Roper: KC-46 Is Trending In Right Direction

Credit: Boeing

Despite ongoing problems with the Boeing KC-46, the U.S. Air Force is likely to continue to purchase the flawed aircraft at a rate of 15 per year, the service’s acquisition chief says.

“If we accept fewer than 15 we incur a cost penalty, and 12 is the minimum we can accept,” Will Roper said during a Feb. 27 House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee hearing. 

Roper was under some pressure to explain to lawmakers why that is the case, given ongoing problems with the Remote Vision System (RVS) that helps the aerial refueling tanker transfer fuel to other aircraft. 

Although early attempts by Boeing to solve the problem have failed, Roper said he has seen more progress in the last three weeks on the matter than in the past year. Eighteen months ago, he said, “we didn’t understand how to look at performance specifications without knowing whether it would work.”

The service has assembled a team of human vision experts from the U.S. Air Force and Boeing. That team was asked for a list of basic technical characteristics that would ensure an RVS would work and could be measured to ensure that it would work in the field. And since the first KC-46 was accepted, the service has modified the contract from the “vague language of the firm-fixed-price” document to nine critical performance specifications.

“Though we have more work to do, the commitment that I have with Boeing is that science will lead the future of the program. We will be data driven. We will be science driven, and as long as we stay in that technical framework, I’m confident of getting an agreement quickly that will pass muster.”

The RVS is more complicated than Boeing envisioned, Roper said. After a lot of study, the Air Force has learned that operator age, gender and pupillary distance can all affect how well the system works. Now they are measuring many more factors to ensure that the RVS represents the 3D reality that exists outside the aircraft, he said.

“Things are a lot better when you have technical people leading. You get to agreements faster. So I’m excited for the future of the program as long as scientists and engineers continue to lead,” he said. “I wish I could say more. We’re still negotiating with Boeing. But we’re making progress, and we’re trending in the right direction.”

Rep. Rob Wittman (Va.), the panel’s top Republican, said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently testified that a final fix may be delayed by two years. “With these deficiencies, is it wise to go to full-rate production on KC-46A? Should we not pause to minimum acceptable delivery rate under the contract until we get permanent fixes to both the hardware and software?”

In addition to citing the potential loss of money in halting tanker production, Roper appealed to Wittman for more time. “Give me a few weeks to continue to work the details, but I’m excited about the KC-46 for the first time,” Roper said.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.


1 Comment
Does the KC-46 not have a Boom Pod that the Boom Operatior can look out directly at the receiver aircraft. That seemed to work pretty well in the KC-135.