The 737 Max isn’t Boeing’s only airplane that suffers from malfunctions. Its new aerial refueling tanker — the type of plane that makes it possible for the Air Force’s aircraft to traverse long distances while being based a safe distance away from enemy attacks — is also riddled with problems.
And yet, the Pentagon earmarked $2.85 billion in the 2020 budget for 15 Boeing aircraft it can’t use — while retiring 29 refueling tankers that still work fine to free up resources for the new planes. With military leaders headed to Capitol Hill this week to testify about their budget priorities for 2021, lawmakers need to hold them accountable for the decision.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently admitted that the Boeings have “profound problems” and are not yet suitable for “day-to-day operations.” Yet the planes that refuel the Air Force’s bombers, fighters, surveillance and cargo planes in mid-air are in near-constant demand, and are frequently called upon to do double-duty as cargo planes themselves.
Right now the Pentagon relies upon an unparalleled fleet of around 450 KC-135s and KC-10s for this job. But some of those tankers are now over 60 years old, and the Air Force has been trying since 2001 to find a replacement for the aging planes. Unlike developing cutting-edge new stealth fighters, devising an updated tanker should have been a fairly straightforward matter of outfitting a newer airliner with proven air-refueling technology.
But due to a lengthy odyssey involving overt corruption and poor decisions, nearly 20 years later the Air Force is left purchasing an expensive new aircraft that still doesn’t work. And according to an Air Force general, the replacements aren’t expected to be capable of performing missions abroad for three more years.
That means the hard-pressed Air Mobility Command will need to meet the same demands with fewer aircraft — or, some argue, even pay private contractors to furnish additional refueling services — in the meantime.
From the beginning, the tanker replacement program has been beset by scandal. Back in 2003, observers raised eyebrows when the Air Force stated it would lease 100 767-based tankers from Boeing instead of buying them outright, as is the standard practice. Then it emerged civilian Air Force official Darleen Druyun had been essentially working for Boeing from the inside in exchange for a high-paying job with the company. The suspicious leasing arrangement was axed, while Druyun and Boeing’s chief financial officer were convicted of corruption.
A new tanker replacement competition saw Boeing’s design, based on its civilian 767 airliner, defeated by a competing offer from Airbus/Northrop Grumman in 2008. But here, too, there was controversy. Boeing complained the competition had been conducted unfairly, and the Government Accountability Office sided with Boeing — so the replacement competition had to be restarted again.
Boeing was expected to once more lose to Airbus — but it emerged the winner in 2011, apparently due to having underbid on the price, gambling that it could make money back in the long term through additional sales and exports. Indeed, in 2019 Boeing openly boasted to potential export clients that they would essentially receive free research and development funding for their Pegasus aircraft paid for by U.S. Air Force dollars.
Boeing also made another bad bet with its new design: The company decided to outfit its airliner-based aerial refuelers, the KC-46 Pegasus, with an unnecessary but nifty-sounding improvement: a refueling pipe, or boom in Air Force jargon, that could be remotely controlled from the cockpit.
(The current stable of Air Force tankers uses a pipe manually guided by a crew member peering through a window in the plane’s belly.) But in testing, the remote video screen sometimes shows distorted imagery, causing the refueling pipe to bang into the receiving airplane and potentially inflicting costly damage.
Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, opposed accepting deliveries of the Boeing tankers until the problems were fixed, putting the onus on Boeing to correct the issue first. But after he resigned, the new acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, was a former Boeing executive. He recused himself from involvement in the deal, but undersecretary of defense for acquisitions Ellen Lord authorized accepting the deliveries.
Soon after in early 2019, the Pentagon began receiving the aircraft despite the persistence of problems that “may cause … major damage to a weapon system.” It’s trying to compensate by withholding up to $28 million from each Pegasus (which cost $230 million each) until the problem is resolved, and Boeing has agreed to bear some of the cost for fixing it.
Meanwhile, serious new problems cropped up. The Air Force repeatedly froze deliveries of the unusable planes later in 2019 after maintenance personnel discovered Boeing technicians had left behind tools, nuts, bolts and trash in the airframe that could cause damage mid-flight. And then the fleet was temporarily banned from cargo flights when floor cargo restraints came undone without apparent cause.
Though senior Air Force officials have sent angry letters and issued stern warnings to Boeing regarding a lack of progress in fixing the faulty remote-control camera system, at this point the Air Force is too committed to the Pegasus to pull out.
The Pentagon is currently locked in a weird hostage relationship with Boeing in which it has to negotiate over how to spend research and development funding.
The bulk of its tanker fleet are aging out, and the Pegasus does come with useful improvements, such as more fuel-efficient engines and compatibility with Navy jets, which use a different refueling system. And the planes have new defenses as tankers are expected to become more vulnerable to attack.
So now the Pentagon is currently locked in a weird hostage relationship with Boeing in which it has to negotiate over how to spend research and development funding to make sure the non-mission-capable aircraft it has purchased eventually work. It's scandalous that Boeing was forgiven so many past screw-ups that it ended up in a position where the Air Force has to beg it to fix the dysfunctional airplanes the company is delivering.
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