New KC-46 Charge Highlights Rift Between Boeing, USAF

Credit: USAF

Boeing on Jan. 26 reported another charge of $402 million on the KC-46, bringing the total cost overruns for the tanker to about $5.4 billion, and the way the company announced it highlights an ongoing rift with the U.S. Air Force.

Boeing and the service are working to fix the tanker’s biggest problem—its Remote Vision System—by overhauling the aircraft’s system of cameras, sensors and the boom operator’s station. But Aerospace DAILY reported earlier this month that a preliminary design review of the new system has been delayed because of deficiencies with a panoramic visual system.

“The charge was primarily driven by evolving customer requirements for the remote vision system, as well as factor and supply chain disruptions including the impact of COVID-19,” Boeing CFO Brian West said during an earnings call with investors (See story p. 1). “While we continue to work closely with the Air Force on RVS 2.0, the KC-46 is currently successfully flying refueling missions with operators having delivered more than 60 million pounds of fuel to a wide array of aircraft.”

In a follow-up statement, Boeing spokeswoman Deborah VanNierop said the evolving requirements are “continued RVS 2.0 development to include the panoramic display issue.” Even with the ongoing issue, the Air Force has said the overall development is on schedule.

“Despite the charge, again, which we don’t feel great about by any respect, but the tanker today is an incredible asset for our customer and now serves 70% of the missions that were intended in the development of the tanker,” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said in the call. “And our job is to continue to deliver the tanker and to do it more expeditiously as we move forward. The good news is our customer likes the performance of the airplane.”

The disagreement with the Air Force centers on the deliberations over the way ahead with the panoramic visual system and whether the need to fix it is an “evolving” requirement. 

The panoramic vision system consists of three cameras on the belly of the aircraft, which feed into three screens in the boom operator’s station. The cameras stitch together a 185-deg. view of the areas behind the aircraft to detect incoming receivers. The Air Force requires the system to be able to detect an incoming receiver at a sufficient distance so the boom operator can prepare the refueling operation. But the current system is not able to automatically detect the receiver to the extent the Air Force wants. 

The service wants the fix to the panoramic display system included as part of the RVS 2.0 preliminary design review, because any changes after closing the PDR would come at an additional cost to the Air Force. Boeing contends the panoramic visual system fix is not a requirement of the RVS 2.0 plan, and as such it would require separate funding.

“The [Department of the Air Force] has not yet accepted the completed design or closed the PDR,” the service said earlier this month. “The RVS 2.0 design will be incorporated into the contract and become a government-furnished design specification at PDR closure.”

Air Mobility Command in a statement said it remains confident that the joint Air Force and Boeing technical team will identify and address the deficiencies. The PDR closure was originally expected in the fall of 2021.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.


I believe the RVS was part of the original specification, and the USAF's objection was the 'rubber banding' effect caused by faulty software stitching the three camera images together.
Image recognition software is common, most camera's can pick out faces in a scene; even a crowd. So an incoming receiver in a blank sky should be easy, even in poor light conditions.
Boeing are quoting 'evolving requirements' to recoup some of the cash their poor attitude has cost them, instead of just working to the original contracted specification.
What system does the Airbus tanker use?
Airbus MRTT looks like a superior aircraft, all around.
If I'm not mistaken, KC-767s have been in use by Italy and Japan for a decade or more. Those tankers also have flying boom refueling systems, but how are they operated? By remote video, or do the operators lie on their bellies and look outside like in the KC-135s? Presumably, the USAF's specs are more demanding in multiple facets, but could someone explain why the KC-767s seem to be working adequately whereas the KC-46 is just another Boeing basket case? Thank you.
My father pointed out, 50 years ago, that part of the game was that the contractor had overruns and the Air Force found they wanted upgrades. The renegotiation process meant the contractor had an opportunity to recoup some or all of their losses. I would add that, depending on the case, that might be at least semi-fair, as building something new does involve considerable uncertainty. On the other hand, low balling in the expectation that mods will provide a means of getting a profit after the fact, so to speak, is not a wonderful way for the system to run.
Bernard Biales
Why would the Air Force ever think that a remote TV screen system would be better or safer than an operator-direct-view system that has worked for nearly 70 years?
There is no manpower savings, since you still need a boom operator. When the electrics fail you have no backup in a remote TV system.
You can't duplicate depth perception and 3-D optics on a TV screen equal to that of a human operator.
Designers, spec writers and engineers who have never been on the receiving end of a boom at night in weather and turbulence should have had someone in the Air Force actually doing reality checks before it got to the problem it is right now.
What a shame that politics nixed the Airbus MRTT order. Their tankers are happily in service.