Roper said.
Understanding how human vision with different people works with the RVS display has been a challenge but is now understood, he said, adding that the scientists on the program are letting the Air Force know which designs will work and which ones won’t for refueling operations.
The RVS will allow operators aboard the KC-46A to refuel the aircraft using a display rather than the traditional eyeballs on the refueling boom and receptacle on the aircraft being refueled in flight. The RVS is one of three major deficiencies on the KC-46A, which has achieved initial operating capability but can’t be used for refueling operations until the RVS and other deficiencies are fixed.
Roper said issues with the refueling boom will be fixed before the RVS is ready.
In January, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told the committee that the RVS timelines wouldn’t be met and would slip two years based on Boeing’s latest proposal, Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), the ranking member on the subcommittee, said during the hearing.
“I have seen the change in the last three weeks,” Roper replied, saying pressure from Goldfein and other senior leaders in the Air Force and from Congress is being felt on the program and “helping us trend in the right direction.” He said he needs a few more weeks to “work the details” and that he is “excited about the future of the KC-46 for the first time.”
The contract requires the Air Force to take delivery of at least 15 aircraft per year to avoid a cost penalty. The service also has to accept at least 12 aircraft or it will breach the contract, Roper said.
The Air Force has gone from taking delivery of nearly three KC-46As monthly in 2019 to 2.2 now and 1.25 at the end of 2020 to maintain a buy of 15 per year, Roper said.
Once the RVS problem is solved, fixes will be retrofitted to aircraft that have been delivered and cut into the production line, allowing the program to proceed to full-rate production, Roper said.
With the KC-46A coming online later than expected, Air Force warfighters have warned about a capacity gap in refueling assets as the Air Force also seeks to retire some legacy tankers.
Wittman said in his opening remarks that KC-46A production needs to be slowed down and that legacy aircraft need to be retained to maintain refueling capacity.
Subcommittee Chairman Joe Courtney (D-Conn.) also raised concerns about the tanker fleet and retiring legacy aircraft while reducing the production rate on the KC-46A.
Courtney said that while the RVS fixes are being developed, “the budget asks this committee to authorize the retirement of tankers as the aircraft meant to replace them cannot be flown operationally. Our mobility commanders are raising serious alarms about the critical gaps this will create in our aerial refueling requirements. This subcommittee has been and will continue to scrutinize whether the Air Force’s stopgap plan is the right approach.”