Air Mobility Command (AMC) has briefed U.S. Transportation Command, members of Congress, acting U.S. Air Force Secretary John Roth, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown on AMC’s plan to increase the operational use of the Boeing [BA] KC-46A Pegasus tanker, as the service works to resolve the remaining four Category I deficiencies.
“We are exploring a variety of options, or tanker levers, to relieve stress on today’s force, including unlimited, operational use of the KC-46 on a conditions-based approach,” AMC Commander Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost told reporters on Feb. 24 during the Air Force Association’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium. “Doing so will help relieve stress on the remainder of our tanker fleet by enabling the KC-46 to accept operational taskings from U.S. Transportation Command that would otherwise be filled by our heavily tasked KC-135s and KC-10s.”
This week, AMC briefed Roth and Brown and took them on KC-46 orientation flights during which KC-46s from Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H., and McConnell AFB, Kan., refueled one another, F-15s from Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C. and F-16s from the D.C. Air National Guard.
“The KC-46 is already executing four to six missions daily in support of service and joint training missions,” Van Ovost said on Feb. 24. “Since last October, the KC-46 executed more than 650 missions across the globe in all three of its mission sets, including cross-ocean aerial refueling fighter drags–known as coronets; aero-medical evacuation missions; and cargo and passenger movements.”
“Through execution of more than 60 percent of our KC-46 operational test and evaluation plan, our crews have demonstrated increased proficiency and a propensity to open the envelope in the missions that they’re flying,” she said. “We are now going to commit the KC-46 to execute missions similar to the ones that they’ve been conducting over the past few years in the operational test and evaluation plan, but we can now include operational taskings from U.S. Transportation Command.”
“For example, today the KC-46 may provide aerial refueling for F-16s participating in a U.S.-based training exercise,” she said. “Under this new approach, if AMC is tasked to provide AR [aerial refueling] support for an operational coronet mission to move F/A-18s overseas or an operational B-52 mission, the KC-46 is on the table, which frees up KC-135s or KC-10s to execute other combatant command deployments that the KC-46 is unable to support with its existing deficiencies.”
On Feb. 1, Van Ovost said that AMC and Boeing had resolved two of the Category I deficiencies involving Auxiliary Power Unit duct clamp cracks and the APU drain mast (Defense Daily, Feb. 1). The four deficiencies that remain are two with the Remote Vision System (RVS), one with the boom telescope actuator for connecting the refueling aircraft with slower aircraft such as the A-10, and one related to fuel manifold leaks.
The Air Force has said that it has worked with Boeing to plan out fixes, including a new RVS 2.0 and a more pliant standard for the boom.
In June, the Air Force said it had pushed back KC-46’s timeline for Initial Operational Test & Evaluation, as well as delaying a full-rate production for the program until at least fiscal year 2024 (Defense Daily, June 10). Van Ovost said on Feb. 1 that RVS 2.0 and a fix for the boom telescope actuator will be in place by fiscal year 2024 and that AMC still plans to have 179 KC-46s in the inventory by 2029 to supplement the 300 platinum anniversary Boeing KC-135s that will still be in operation.
If AMC’s increased use plan for the KC-46 goes forward and is successful, the plan may help the Air Force achieve its goal of retiring some of the aging KC-135s and KC-10s to increase funding for KC-46s and upgraded KC-135s.
“Through this conditions-based approach, we expect to increase overall tanker capacity by bringing daily taskable KC-46 operational capabilities at scale and the predictive reliability necessary for joint force employment,” Van Ovost said on Feb. 24. “I want to be clear on three things. First, we will not use the KC-46 for full combatant command deployments until its serious deficiencies are fixed. Second, we can’t open the aperture on increased operational use of advanced warfighting capabilities, like the KC-46, without divestment of some of our older tankers and the ability to review further divestments annually. Third, increasing our operational use of the KC-46 will not slow the efforts to fix the remaining deficiencies on this weapons system.”
“As part of this conditions-based approach, certain confidence measures must be met with decision point criteria in place to help AMC leaders assess if we’re ready to move forward,” she said. “Until these measures are met, the KC-46 will not be cleared to provide operational support for a particular mission set or milestone.”
Van Ovost said that AMC, in accordance with the Initial Operational Test and Evaluation plan, has thus far tested KC-46 refueling on 10 of 15 aircraft, including the F-15, F-16, B-52, and Navy F/A-18. Thus far, AMC has not tested KC-46 refueling for the Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 fighter, nor the B-1B bomber.
“I am confident that accepting the KC-46 with known deficiencies offers the fastest route to fielding a fully operationally capable weapons system,” she said on Feb. 24. “That said, serious deficiencies and restrictions remain with the KC-46 weapons system, and Boeing is still responsible for installing the Remote Vision System 2.0 and redesigning the boom-telescope actuator.”