Air Force's Troubled KC-46 Tanker to Begin 'Limited Operations,' 2 Years After Delivery

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KC-46A Pegasus boom extends for an acceptance inspection
Master Sgt. Chris Hughes, 22nd Maintenance Squadron hydraulics craftsman, and Staff Sgt. Jamie Berridy, 22nd MXS electrical environmental craftsman, watch as a KC-46A Pegasus boom extends for an acceptance inspection Feb. 14, 2019, at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan. (Alan Ricker/U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force will begin using its KC-46 Pegasus tanker in limited operations to relieve its overtasked KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender aircraft, the head of Air Mobility Command said Wednesday.

The KC-46's chief problem is a glitch in its Remote Vision System, or RVS, software, which does not allow a clear visual of the boom connecting to another aircraft. The Air Force continues to work with manufacturer Boeing Co. to fix the troubled tanker, which was first delivered in January 2019 despite that problem. The service reached an agreement last April with Boeing on the final RVS redesign, known as RVS 2.0.

Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, head of AMC, said that, while the KC-46 still isn't ready for an overseas deployment to a combat region, the tanker will start accepting mission tasks from U.S. Transportation Command, or TRANSCOM, on a case-by-case basis.

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"The KC-46 may provide aerial refueling for [F-16 Fighting Falcons] participating in a U.S.-based training exercise," she said during a virtual roundtable for the annual Air Force Association's Aerospace Warfare Symposium. TRANSCOM manages delivery of supplies and coordinates logistics for U.S. troops moving around the globe.

"Under this new approach, if AMC is tasked to provide refueling support for an operational coronet mission to move F-18s overseas or an operational [B-52 Stratofortress] mission, the KC-46 is on the table, which frees up KC-135s and KC-10s to execute other combatant command deployments that the KC-46A is presently unable to support with its existing deficiencies," Van Ovost said.

Coronet missions are those in which tankers travel with other aircraft to refuel them during a long-distance flight -- something the KC-46 has practiced in operational test and development, the general added.

"You may be surprised to know that the KC-46A is already executing four to six missions daily in support of service and joint training missions," Van Ovost said. "Since last October, the KC-46A has executed more than 650 missions across the globe in all three of its mission sets, including cross-ocean aerial refueling fighter drags, aeromedical evacuation missions, and cargo and passenger movements."

Still, issues with the KC-46 remain. As a result, the tanker's expected readiness -- which includes deploying to the Middle East, Indo-Pacific and even Europe -- has been pushed back at least to the 2023 timeframe.

Van Ovost said the limited operational use does not detract from the efforts to fix any remaining deficiencies -- including the RVS problems, which also impacts how the boom connects and disconnects from some aircraft.

The tanker's telescoping boom, which has been described as "too stiff," cannot connect to lighter aircraft or stealth aircraft to fuel them in case it accidentally scrapes the receiving plane.

Van Ovost said she is confident in the crews, who have demonstrated "proficiency and propensity to open the envelope on the missions they're flying." But the KC-46's problems are delaying retirement of the service's legacy tankers like the KC-135 and KC-10, she said.

"We can't open the aperture on increased operational use of advanced warfighting capabilities like the KC-46A without divestment of some of our older tankers, and the ability to review further divestments annually," Van Ovost said.

Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown and several lawmakers were able to see the KC-46 in action at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, this week as the aircraft conducted refueling demonstrations with F-16s and F-15 Eagles, Van Ovost said.

"I think as we look at the capabilities that the KC-46 can bring operationally at scale to the warfighter, I think it absolutely allows us to go to Congress and … demonstrate with this model that we have … the total capacity of the [tanker] system," she said, referencing how the KC-46 will be brought into the fold. Van Ovost said the new approach will "show a compelling case as to how we need to divest the older legacy airplanes."

In the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers said the service may start steady retirements of its KC-10s and KC-135s over the next three years, as long as it maintains a minimum aircraft requirement set by Congress.

The Air Force must maintain 50 primary-mission KC-10A aircraft in fiscal 2021; 38 in fiscal 2022; and 26 in fiscal 2023, according to the legislation. The Air Force currently has 58 KC-10s; one tanker was sent to the boneyard last year. As for the KC-135 fleet, the Air Force can begin retirements starting in 2023, the bill states.

So far, Boeing has delivered 44 KC-46s to the Air Force. The service plans to buy 179 aircraft.

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

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