Pentagon Leadership Change Reportedly Affected KC-46 Tanker Delivery To McConnell AFB

Jan 3, 2019

McConnell Air Force Base in southeast Wichita was supposed to receive new air refueling tankers by the end of 2018, but that did not happen.

Boeing is building the KC-46 Pegasus tankers and was planning for the delivery until Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned abruptly two weeks ago.

Reuters and DefenseNews reported that Mattis’ signature was all that was needed to finalize delivery plans with the Air Force.

Boeing spokesman Chick Ramey said in mid-December that Boeing was planning for first delivery of the KC-46 by the end of the year and was working with U.S. Air Force on a date. When contacted Wednesday, Ramey did not specify a new delivery date and said the KC-46 remains a top priority for Boeing.

“We look forward to delivering tanker aircraft in partnership with the Air Force,” he said.

The KC-46 Pegasus tanker is a military version of the 767 commercial plane that can carry passengers, cargo and medical patients in addition to its refueling capabilities. The Air Force ordered 179 tankers to replace the oldest of its KC-135 Stratotanker fleet. The KC-46 offers three times the cargo space of the 135.

McConnell will be the first base to receive the new tankers. The base has been preparing for the arrival for more than four years. McConnell will get 18 tankers initially, with the fleet set to expand to 36 tankers over several years.

“Team McConnell stands ready to lead KC-46 operations and integration for the Air Force, and we are excited to bring home the future of air refueling to the great state of Kansas,” said McConnell Spokesman Daniel de La Fe in a statement Wednesday.

The KC-46 tankers were supposed to arrive at McConnell last spring. When that didn’t happen, Boeing announced in June that McConnell would receive the tankers beginning in October. Following another delay, Boeing pushed the delivery date to the fourth quarter of 2018.

The process is further complicated now because acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is a former Boeing executive and is not allowed to be involved in Boeing matters at the Pentagon.

On Wednesday, Shanahan's spokesman, Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, said that as part of Shanahan's ethics agreement he had stepped aside "for the duration of his service" at the Pentagon from "matters in which the Boeing Company is a party."

Shanahan worked for Boeing for 31 years, including in positions overseeing big defense programs. It's unclear whether President Donald Trump will nominate Shanahan for Senate confirmation as defense secretary or turn to another candidate.

“McConnell is standing ready to take the aircraft whenever senior leaders from the Department of Defense, the Air Force and Air Mobility Command decides it is ready for the joint warfighter,” de La Fe said.

McConnell built three new hangars and completed other construction projects worth about $267 million to prepare for the new tankers. Pilots and boom operators are being trained for the new plane in a $6.4 million replica of the KC-46 fuselage at McConnell.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar. To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.