Katherine Ziesing | Canberra

The Pentagon late Friday approved letting the US Air Force (USAF) sign two contracts for Boeing to make 19 KC-46 tankers. The deals, worth US$2.8 billion, follow multiple delays due to technical problems with the tanker.

Boeing also reported a charge on the tanker in early 2016 and has racked up US$1.5 billion in cost overruns on additional engineering and development work.

"The KC-46 program has made significant strides in moving the Air Force toward the modernization needed in our strategic tanker fleet," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a statement in response to the announcement.

The USAF said it would award Boeing contracts over the next 30 days for 19 KC-46 aircraft and their spare parts.

Boeing has been flying the tanker with its specialized refuelling equipment for nearly 11 months, demonstrating the aircraft’s capability passing fuel to jets flown by the USAF, US Marines and US Navy. It ran into technical issues earlier this year while testing its refuelling boom.

That forced a redesign of parts of the system and partially contributed to delayed first deliveries of the tanker by five months, pushing completion of the first 18 jets’ scheduled arrival to the Air Force to early 2018. The first of those planes is due to arrive in August 2017. Boeing finished the initial round of testing on the revised design in July, clearing the way for the green light from the Pentagon.

The USAF awarded Boeing the tanker contract in 2011. Boeing will build 179 KC-46 tankers for the Air Force by 2027.

Of the three competitions the KC-46 tankers have taken part in (South Korea, Poland and Japan) they have only won in Japan with the Airbus MRTT winning the day due to compatibility with the V-22 for the other nations.

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