Air Mobility Command (AMC) is set to take delivery of 15 KC-46 aerial refueling tankers a year once production begins and that rate should be sustainable while older tanker platforms are removed from service, according to AMC’s commanding general.

Boeing [BA] is expected to deliver the first KC-46 tanker to the Air Force this year, at which time Everhart himself plans to take it for a maiden operational flight, he told reporters April 5 at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C. The service then will take delivery of 15 aircraft a year through 2028, Everhart said.

More tankers sooner would be welcome, but Everhart said he is wary of tinkering with a set program whose stable requirements have resulted in a significant acquisition cost reduction since its inception.

“If I had the money and we negotiate with Boeing to produce more, that’s a lot of ifs, sure I’ll take more tankers faster, but it’s a set program and I’m not going to change the requirements because that’s what has driven down the fixed cost because I didn’t change the requirement,” Everhart said.

KC-46 refuels A-10 during testing. Photo: Air Force.
KC-46 refuels A-10 during testing. Photo: Air Force.

The program’s total acquisition cost estimate has decreased about $7.3 billion, or 14 percent, since the initial estimate, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). In its 2016 Selected Acquisition Report published last week, GAO attributed this to no requirement changes and fewer engineering changes than expected.

The KC-46 Pegasus will eventually replace the more than 400 KC-135 Stratotankers that AMC operates. But the program of record is only 179 Pegasus tankers. The father of the pilot that will eventually fly the last KC-135 to the boneyard has not been born yet, meaning it is two generations from being totally retired and could reach 100 years of service before then.

Also set to retire is the larger KC-10 Extender, which has been floated as a source of much-needed funding if cut from operation. Transportation Command has argued for its continued service until the KC-46 comes online, but Everhart said the new tanker could possibly cover the Extender’s mission at least in part.

The Air Force plans to retire the KC-10 between fiscal years 2019 to 2024. That will save $1.4 billion over the five-year period in contract support costs alone, he said.

“What I’m doing is proper planning so I’ll get my tankers up to meet war fighting needs based on what’s in the operational plan and then I’ll start retiring aircraft,” Everhart said.

“If you look at certain circumstances, the KC-46 is actually a more capable aircraft than the KC-10 based off of winds, weight, weather, temperatures, offload,” he said. “If the KC-10 is going to offload immediately once it goes up, yeah, it can offload a ton of gas. But if it’s got to travel a distance to do so, in certain circumstances the KC-46 provides greater capability.”

Everhart plans to balance the aircraft fleets as new KC-46s come in and old KC-10 and KC-135s go out to provide the necessary capability without fixating on numbers of particular aircraft.

Based on the requirements that we have, I think we’ll be able to meet – I know we’ll be able to meet – those needs,” he said. “Yes, I’d like that new tanker faster because I’d rather get that older iron out.”