The U.S. Air Force and Boeing [BA] are negotiating the terms of a contract for Pegasus Combat Capability (PC2) Block I for the company’s KC-46 Pegasus air refueler–a contract which could come in the first quarter of next year and which would provide the tanker with communications upgrades.
Boeing said that it has delivered 38 KC-46s to the Air Force thus far–21 of a planned 36 for McConnell AFB, Kan., which is to be a “super tanker base”; six of 7 for Altus AFB, Okla., the tanker training base; seven for Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H.; and four of a planned 12 for Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.
Mike Hafer, Boeing’s KC-46 global sales and marketing manager, said that the Block I PC2 upgrade includes four radios, including government furnished equipment, and those compatible with DoD’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) and NATO’s Second Generation Anti Jam Tactical UHF Radio (SATURN) communications networks.
Under PC2, Air Mobility Command (AMC) is envisioning a two- to four-year successive block upgrade program for the KC-46 to encompass enhanced communications, survivability, and greater autonomy for the refueling system.
Boeing has outlined a number of fixes for the KC-46 Remote Vision System (RVS), which allows air refueling operator station (AROS) personnel in the front of KC-46A aircraft to steer refueling booms using Collins Aerospace [RTX] cameras on the fuselage (Defense Daily, June 25). The KC-135, first fielded in 1957, and the KC-10 rely upon boom operators lying on their stomachs in the aircraft empennage or looking through a rear window to steer the booms into refueling receptacles.
The RVS cameras for the KC-46 have faced problems with sunlight glare and providing correct depth perception for accurate boom placement in refueling receptacles. Inaccurate boom placement could lead to scraping and coating damage on aircraft being refueled, such as the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.
Boeing and Collins Aerospace are working to resolve such difficulties with the RVS 2.0 upgrade.
Hafer said that Boeing signed a Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) with the Air Force in April under which Boeing engineers and those from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) are planning “a complete refresh of the entire Remote Vision System,” including interim steps on the way to RVS 2.0.
“We’ve been flight testing some new enhancements,” Hafer said. “We just completed at the end of July or early August the first set of flight tests, which work on dynamic image stability.”
Such flight tested hardware and software improvements eliminate “most” of the shadows and glare, he said, adding that Air Mobility Commander Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost and Robert Behler, the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E), recently visited Boeing “to look at some of those improvements and where we’re headed with RVS 2.0.”
Boeing has also proposed a new LIDAR sensor that provides information about the distance between the boom and the receiver aircraft, as boom operators have said that they need to judge depth “to the inch or sub-inch level,” Hafer said.
Boeing said that RVS 2.0 will include 4K ultra high depth color cameras and 4K ultra high depth HDR color sensors, 40 inch monitors with 4K, 10 bit color processors, and an upgraded computing infrastructure to provide improved image processing, camera exposure control, and overlay processing.
The company said that it expects the first phase of RVS upgrades to be available for aircraft modifications on previously delivered aircraft in the second half of 2021, while Boeing plans to field KC-46s with the full set of RVS 2.0 enhancements in late 2023 or early 2024.
Hafer said that RVS 2.0 “sets the framework to go to an autonomous [refueling] system,” if the Air Force establishes a requirement for the latter. Hafer called autonomous refueling “a new and exciting field” and said that AFRL is researching that along with Boeing, using the company’s internal research and development funds.
In 2011, Boeing received a $4.9 billion firm, fixed price contract from the Air Force for the first four aircraft and has received contracts for five lots with a total of 67 aircraft. Boeing is responsible for costs in excess of the initial firm, fixed-price contract and has spent $4.7 billion of the company’s own funds above the initial $4.9 billion contract.
“Boeing is committed to making KC-46 the most capable and technologically modern tanker for the Air Force,” the company said on Sept. 16. “We believe Pegasus will be the standard by which air refueling platforms are measured for decades to come. Boeing is responsible for costs that exceed the firm fixed price contract. To date, we have recorded reach-forward losses of $4.7 billion for the program.“
In June, the Air Force and DOT&E decided to delay a full-rate production decision on the KC-46A until late in fiscal 2024 after resolving the Category 1 RVS deficiency with RVS 2.0 and completing initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E).