The Pentagon has OK’d production of the KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling tanker, clearing the way for the Air Force to award a $2.8 billion contract to aerospace giant Boeing to buy the first 19 jets.
The Dayton region and Ohio have large stakes in the future production of the tanker jet: The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Tanker Directorate manages the program with more than 170 employees at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Ohio is major aerospace supplier to Boeing.
“It will definitely strengthen our posture here in the state of Ohio … especially since it’s all managed here,” said Kerry D. Taylor, director of the Aerospace Hub of Innovation and Opportunity in Dayton and a retired Air Force colonel.
The long-awaited decision to assemble the tanker at Boeing’s manufacturing center in Washington state arrives after flight tests ended this summer. A contract to buy the first jets is expected within a month.
The aerial tanker “will become the backbone of the refueling fleet,” said Daryl Mayer, an Air Force program spokesman.
The upcoming production contract will be in addition to the $4.9 billion spent on Pegasus development, he said Monday.
‘Very old tanker fleet’
Aerospace and defense analysts said the Air Force needs to replace aging Cold War-era tankers. The Air Force expects to purchase 179 KC-46 jets, based on the Boeing 767, to replace the KC-135 Stratotanker, a mainstay workhorse last assembled in the mid-1960s.
The Air Force has 414 KC-135 tankers, and more than half fly in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. The active-duty Air Force also has 59 KC-10 Extenders built in the 1980s.
“The Air Force has a very old tanker fleet and it gets older every year,” said Richard Aboulafia, a senior aerospace analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group. “Starting to replace 400 jets at a rate of 15 per year is a recipe for a fleet that keeps getting older for years to come.
“One risk is concurrency, which is when design changes are made after production has started, and those changes have to be inserted into the existing fleet,” he added in an email. “Hopefully there’s not much risk of that at this point, but you can’t rule it out.”
The design of the Cold War-era KC-135 was based on the Boeing 707 jetliner retired decades ago by commercial airlines, noted Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Virginia and a defense industry consultant. Boeing was “well positioned” to produce more KC-46s in the future, he added.
The development of the KC-46 hasn’t been without technical challenges. A Boeing spokesman confirmed Monday the company has absorbed $1.9 billion in pre-tax cost overruns on the fixed-price $4.9 billion development contract.
Program officials have cited complexities with refueling systems that caused delays in testing, among other hurdles.
The delivery of the first fleet production KC-46 was postponed from next March to August 2017, with the 18th aircraft set to arrive in January 2018.
“Boeing bid aggressively to win the tanker contract,” Thompson said in an email. “In fact, it knew it would lose money on development but bet it could make the losses back in production and sustainment. By bidding to win, it managed to preserve a 60-year franchise in aerial refueling for the joint force.
“The bottom line on Pegasus is that if this program did not exist, there are a lot of places around the world that U.S. fighters and bombers wouldn’t be able to reach in the future,” Thompson wrote.
The KC-46 can haul more than 212,000 pounds of fuel and can be configured to carry a maximum of 114 passengers, or 65 patients on an aeromedical evacuation mission, figures show.
This summer, the newest tanker refueled a C-17 Globemaster III, an F-16 Fighting Falcon, an A-10 Thunderbolt II and a KC-10 Extender through a refueling boom. A hose and drogue system — used by the Navy and Marine Corps — refueled a Navy F/A-18 and a Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier. A wing tip refueling pod that uses a hose and drogue will be delivered in October 2018, according to Boeing.
Ohio is a top supplier to Boeing. The Chicago-headquartered aerospace giant spent $12.2 billion in Ohio in 2015 and it has more than 380 suppliers and vendors that directly or indirectly support 400,000 jobs, newspaper archives show.