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Air Force Readies Future Tanker for Production

The U.S. Air Force has awarded the first major production contract for its new refueling tanker.

The service on Thursday awarded Boeing Co. a $2.8 billion modification to a previously awarded contract for the first two lots of low-rate initial production of the KC-46A Pegasus refueling tanker, according to the announcement.

The agreement calls for a total of 19 aircraft, four spare engines and 10 wing refueling pod kits across both lots, the announcement states. Work will be performed in Seattle and completed by Aug. 24, 2018, it states.

Earlier this week, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer, approved the 767 airliner-based aircraft for low-rate initial production, known in acquisition parlance as Milestone C.

The move came despite recent technical challenges that has resulted in program delays.

Boeing had initially planned to deliver the first tranche of airplanes by August 2017, but that was pushed back until at least January 2018 in part because of parts of the aircraft needed to be reworked.

The Chicago-based aerospace giant has already spent more than $1.2 billion on repairs to the aircraft, including such features as the boom used to refuel Air Force planes (hoses extend from the body and wings to refuel Navy and Marine Corps aircraft, as well as those from allies); the fuel system (overhauled after workers loaded a mislabeled chemical into it); and wiring and software.

Even so, to reach the acquisition milestone, the aircraft performed refueling flights with numerous aircraft, including the F-16, F/A-18, AV-8B, KC-10, C-17 and A-10, according to Boeing. It also demonstrated cargo handling. The multi-role tanker can not only refuel U.S. and coalition aircraft, but also carry passengers, cargo and patients, the company says.

"The KC-46 tanker will provide the Air Force unprecedented refueling capabilities, operational flexibility and combat readiness," Leanne Caret, president of Boeing's defense, space and security unit, said in a statement.

The Air Force plans to spend $48 billion to develop and build 179 of the planes to replace its aging fleet of KC-135s, according to Pentagon budget documents. Boeing forecasts an $80 billion global market for the new tankers.

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