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KC-46 progress hinges on requirements, funding stability

WASHINGTON (AFNS) --

An Air Force official announced Sept. 17, 2013 that production has started on the service’s new air refueling tanker, beginning with flight test aircraft.

In a presentation at the Air Force Association's 2013 Air & Space Conference & Technology Exposition, Maj. Gen. John Thompson, Air Force program executive officer for Tankers, outlined continued progress in the KC-46’s design and acquisition timeline.

Eighteen combat-ready KC-46 aircraft are slated to be made by 2017, and will eventually replace about a third of the current KC-135 Stratotanker fleet.

"The tanker crews -- pilots, boom operators, maintainers -- are conducting about 150 sorties and refueling about 450 aircraft a day, keeping the 'global' in global reach, global vigilance and global power," Thompson said.

While today’s refueling fleet has done the job, the general said a new aircraft is needed.

"The KC-135s are nearly 51-years old. It is a fantastic weapon system, but our operators and maintainers need something new and better."

In August, Air Force officials locked down the KC-46 design – an important milestone for the program. 

Finalizing the design, Thompson said, represented 10 months of component and subsystem design examinations, which allowed the program to progress into its manufacturing and test phases.

The review processes benefited from commercial and Department of Defense best practices, leading to overall improvements and projected cost-savings, Thompson said.

Concurrent with preparations for the flight test phase of the program, officials are working to ensure technical performance is verified. 

Lead contractor Boeing, meanwhile, is continuing to produce four test aircraft for flight testing, which is scheduled to begin in mid-2014.

Based on Boeing's 767, the first aircraft to be assembled will begin test in a 767-2C provisioned freighter configuration before undergoing modification to become a KC-46 tanker.  The second aircraft is projected to fly as a KC-46 tanker in early 2015, with an expected delivery of 179 KC-46 tankers by 2028, Thompson said.

As the process moves from drawing to metal, Thompson said the program hit a number of milestones this year, including the award of a training contract, base selection for the tanker in May, and the start of production on the first test aircraft in late June.

Assembly of the second test aircraft began in August, putting the program on track to have four test aircraft assembled by the middle of next year.

"We are 40 percent done with the development program ... and most of the requirements have been met early," Thompson said. "Our way forward is to continue with good contract execution, to prepare for and execute an efficient test program, and to develop the long-term sustainment strategy for the future KC-46 fleet."

Thompson said while there is a considerable amount of uncertainty relative to sequestration in fiscal 2014, maintaining stability and support for the program is essential to keeping the pace of the process.

"Requirements and funding stability are absolutely key," the general said. "As the number one modernization program, I'm sure (Air Force leaders) will do what they can to protect this very critical program as we go forward."

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