The U.S. Air Force has chosen Boeing as the sole-source provider and prime integrator for the multibillion dollar program to develop the next U.S. presidential transport, based on the company’s 747-8.

Noting that the 747-8 is the only platform "manufactured in the United States [that] when fully missionized meets the necessary capabilities established to execute the presidential support mission," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said competition will be sought at the subsystem level for the program. No details on these forthcoming competitions were provided, and the service is refining its strategy to move forward.

The Air Force announced the decision in a Jan. 28 statement, and funding is likely to be included in the fiscal 2016 budget slated for release Feb. 2, which should outline a more clear plan. The fiscal 2015 plan included $1.6 billion for the first five years of research and development and buying the first airframe.

"We look forward to working with the Air Force" on the program, says Kymberly VanDlac, a company spokeswoman. She adds that Boeing has 50 years of experience in this mission area – rhetoric that likely will be repeated if the Air Force’s acquisition strategy is questioned in Congress.

The Presidential Aircraft Recapitalization (PAR) program intends to replace two VC-25As, based on the 747-200 platform and fielded in the 1990s, with two 747-8 aircraft. Initial operational capability is expected in fiscal 2023. The Air Force is one of the last customers to still fly the -200, making maintenance an increasingly complex and costly task due to diminishing parts. In fiscal 2014, the VC-25A flying hour cost was $210,877.

A request for proposals for the "pre-Milestone B" work is expected this year, with a contract award planned for 2017. Boeing is expected to deliver the first 747-8 for modification in 2018, Air Force spokesman Ed Gulick says. In the meantime, the service is refining its acquisition strategy prior to entering formal contract negotiations with Boeing.

The service "wants to own enough of the technical baseline to permit competition for sustainment throughout the aircraft’s planned 30-year life cycle," the statement says. This could be a complex wish to satisfy, as Boeing closely guards its technical data for commercial airliners.

The selection of the 747-8 is no surprise. The service acknowledges that the only other viable option is the Airbus A380, the massive double decker passenger carrier built in Europe. However, the desire for a U.S.-manufactured aircraft clearly weighed heavily when the service made its choice. Some onlookers suggested the 787 could be an option, but the service has steadfastly contended that four engines are needed to support the array of sensors and electronics on the new Air Force One.

The choice of sole-sourcing the integration work to Boeing is likely to be more politically thorny, especially as Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), who recently took over the influential post as chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, is highly skeptical of the Air Force’s dealings with Boeing since the failed tanker lease more than a decade ago. The jailing of former Air Force procurement official Darleen Druyun and Boeing’s former chief financial officer over illegal job talks that scored Druyun a vice president spot at the company marred the reputation of both.

Some onlookers suggested the service could compete the integration work for PAR, but Boeing was loath to share enough technical data on its commercial airliner to allow any other company to oversee it. Thus, the service was likely left with no choice but to hand the prime role to Boeing.

"This decision is not a contract award to procure a 747-8 aircraft," says Col. Amy McCain, the PAR program manager. "We still need to finalize the overall acquisition strategy and conduct risk-reduction activities with Boeing to inform the engineering and manufacturing development contract negotiations that will define the capabilities and cost."

The service is "committed to incorporating competition for subsystems of the missionized aircraft as much as practicable and will participate substantively in any competitions led by the prime contractor," James says. "We will insist upon program affordability through cost-conscious procurement practices." James says the program will draw on "proven technologies and commercially certified equipment" to do so.

The service intends for the new Air Force One to have a 30-year lifespan.

Meanwhile, Boeing is on a tight schedule to keep its other major commercial derivative program for the Air Force on track. The 767-based KC-46 refueler is expected to fly this year in advance of a major decision at the Pentagon next fall on entering production. The company executed first flight of the first 767-2C, the specialized platform on which the mission systems will be integrated, in December. Boeing already has taken a $425 million pre-tax charge ($272 million after taxes) to keep the effort on track for delivery of the first 18 KC-46s in 2017. Last year, problems meeting requirements for the platform’s wiring led to a delay, adding pressure to an already tight schedule. The first KC-46 is scheduled for first flight in April.