The Air Force must be confident of the refueling capabilities of its KC-46 next-generation tanker before approving a full production schedule, The program cost for the Air Force next-generation tanker has dropped and the KC-46 appears to be on schedule, but the service still needs to make sure one of its top acquisition programs can effectively demonstrate its capabilities before the Air Force decides to move forward with production, the Government Accountability Office said in a new recent report to Congress.

The acquisition cost estimate for the KC-46 has fallen 5.4 percent from $51.7 billion in February 2011 to $48.9 billion in December, with much of the cost dropping due to fewer engineering changes, according to the GAO.

The Air Force had delayed its decision on the full production of the aircraft until October based on wiring problems that delayed testing and aircraft delivery. In 2014, Boeing planned 400 hours of flight testing on a test version of the KC-46, but was only able to accomplish 3.5 hours, according to the GAO. Now the company, with Air Force approval, has reprogrammed its testing away from a planned 2,400-hour development flight test hour plan to just demonstrating key refueling capabilities.

"Significantly less testing will now be conducted prior to the decision and only three test months will be on a KC-46, compared to the original plan of 13 months," the GAO wrote. "This testing is intended to demonstrate design maturity and fix design and performance problems before a system enters production. Boeing remains at risk of not being able to demonstrate the aerial refueling capabilities in time to meet the new production decision date due to late parts deliveries, software defects, and flight test cycle assumptions, which could result in additional delays."

The Air Force in a response to the report agreed with the decision to hold off on the production decision until the key capabilities are proven.

Boeing was expected to conduct the first flight of the KC-46A Pegasus this month, but it instead is facing a "several month" delay due to a slim margin built in the testing schedule and a need to get airworthiness certifications.

"The worrying news is that underneath those contractual and milestone requirements, there are a whole lot of other milestones," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Defense News last month. "This is the internal plan for how do you get from here to there to meet the milestones. That's where there have been challenges and slippages and so forth, so that is the worrying part."

Boeing has said its focus is on a contractual requirement for 18 ready tankers by 2017, and that its first flight milestones are targets, not obligations. The service expects to have a full fleet of 179 of the tankers.

The acquisition cost estimate for the KC-46 has fallen 5.4 percent from $51.7 billion in February 2011 to $48.9 billion in December, with much of the cost dropping due to fewer engineering changes, according to the GAO.

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