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'The worst' defense program of all. And it's not the F-35

Boeing's KC-46 flying fuel tanker was a boondoggle from the start, but now that it's thrown aside human eyesight, it's actually dangerous.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

When Vladimir Putin took over Crimea in 2014, the immediate reaction among defense lobbyists was "borderline euphoric," as one denizen of that world told me at the time. As might be expected, the invasion of Ukraine has brought a bountiful harvest for the  military industrial complex,  as manifested in the $782.5 billion budget for 2023 recently waved through by congressional appropriators. In every respect, the proposed budget reflects the Pentagon's core strategy which, in the words of the late Col. John Boyd, is "Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it."  Thus it is that we continue to pour cash into notorious sink-holes such as the F-35 fighter, still unable to pass operational tests and for most of the time incapable of carrying out its combat missions.

Even worse than the F-35?   

But despite the F-35's regular reminders that our system of "defense" hardly deserves the name, there is another air force program, largely unknown in the wider world, that to my mind is the quintessence of everything that is rotten about the system; a perfect case-study not only in straightforward financial malfeasance, but also in the unceasing and disastrous effort to substitute technology for human actions. I refer to the KC-46 aerial tanker.

The system worked     

Flying tankers, "gas stations in the sky" are the arteries of global U.S. military operations, essential for deploying troops, supplies and bombing missions around the globe.  Since the 1950s, this vital service has been largely provided by the Boeing KC-135, which first flew in 1956, as well as a smaller number of McDonnell Douglas KC-10s, dating from the 1970s.  These aircraft supply fuel via a retractable boom which is guided onto the recipient plane by an operator looking through a window at the back of the tanker.  The system is simple, and has worked with minimal mishap for some seventy years. 

The dirtiest deal ever

In 2001 the air force requested bids for a new tanker to replace its aging fleet. Boeing won with a design based on its existing 767 airliner, securing a contract for 100 tankers. But rather than simply buying the planes in the normal fashion, the air force agreed to lease them from Boeing. This novel arrangement was burdensome to the taxpayer but vastly profitable to the corporation, adding at least $10 billion to the cost of the program. Subsequent investigation revealed that Darlene Druyon, the senior air force official negotiating the deal, known to her peers as “the Dragon Lady.” had simultaneously negotiated a fat post-retirement contract for herself.  Other senior Pentagon officials, including the secretary of the air force as well as the Pentagon’s chief weapons-buyer, were also revealed to have worked hard on Boeing's behalf.  Druyun ultimately went to jail, along with a senior Boeing executive. Asked in a senate hearing whether in thirty-three years of government service he had "ever seen a deal as dirty as this one," the chief auditor of the Pentagon's Inspector General's office replied, "No sir, I have not." 

Boeing loses contract. Gets contract back. Delivers largely useless plane. Late.

Following exposure of these squalid dealings, Boeing's contract was cancelled. A new competition handed the prize to a consortium of the Northrop-Grumman corporation and Europe's Airbus which offered a variant of the Airbus 330 airliner. Boeing fought back fiercely  and succeeded in getting the airbus deal cancelled. A further competition, seemingly tilted in Boeing’s favor, handed the contract back to the corporation in 2011. Development proceeded, with the plane, dubbed the KC-46 "Pegasus" projected to enter service in 2017. The inevitable schedule slippages and cost overruns ensued, and of course the KC-46 did not come into service on time. In early 2021, the USAF cleared the plane for only limited use, meaning it could refuel some but not all of the air force's planes and fly exclusively over the continental U.S., thus deeming the plane useless for combat operations.

Let’s replace human eyesight

Amid a host of problems such as leaking fuel and "foreign objects" mislaid by careless construction workers inside the fuselage, one fundamental defect defies solution, despite hundreds of millions of dollars sluiced into efforts to solve it. As noted, existing refueling systems rely on a boom-operator using his own two eyes to guide the boom. It's simple, and it works. But the airforce had a better idea, which it mandated be employed in any new tanker. Discarding the low-tech option of human eyesight, the KC-46 moves boom control up to the front of the plane, where a crewman sits in front of a video monitor featuring an image of the recipient plane and attempts to guide the boom via a Remote Vision System. 

Bad idea 

It doesn't work. As a Government Accountability Office report stated dryly in January this year, the system did not provide "visual clarity," meaning that a lot of the time boom operators can't properly see the plane they're trying to refuel, or connect with it properly when they do. 

"The lack of visual clarity also resulted in undetected contacts with some receiver aircraft and, in some cases, damage to the receiver aircraft’s coating," meaning that receiving pilots risk having their fuselages dented or windshields cracked. Boeing is now working on a second iteration of this disastrous system, "RVS 2.0", which will feature high definition 4k video cameras, infrared cameras, laser rangefinders and “augmented reality,” all in an effort to reproduce the visual clarity, especially depth perception, that comes with the traditional benefits of three-dimensional human eyesight. 

Someone who knows

No one, it seems, bothered to ask the people who would be on the receiving end of the wondrous new technology. A veteran combat pilot friend who has "tanked" hundreds of times from various tankers put it this way to me in a recent email: 

 "The problem is that most systems we have tried to build to replace the human in the boom seem to be epic fails.  Human eyes are still better at seeing things like closure rates / depth perception / and through high cloud ice crystals.  I have had some wicked close calls that were saved by a human in the boom."

We still trust Boeing, and we will pay for that.

Under its 2011 contract, Boeing was supposed to shoulder any development costs exceeding the “fixed price” $4.9 billion contract, which might suggest stern resolve by the military to make the contractor pay for its failures. Of course, the defense business doesn't work like that. Uncle Sam, or at least General Sam, always looks after his own. Thus the air force is pledged to continue buying twelve to fifteen planes a year, at around $180 million a pop, regardless of the fact that they are largely useless. Meanwhile, the promised RVS 2.0 will not be independently tested before 118 planes, altogether 60 percent of the production run of 179 KC-46s, have already been built.  In other words, the air force has agreed to take Boeing at its word that the new system actually works. On the likely assumption that it won't, the taxpayer will have to bear the burden of further attempts to fix the system. 

Making the real world go away

This is not only a particularly egregious case of defense corruption, but also an example of a deeper problem: the urge to displace direct perceptions of the real world in favor of costly and therefore profitable technological interfaces. At its most extreme, this has given us drone warfare, in which "pilots" in Nevada or some such remote location select human targets on the other side of the world. Reality does not need to be augmented.

Reposted with permission from Cockburn's Spoils of War

A KC-46 Pegasus refuels an A-10 Thunderbolt II with 1,500 pounds of fuel July 15, 2016. The mission was the last of all flight tests required for the tanker’s Milestone C production decision. (Boeing photo/John D. Parker)
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