Boeing Tanker to Miss Delivery Date, Air Force Secretary Says

(Bloomberg) -- Boeing Co. won’t deliver its first KC-46 aerial refueling tanker by month’s end as it had agreed, according to U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, the latest in a procession of missed deadlines since the company won the contract in 2011.

Air Force officials are meeting with the planemaker Wednesday “to try to lay down the path forward for delivery and to make sure the deficiencies that have been identified are taken care of in a way that brings that aircraft in as promised,” Wilson told editors and reporters in a roundtable at Bloomberg headquarters in New York.

The Air Force and Boeing had anticipated delivery October 27 of the first of the tankers, supposedly settling a disagreement over timing for the much-delayed $44.3 billion program. That first of 179 tankers was originally supposed to be delivered in April to June of 2016.

While the tanker still has unresolved deficiencies with its system for midair refueling, the latest delivery date “slippage really was directly attributable” to the need to wait for certification by the Federal Aviation Administration in September that the aircraft’s refueling and mission avionics system met agency standards, Wilson said. It was “a little later than they expected,” she said of Boeing.

“I’m not angry about it,” Wilson said of the latest delay. “We have some deficiencies that we are working through with Boeing to make sure those are corrected” and that the aircraft “we get flies, tanks, defends itself and does what it’s supposed to do.”

Boeing said in a Sept. 4 press release that the FAA certification was “one of the last major hurdles in advance of first delivery.”

Todd Blecher, a spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing, said in a statement that Wednesday’s meeting “is part of our productive dialogue with the Air Force and will help lead us to delivering this essential new air refueling capability during the fourth quarter.”

Other topics discussed during the roundtable with Wilson, a former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico and an Air Force veteran:

Hurricane-Damaged F-22s

Hurricane Michael did major damage to Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, a repair site for the F-22 air-to-air fighter that was built by Lockheed Martin Corp. and is no longer in production. The base has facilities for repairing and maintaining the plane’s stealthy features.

Ninety-five percent of the buildings have damage and hangars “are in terrible shape,” she said, but “there was less damage to aircraft than we feared.” Asked why all of the F-22s weren’t flown out ahead of the storm, she said that some that were under repair couldn’t be readied to fly on short notice.

She said the Air Force “won’t really know the condition that they’re in until we power them up and check them all out, but the damage is far less than we feared, looking at the buildings themselves.”

Maintaining F-35s

Wilson called Lockheed’s F-35 jet a “game-changer” but acknowledged the challenges maintaining the costliest U.S. weapons system over decades to come. The Air Force is buying more than 1,700 of the Pentagon’s planned 2,456 F-35s.

“The spare-parts lines and depot lines were not set up fast enough,” she said. “One of the things we’re doing is trying to accelerate the setting up of the depot, so we can drive down the cost of maintenance and get the parts flowing to the depot faster.”

Artificial Intelligence

Alphabet Inc.’s Google decided this year not to renew a contract for a Pentagon drone video-analysis program and dropped out of the competition for a $10 billion cloud contract after employees protested that the technologies they devise could be used to kill people.

Wilson said computing technology decreases civilian casualties by targeting bombs with enhanced precision. “War is a terrible thing, but computing power has made justice in war and the protection of innocence easier than it was 30 years ago,” she said.

However, Wilson said she agreed with critics that letting a machine decide who to kill was a red line that shouldn’t be crossed.

“The idea that if a machine can make a faster decision, uninformed by values, should that machine be allowed to operate -- I think America will draw the line on the legitimacy of the use of force,” she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.