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Cost control worries USAF on new bomber and tanker

The US Air Force's nascent bomber programme and Boeing KC-46 tanker and the US Navy's Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine replacement programme are all critical to maintaining the US strategic nuclear deterrence - but controlling costs is going to be crucial, a top US military official says.

"Controlling cost is going to be a big issue," USAF Gen Robert Kehler, commander of the US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on 27 March.

Kehler stresses that the long-range next-generation bomber needs to be designed for both nuclear and conventional strike roles. For most missions the new stealth bomber would fly armed only with conventional weapons, but while it will be designed for a nuclear mission, Kehler says he hopes the aircraft will never have to carry out that role. That is contingent on performing the nuclear deterrent mission correctly, he says.


© Boeing

Kehler also stresses the importance of the KC-46 tanker (above), which are needed to refuel strategic bombers as they carry out any nuclear mission. Tankers are also critical to projecting conventional power around the globe.

"A large part of our ability to project power is based on our tankers," he says. "A modern tanker fleet is irreplaceable."

The KC-46 is currently undergoing its preliminary design review, according to Boeing. The review started on the week of 18 March and should be complete by the week of 23 April, the company says.

The preliminary review is supposed to ensure that Boeing's design meets the USAF's requirements. It will be followed in the third quarter of 2013 by a critical design review, which will determine if the KC-46 is mature enough to enter production.

Boeing is under contract to deliver the first 18 combat-ready KC-46As by August 2017. The current programme calls for a total of 179 to be built, but that would only be the first step on the path to replacing the existing 416 Boeing KC-135 tankers that the USAF operates.

The KC-46 programme is a $4.4 billion fixed-price incentive development contract that limits the government's liability for costs over $4.9 billion. The tanker's estimated development costs are currently around $900 million more than the February 2011 contract award value, but the USAF is liable for only about $500 million of this total. The remaining $400 million is Boeing's responsibility.

A US Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on 26 March says the USAF and Boeing flight test programme is too ambitious, and that the tanker is at risk of being delayed due to concurrency. The GAO's statement mirrors an earlier conclusion by the office of J Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon's director of operational test and evaluation.

However, in a letter included with the GAO report, USAF KC-46 programme manager Maj Gen Christopher Bogdan disputes the agency's assessments.

The report "overstates the actual level and impact of schedule concurrency between development, testing and production activity," he says.

Bogdan adds that the programme is event-based, and that if problems are found Boeing is obligated to not only fix future production aircraft, but also retrofit tankers previously delivered at no extra cost to the government.

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