Eight days after the U.S. Air Force awarded Boeing [BA] a $1.7 billion contract for 12 KC-46s in Lot Six of the production line, the service on Jan. 20 bought 15 more tankers in Lot Seven for $2.1 billion.

The Jan. 20 announcement by DoD said that the Air Force exercised an option for the purchase of the 15 Lot Seven tankers, which are to be built by May 31, 2024.

Acting as cell towers to relay data between the cloud and front-line forces in future conflicts, refueling tankers are to play a significant role in the service’s fielding of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS).

Boeing is under contract for 94 KC-46s and said that it has delivered 42 of the aircraft thus far.

The Air Force fleet of tankers consists of more than 400 aging Boeing KC-135s and KC-10s and the 42 KC-46s at four bases–McConnell AFB, Kan., which is to be a “super tanker base”; Altus AFB, Okla., the tanker training base; Pease Air National Guard Base, N.H.; and Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.

The company delivered the first KC-46A to the Air Force in January 2019.

Boeing received its first two production lot contracts from the U.S. Air Force, for seven and 12 aircraft, in August 2016; the third lot, for 15 aircraft, in January 2017; the fourth lot for 18 aircraft in September, 2018 and the fifth lot for 15 aircraft in September 2019.

The company is building the KC-46As at its Everett, Wash., plant, where it also builds the KC-46 tanker for Japan.

The Air Force and Boeing have also been negotiating the terms of a contract for Pegasus Combat Capability (PC2) Block I for the company’s KC-46s–a contract which could come soon and which would provide the tanker with communications upgrades, including radios compatible with DoD’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) and NATO’s Second Generation Anti Jam Tactical UHF Radio (SATURN) communications networks (Defense Daily, Dec. 15, 2020).

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 KC-46 refueling system, which has experienced significant problems with its Remote Vision System (RVS).