Australia's KC-30 tanker flight test delayed

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EADS has confirmed a major delay for the flight test and first delivery for the KC-30A multirole tanker/transport (MRTT) for the Royal Australian Air Force, but is standing by the scheduled date for reaching full operational capability.

The announcement comes as a new controversy has erupted in the US Air Force's suspended KC-X tanker competition.

The US military's top acquisition official criticised the Northrop Grumman/EADS team for invoking one of his statements in a newspaper advertisement for the Airbus A330-based KC-30B. In that competition, the Northrop/EADS team has made capital on Boeing's "paper airplane" proposal, but the new delay for the first RAAF tanker could damage the credibility of their KC-30 offer.

EADS has blamed the potentially six- to nine-month delay on three factors. "The RAAF directed changes to the MRTT configuration following contract award that has served to extend the development and testing programme [including modifications to the refuelling and avionics systems]," the company says.

The RAAF also asked EADS to add more time for flight testing "to ensure a more robust mission system" upon delivery. Finally, EADS also blames the delay on a mutual decision with the RAAF to send the first flight-test aircraft to appear at the Paris air show in June 2007.

The return-to-flight date for Aircraft One's extended flight-test programme is unclear, but it could be preceded by the first flight for Aircraft Two. Meanwhile, Aircraft Two to Five are continuing to be modified with refuelling equipment in Australia.

The USAF competition remains on hold until the next administration takes office. However, the Northrop/EADS advertisement has angered John Young, undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics.

The advertisement quotes a statement attributed to an anonymous Department of Defense official, saying: "A member of the American public might conclude that Boeing sought to charge more than the defence department reasonably expect [to pay]." Briefing reporters on 20 November, Young said: "I called the company and said I don't appreciate this and I don't think it's necessary, and what is your objective? What value does this serve?"

The USAF is continuing to "aggressively" review the KC-X contract requirements, aiming to whittle away most of the 800 discrete criteria outlined in the original competition.

"The air force needs to think hard about getting down to a minimum set of requirements and features," Young says. "This one is so complicated and so politically charged that we need to then evaluate whoever bids as whether they are technically acceptable or not and then have a second round, where we say, 'Okay, you're technically acceptable, give me your best price, and the best price is going to win.' Because then I'll get the best deal for the taxpayer, and I'll get my minimum set of requirements met."