The U.S. Defense Department has approved the Air Force's new KC-46A Pegasus refueling tanker for initial production despite recent technical challenges that resulted in program delays.
The service late last week announced that Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, approved the Boeing Co.-made aircraft based on the 767 airliner for low-rate initial production, known in acquisition parlance as Milestone C.
"I commend the team for diligently working through some difficult technical challenges," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, said in a statement.
Earlier in the week, she suggested Kendall's decision might not come until later in the month and that failure by Congress to approve a budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would hurt the acquisition effort.
Under a continuing resolution, "KC-46 production would be capped at 12 aircraft," not the 15 as proposed in the fiscal 2017 budget, and the result would be to "delay operational fielding of this platform," James said.
Parts of the plane that required reworking included 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 (which was overhauled after workers loaded a mislabeled chemical into it); and wiring and software.
Boeing has reportedly spent more than $1.2 billion on the repairs, including installing hydraulic pressure relief valves to alleviate "higher than expected axial loads in the boom" discovered in tests to refuel the C-17 Globemaster III, according to the Air Force statement.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein said he was confident "the KC-46 is ready to take the next step."
Meanwhile, Darlene Costello, an acquisition executive with the service, said, "I appreciate Boeing's continued focus as they work to finish development prior to first aircraft delivery."
Boeing plans to deliver the first 18 KC-46As to the service by January 2018, a date that was previously scheduled for August 2017.
The Air Force within the next month will award the Chicago-based aerospace giant two contracts with a combined value of $2.8 billion for 19 aircraft.
The service 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, the website Trading Alpha has reported.
The Air Force has selected as preferred bases for the aircraft Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas, and Pease Air National Guard Base in New Hampshire.