Air Force's Troubled Tanker Is Years Away from Use -- Unless It’s Needed to Fight

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A KC-46 Pegasus approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker.
A KC-46 Pegasus assigned to McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., for a refueling, Jan. 30, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Ryan C. Grossklag)

If the U.S. Air Force absolutely needs to use its new, but troubled KC-46 Pegasus tanker in a time of war, it will. But the aircraft won't really be ready for three or four more years, according to the service's top general.

Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the Boeing-made tanker requires a "serious fix" to its Remote Vision System (RVS), a critical capability that permits the in-flight operator to view the refueling system below the tanker.

The service is working with the company, "targeting the [2023/2024] timeframe to have a fix in place," he added.

"If we were in a major contingency, every KC-46 would be put into the fight," Goldfein told lawmakers. "We're comfortable that it's capable of doing operations in a high-end fight -- even with the deficiency."

He clarified, "I would not put it into day-to-day operations, but I would put it into a high-end fight."

Related: Pentagon Should Explore Renting Refuelers Amid KC-46 Delays, General Says

Goldfein's comments revealed that the tanker's expected readiness has been pushed back at least another year. Last year, Gen. Maryanne Miller, head of Air Mobility Command, said the tanker would likely be ready to deploy to a combat zone sometime in 2022.

The KC-46's problems -- along with the retirement of aging KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender aircraft -- were a hot topic of discussion during the hearing, as lawmakers expressed concern that repairs to the plagued tanker are not happening fast enough.

"Three or four years doesn't sound like time is of the essence to me," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire. The state is home to Pease Air National Guard Base, which hosts tankers.

Furthermore, there could be a global gap in operationally available tankers if the Air Force retires its legacy refuelers faster than the KC-46 comes to flight lines, Shaheen and other lawmakers argued.

"We are meeting every day on that topic," Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said. "It is really one of the highest priorities in the building."

Tanker Gaps, More Foreign Object Debris

Last month, the head of U.S. Transportation Command called on the Air Force to slow the retirement of more than 20 aerial refueling tankers slated to be cut in its fiscal 2021 budget request, saying doing so is necessary to reduce stress on overtasked aircrews while the service works with Boeing to fix the KC-46.

Army Gen. Stephen Lyons told lawmakers that 13 KC-135 Stratotankers and 10 KC-10 Extenders "must be retained" out of the 29 tankers that the Air Force plans to cut.

A House Armed Services Subcommittee hearing on Tuesday also focused on tanker retirements and potential availability gap.

"Until the RVS challenge is fixed, the Air Force is not going to commit to using the KC-46A," said Rep. Kendra Horn, a Democrat from Oklahoma. "So I'm concerned about that readiness issue there."

Oklahoma is home to Stratotankers and the KC-46 at Altus Air Force Base.

The KC-46 has had many problems, including issues with how the boom connects and disconnects from specific aircraft; foreign object debris (FOD), such as trash, tools, nuts and bolts, found scattered inside multiple planes; a recently rectified problem with faulty cargo locks; and a glitch in its Remote Vision System software.

Currently, the glitch in the Collins Aerospace-made system doesn't allow an airman to look at a clear, aligned visual of the boom connecting to another aircraft. The first tankers were delivered to the Air Force in 2019 despite that problem.

"The longer we wait to get that aircraft operational, the longer we're having to extend KC-135s, KC-10s," Goldfein told the Senate committee Tuesday.

In order to avoid tanker gaps, the Air Force hopes to better schedule crews operating in high-demand areas such as the Middle East, according to Miller.

"We're using scheduling tools to try to be more efficient in the way we schedule tankers, downrange and even within the States," she told Military.com last week.

The Air Force has accepted 31 tankers to date, she said.

Miller described the ongoing discussions about the RVS with Boeing as "intense," but added there are still other errors, such as FOD.

"As far as FOD, Boeing has improved, but they are not perfect yet," she said. "There's still small amounts of FOD that are getting through their process.

"We monitor Boeing and their processes, and the amount of FOD has greatly decreased but it's still there," Miller said.

As a result, the Air Force will withhold some funding to the company as long as the issue persists, she said.

"It may take a couple years for their process to be clean, but it's much much better than what it was in the past," Miller added.

Editor's note: Collins Aerospace makes cameras, sensors and displays for the Remote Vision System.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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