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Air Force disputes testers on KC-46 tanker

Jan. 19, 2012 - 07:18PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 19, 2012 - 07:18PM  |  

The Air Force disputes the assessment by the Pentagon's top tester that the test program for its prized KC-46 tanker program is not executable.

"The Air Force respects the opinions of the Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation, but does not agree with its assessment that the KC-46 test program is ‘not executable,'" Air Force spokeswoman Jennifer Cassidy said in an email. "The Air Force does acknowledge that Boeing's overall KC-46 program schedule is considered medium risk, in part due to its aggressive flight-test schedule."

Cassidy wrote that the service worked with plane-maker Boeing, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the Pentagon's operational and developmental test force to build a plan that is comparable to the flight test programs for other commercial-derivative aircraft. She cited the KC-10 tanker program as an example.

"The Air Force structured the KC-46 program to ensure that no decision to enter operational test or production would be made without first meeting specific and measurable flight test results," Cassidy wrote. "The Air Force also structured the KC-46 development contract as a fixed price contract to protect the DoD and taxpayers from any cost growth on the program if the test program is not executed as planned."

Earlier in the month, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's chief tester, found in his annual report that the program will likely need at least eight more months than planned by the Air Force and the prime contractor Boeing. That test schedule for the KC-46A tanker is far too ambitious and "not executable," Gilmore said.

According to the report, the test program includes several "deficiencies." The number of proposed flight hours per test aircraft, per month, exceeds "the historical average that the Air Force and Navy have experienced during other large aircraft test programs," the document says.

In addition, the monthly schedule "is far too aggressive for flight tests that are more specialized, higher risk and more resource-intensive" than Federal Aviation Administration certification, the report says. The Air Force acknowledged last fall that Boeing's flight test schedule is so aggressive; the company stands to lose money early on.

The development portion of the KC-46A contract — which the Air Force awarded to Boeing last February— has a ceiling of $4.83 billion. Boeing estimates the program's cost at $5.2 billion, which means that the company will swallow a loss of about $300 million unless it can bring costs down, Shay Assad, the director of defense pricing, told lawmakers in October. The entire program, including development and production of 179 aircraft, is valued at more than $30 billion.

Boeing officials said they were unable to comment by press time.

Cassidy said, "The Air Force will continue to work with the Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation and all our test stakeholders to ensure the test program is executed in an effective and efficient manner."

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