WASHINGTON — The nation's highest-ranking Air Force officer praised Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun for quickly working with the Department of Defense to fix the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, which the defense contractor promised would be the backbone of U.S. airpower.
"I'm far more confident today in the performance and the behavior of Boeing on the KC-46 than I ever been in my entire time here and I give the new CEO, a lot of credit for being a man of his word," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in a teleconference hosted by Brookings.
Calhoun, who ascended to the top spot at Boeing in January, committed to the four-star general that he would rectify the issues lumbering over the new tanker program.
"Three days after the new CEO Dave Calhoun got in place, I wrote him a letter, he came to see me. We had a very frank conversation and I asked him for a couple of things," Goldfein said.
He said he told Calhoun: "Listen, I'm not seeing the resources being placed against this program that need to be placed. I'm no longer interested in half measures when it comes to remote visual system, and quite frankly I'm not seeing the talent from the company on this program that I should be seeing."
Last January, after a two-year delay, the Air Force received its first two Boeing aerial refueling tankers. And while the Air Force plans to buy 179 tankers, the program has been plagued with a litany of problems, including foreign object debris and issues with the camera system used during the refueling process.
The delivery marked a major milestone for the program which was more than $3 billion over budget.
Goldfein said that following his meeting with Calhoun, the Pentagon and Boeing were able to reach an engineering design solution. The Air Force chief likened the situation to the early days of the C-17, the military's large global transport aircraft.
"In the beginning, it was a mess, and we almost lost that program a number of times, but nobody remembers that," Goldfein said of the C-17 aircraft.
"Right now we look at the C-17, everybody flies it. It's unbelievable it's probably one of the most important weapon systems we've ever fielded. It is the heartbeat of global mobility, but nobody remembers those early days. KC-46 I'm convinced will be a weapon system that we're all proud of," he said, adding that he has flown the new aerial tanker twice.
Goldfein's comments come as the aircraft manufacturer deals with the economic fallout from the coronavirus, the latest blow to Boeing since halting production of the 737 Max, which was grounded worldwide for just over a year after two fatal crashes killed 346 people.
In April, the Pentagon released $882 million in withheld payments to Boeing in an effort to mitigate the financial strain of the coronavirus outbreak on the defense contractor. The U.S. Air Force and Boeing negotiated the release of payments, which were held back due to outstanding flaws with the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker.
"When Covid-19 hit obviously things changed for the entire defense industrial base," Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told Pentagon reporters in April via teleconference.
"Cash flow is everything right now, liquidity is everything, and we've created policies in the Department of the Air Force to get as much cash out of our hands and to industry as possible ... The KC-46 is no exception," he added.