A New, Hopeful Chapter for the Air Force Tanker

Construction of a key component of the refueling aircraft is underway.

By: Shane Harris

There's a spot of good news to report in the Air Force's frustrated quest to replace its aging fleet of aerial refueling tankers, which allow the United States to project military force around the world. Boeing, which is building the aircraft, has begun assembling the refueling boom for the new tanker. It's a crucial step, because without the boom, a long telescopic rod that dispenses a torrent of jet fuel, the tankers are little more than flying gas stations with no pumps. 

We wrote about the years-long struggle to build a new tanker, which started with an ill-fated attempt to lease the aircraft instead of buying them outright. The tanker saga is truly one of the great stories of Washington disfunction, an object lesson for future military leaders in how not to buy big expensive weapons systems. So this latest milestone, which apparently occurred as scheduled, will come as welcome news. 

National Defense, which has a good write up about the latest developments, correctly notes that "'on schedule' and 'ahead of schedule' are two phrases that have not traditionally been associated" with the tanker story. The pub quotes noted aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia—probably the most well-informed observer of the tanker program—as saying that ultimately, the contract will prove profitable for Boeing. The company beat its rival EADS in a price-shootout to win the tanker deal last year. 

Boeing is assembling the boom in Seattle. The company has also set up a new facility to test commercial avionics and software. And a new "finishing center," where military hardware and software will be installed on the tanker airframe is scheduled to open in late 2013, the company says. If all goes according to schedule, Boeing will deliver 18 combat-ready tankers by 2017. From there, the company plans to build 179 aircraft, which will be known as the KC-46A.