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“Fill ‘Er Up!” Why It’s Taken the Pentagon Nearly Two Decades to Buy a New Aerial Tanker

Corruption, complexity, and cost increases have fouled up a pretty simple purchase
A KC-46 aerial tanker prepares to refuel an F-15 fighter during a test over California last year. (Photo: U.S. Air Force / Master Sgt. Michael Jackson)

Cars have had backup cameras for years. Pilots have had fly-by-wire controls for even longer. So why shouldn’t the airmen who have been getting down on their bellies for decades at the back end of the Air Force’s aerial tankers get some of that nifty technology? That way, they can sit up in the front of the plane with their buddies and refuel warplanes remotely. (This kind of thinking is why some refer to the service as the Chair Force.)

A peculiar Pentagon pathology: why go with the tried-and-true when there is a more complicated and costly way that might work?

Well, that’s exactly what the Air Force is trying to do in its brand-new KC-46 Pegasus tanker with its “fly-by-wire refueling boom.” Unfortunately, it’s not going well. Beyond the plethora of production delays and cost overruns common to almost all Pentagon programs, the KC-46 is still having problems performing its key mission—refueling other airplanes—and will for years. (The snafus come at a particularly bad time for Boeing: the company’s new 737 Max 8 airliners have become the subject of intense scrutiny following two crashes, one in October that killed all 189 aboard, and a second on March 10 in which all 157 onboard died.)

But it does illustrate—very well, alas—a peculiar Pentagon pathology: why go with the tried-and-true (aerial refueling with manually-operated booms dates back to the Truman Administration) when there is a more complicated and costly way that might work? It also illustrates, gulp, a welter of corruption and conflicts that has led to a nearly 20-year quest to replace the Air Force’s aging tanker fleet, most of which is now eligible for AARP membership.

An Air Force boom operator aboard a KC-135 aerial tanker refuels an F-35.
(Photo: U.S. Air Force / John R. Nimmo, Sr.)

All kidding aside, aerial tankers are the unsung heroes of U.S. military deployments. Basically flying gas stations, the Air Force’s fleet of about 500 tankers, almost all of them KC-135s, is one of the Pentagon’s most amazing marvels. Without them, U.S. warplanes, including those flown by the Navy and Marines, would be restricted to short flights over their targets, and forced to be based in war zones. The tanker fleet doesn’t get a lot of love, but it should. As the boomers themselves like to say: “Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas.”

I’ve been on both ends of aerial refueling missions. Flying over southeastern Turkey, it was amazing to squat next to the boom operator as he fed fuel to F-16s flying Operation Northern Watch, the no-fly zone the U.S. and its allies imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from 1997 until the U.S. invasion six years later. And I recall sitting in the jump seat of the cockpit aboard the E-4B “doomsday plane”—the modified Boeing 747 from which a U.S. president would wage nuclear war—as we gulped fuel several times during an around-the-world trip in 1998 (including one 22-hour leg). Most of us on the flight were told to move to the front of the plane to avoid the stomach-churning “porpoising” that could happen as the E-4B’s nose held steady during refueling, while its tail rose and fell like the marine mammal jumping above the waves. It sure beat landing for an hour or two to refuel.

Despite serving as the backbone of U.S. airpower, these lumbering beasts lack the glamour of sleek fighters and hulking bombers. The tankers’ humdrum mission is one reason. And, for a relatively simple airplane that is a modified version of the commercial airliners anyone can fly on, the Air Force has had a tough time replacing them.

The first try started in 2001, when the service began exploring the idea of leasing 100 modified Boeing 767s for $20 billion. Congressional auditors warned the deal would cost nearly $6 billion more than simply buying the planes. The proposal collapsed shortly thereafter, when Darleen Druyun, the Air Force’s chief acquisition official and a key player in the leasing deal, bailed from her position and into a new one—at Boeing.

The program illustrates a welter of corruption and conflicts that has led to a nearly 20-year quest to replace the Air Force’s aging tanker fleet, most of which is now eligible for AARP membership.

It later became public that Druyun had given preferential treatment to Boeing contracts while working for the Air Force. Three months before Boeing hired her in January 2003, its chief financial officer told her, during a secret meeting in a private conference room at the Orlando airport: “This meeting really didn’t take place.” Convicted of corruption, Druyun spent most of 2005 in jail, along with Boeing CFO Michael Sears, who was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment. The case also led to the resignation of Boeing CEO Phil Condit, and a $615 million fine against the aerospace giant for the Druyun case and for pilfering Lockheed documents to help Boeing land rocket-launch contracts. The episode represented “one of the most egregious examples in recent memory of the revolving door between the federal government and defense contractors,” the Project On Government Oversight said after Boeing hired Druyun. (POGO’s comment came well before any illegality surfaced, simply proving Michael Kinsley’s adage that in Washington, a scandal isn’t what’s illegal, but what’s legal.)

The Air Force made a second attempt at the contract in 2006. After two years of competition, Boeing lost to an Airbus-Northrop Grumman team. But Boeing said the loss was unfair. It filed a formal complaint with the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which adjudicates complaints from those who feel they have been treated unfairly by government buyers. In what observers saw as a “scathing rebuke” to the Air Force, the GAO agreed with Boeing. Its 2008 decision concluded that Boeing was right to complain because the Air Force “did not assess the relative merits of the proposals in accordance with the evaluation criteria identified in the solicitation.”

That led the Air Force to scrap that second try and launch a third effort in 2009, which Boeing won in 2011, beating out Airbus. In that development contract, Boeing agreed to turn four of its 767s into KC-46s and deliver them to the Air Force for no more than $4.9 billion in government money. The Air Force plans to spend $43.8 billion on 179 KC-46s, about $245 million per plane. But even since it finally got underway, the program itself has been plagued with problems. A series of snafus, including with the refueling system, has forced Boeing to cough up more than $3.2 billion of its own money—so far—to make good on its initial deal with the Air Force.

The plane’s critical deficiencies involve its primary mission. For decades, boom operators have used their eyes as they guided fuel while lying down at the rear of the tanker. “With the [Remote Vision System], refueling will become more like a video game—an operator will watch a large stereoscopic 3D display to connect the boom to the receiving aircraft,” Rockwell Collins (now part of Collins Aerospace), which is in charge of the system, said in 2011.

This high-tech boom operator sits behind the cockpit, with seven cameras relaying a sweeping view behind the tanker “from wingtip to wingtip,” as detailed in an Air Force Tech Report video. The system also employs thermal imaging, which allows both the tanker and the plane it is refueling to fly with their lights extinguished.

But the cameras are subject to glare and shadows that can complicate refueling and might lead to the boom scraping the receiving aircraft. That could damage the stealth coating on F-22 and F-35 fighters, as well as B-2 bombers. During KC-46 test flights, there were “a significant number of instances where the boom nozzle contacted the receiver aircraft outside the refueling receptacle and in many of those instances, the Aerial Refueling Operators (AROs) were unaware those contacts had occurred,” the Pentagon’s top testing office noted in its 2017 annual report. “Boom nozzle contact outside the receptacle can damage antennae or other nearby structures, but is especially problematic for low-observable receiver aircraft by damaging radar-absorbing coatings.”

An airman checks out the KC-46’s boom-operator’s station simulator.
(Photo: U.S. Air Force / Colby L. Hardin)

Boeing said the problem could be fixed with a software tweak, but the Pentagon’s testing office found in a follow-up report that didn’t work. “Evaluators reviewed the effectiveness of this solution, and although the software improved a few display deficiencies, it did not provide an overall adequate solution,” the testing office said in its 2018 annual report.

The problem is simple: the imagery the boom operator sees on the screen isn’t precisely what the human eye would see, especially when it comes to depth perception.

It all goes back to the fundamental difference between the folks in the field—“Keep It Simple, Stupid”—and those who develop military gear. For that second group, increased profit is likely just as important as performance. And more complicated is more costly, which generally translates into more profit. Some boom operators have been skeptical of the high-tech approach. “There is something to be said for the new systems, but the KC-135’s old-school direct control and feedback make it more of a precision instrument than its supposedly technologically-superior cousins,” an unnamed Air Force boom operator told a reporter during the KC-46’s development.

It all goes back to the fundamental difference between the folks in the field—Keep It Simple, Stupid—and those who develop military gear.

The refueling-viewing problem “is new for us,” Will Roper, the Air Force’s top civilian weapons buyer, said earlier this year. A swarm of engineers and scientists from both the Air Force and Boeing came up with nine requirements to ensure the Remote Vision System (RVS) does what the Air Force wants it to do. “We have a lot of work to do on RVS,” Roper added. “There is still design work to do—hardware and software to meet those nine critical performance parameters—so we will keep a lot of technical focus on that.”

Until the fix is implemented, the tankers will pay attention to their relative position to the sun to minimize glare, as well as other workarounds. (Airbus, which ultimately lost two of the three contests to provide the Air Force with a new tanker, is providing a similar remote fueling capability to a dozen other countries’ air forces.)

The refueling problem was just one part of the plane’s turbulent journey to becoming government property.

After two years of delays, the tanker’s late-December 2018 delivery date kept sliding. The resignation-cum-firing of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who had to approve the delivery, further complicated matters. President Trump’s decision to fill the top civilian Pentagon slot with Patrick Shanahan, a longtime Boeing executive who must recuse himself from any decisions involving his old employer, compounded these woes.

Nonetheless, the change at the top of the Pentagon seems to have led to an improvement in Boeing’s fortunes. Mattis, according to Bloomberg, said in a 2017 note to his chief of staff that he was “unwilling (totally)” to accept the flawed tankers. Yet with Mattis gone and Shanahan officially barred from acting on the matter, top Pentagon weapons-buyer Ellen Lord, a long-time Textron executive, approved the Air Force’s request to accept the less-than-perfect aircraft.

So in a press release dated January 10, 2019, the Air Force announced it would begin accepting the tankers despite their deficiencies. “The Air Force has identified, and Boeing has agreed to fix at its expense, deficiencies discovered in developmental testing of the remote vision system,” the service said in a statement that lacked the typical puffy PR or quotes from senior Air Force or Pentagon officials. “The Air Force has mechanisms in place to ensure Boeing meets its contractual obligations while initial operational testing and evaluation continues.” The Air Force is withholding up to $28 million per plane pending those repairs. That means the contractor could forfeit up to $1.5 billion for the 52 planes currently under contract.

Boeing finally delivered the first pair of KC-46s to the Air Force on January 25—eight years after the contract award, and 18 years after the service began hunting for a new tanker.

But Boeing’s track record continues to be sloppy. The Air Force announced on March 1 that it had suspended deliveries of new tankers on February 20. The halt ended March 11 after Boeing adopted 13 “remedies” to ensure that tools and scrap that could imperil safe flight are removed from the planes before they are delivered to the service. Air Force pilots refused to fly KC-46 training missions after ten tools used to build the tankers were found abandoned inside them in recent weeks, according to internal Boeing memos quoted by the Seattle Times. The problem has been “a chronic issue” and “is a big deal,” the memos said. The company has told its workers to spend the final 48 minutes of their shift collecting all their tools and removing any scrap from the planes.

Meanwhile, it’ll be up to the KC-46 crews to make sure their planes do what they’re supposed to do. The Air Force insists it needs the robo-refueling—and all the complicated technology it requires—to make boom-operators’ jobs less taxing. But at least some of the airmen at the back end of the Air Force’s tankers disagree. “Sometimes I think I have the easiest job in the world,” Staff Sgt. Travis Peirce, a boom operator aboard an aging KC-135 Stratotanker told a reporter two years ago. He then stretched out at the rear of the plane to fill up yet another U.S. warplane, peering out the window with his naked eyes.

After all, plenty of old-timers say the best sensor for the job is what they call the good ol’ “Mk1 Mod 0 human eyeball.” Then again, they’re only interested in fueling warplanes, not Boeing’s bottom line.