Prominent U.S. defense programs are feeling pressure from more than just Congress and Pentagon cost police. Before and during the Paris Air Show, Boeing’s KC-46A tanker and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II faced flak from the aviation press and, in the latter case, an ally’s speech.
The award of the contract for the U.S. Air Force’s KC-46A program to Boeing in February was not on the agenda of a weeklong pre-Paris Air Show media trip of Boeing’s defense businesses, but it nevertheless dominated questioning by invited aviation writers during the first couple days of the trip.
Readers may recall this is the program that in its earlier manifestation brought us Darleen Druyun, the former Air Force acquisition executive and Boeing employee who spent time in jail, as did Boeing’s then-CFO, over a corrupted plan to lease KC-767 tankers. This was before successive Pentagon competitions first elevated, and then eliminated, the Airbus A330-based tanker proposed by Northrop Grumman-EADS and finally just EADS.
Given the tanker program’s checkered past, aviation defense writers were bothered that Boeing since February had remained imprecise about key, potentially risky, aspects of its winning KC-46A configuration, including the wing, refueling system and promised, Dreamliner-inspired digital flight deck. They took their concerns straight to the horse’s mouth, sharply questioning Boeing Defense and Space CEO Dennis Muilenburg and Military Aircraft president Chris Chadwick at Boeing’s defense headquarters in St. Louis.
“I get the message. I understand that there’s a tremendous interest in tankers,” allowed Chadwick. “We’re going to stay aligned with our customer [the Air Force], but let me take that [message] back. I’ll talk to the team, I’ll talk to the customer, and we will be as forthright as we can and we’re comfortable with as we move forward.”
Two weeks later, Boeing released more details on the tanker–which will be a modification of its 767-200ER airliner–at the Paris Air Show.
More drama was in store at Paris Le Bourget airport, the airshow venue. U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. C.D. Moore briefed reporters on the F-35, then fielded expected questions on the long-term cost of a program that Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter has called “unaffordable” based on, its current trajectory. Scheduled next on stage was a representative of the Norwegian defense ministry, for what presumably would be an official celebration of Norway’s decision to order four F-35s for training purposes.
Cognizant of the world’s aviation press sitting before him, Rear Adm. Arne Roksund instead delivered a speech linking further procurement of up to 56 F-35s by Norway to support of his country’s joint strike missile (JSM) development.
“Our ambition is clearly to have a successful [F-35] industrial program, and the JSM is a key to that,” Roksund said. “If we don’t succeed with the JSM, we’ll have a problem succeeding with an industrial program.” But he stepped back from the brink of serving notice that Norway would withdraw from the international F-35 coalition over the choice of a missile. “We don’t have a need for four training fighters alone,” he said. “I can assure you that when we decide to buy four training fighters, we’re going to have F-35 as the cornerstone of the air force.”
In defense acquisitions, it seems, nothing can be taken for granted.