The Air Force has decided along with the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation that the KC-46A Pegasus tanker program’s initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) period will conclude after a key deficiency is resolved, tacking years onto the timeline before full rate production can commence.

The service announced June 8 that IOT&E will continue until after the new aerial refueler’s Remote Vision System (RVS) deficiencies are resolved, and after the Air Force’s OT&E center has tested the KC-46 in its final production configuration.

The RVS has been a longstanding Category-1 deficiency on the program due to warping and acuity concerns that make it difficult for operators to accurately refuel aircraft. Prime contractor Boeing [BA] is responsible for the fix.

“Accordingly, the Air Force will defer the KC-46 Full Rate Production (FRP) decision until after the completion of IOT&E, and the receipt of the statutorily-required Beyond Low Rate Initial Production report from DOT&E,” an Air Force spokesperson said in a Monday email. The FRP decision is now expected in late fiscal year 2024, with no contractual cost or delivery impacts.

In April, the Air Force and Boeing reached agreement on a two-pronged solution to fix the system, dubbed “RVS 2.0” (Defense Daily, April 2). Air Force Acquisition Czar Will Roper said in a Wednesday media briefing that it has been a “night and day difference on the program” since that deal was signed, and that he remains proud of the work accomplished over the past few months particularly with the workforce operating under the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s an amazing deal that was crafted under very difficult conditions during COVID-19. I’m exceptionally proud of the team that was able to accomplish it,” he said.

Roper acknowledged that the KC-46 program is in a unique situation, where the aircraft is able to perform some of its missions – including medical evacuation, and mobility and transport efforts – and thus had the greenlight to enter the IOT&E phase. However, it can’t perform its primary mission: refueling.

“So we’re going to pause IOT&E and work on certifications of those other missions, but we can’t finish it until we have RVS 2.0 delivered,” he said.

In the meantime, the Air Force hopes to develop two “hardware-in-the-loop” facilities – one for the Air Force Research Laboratory and one for Boeing’s team outside Seattle – and employ some of the digital twin engineering techniques it is employing on other development programs to push RVS testing along more quickly.

“I’m still hoping for 2023, [for] getting the RVS out and retrofitted,” Roper said.

He noted that the new “facility” may not require a new physical building, and that much of the equipment AFRL would need has already been provided by Boeing. The company’s Washington state-based facility will be funded under the existing contract, but any new developments on AFRL’s side may require funds outside the contract, Roper said.