A major concern for executing Pentagon war plans is the readiness of the fleet of refueling tankers, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said during a Heritage Foundation virtual event on Oct. 15.

“When I think about strategic mobility, I think about airlift and sealift, principally,” he said. “And with airlift, you have to think about tankers. One of the concerns I have is, ‘Is our tanker fleet modern and ready?’ Clearly, we’ve had challenges getting the new tanker, KC-46, out there on time. I’ve spent time with the Air Force talking about this, with the manufacturer, Boeing [BA]. I’ve walked in and out of the aircraft. I’ve looked at the systems to understand how do we get that aircraft to meet its timeline, to fix the system that’s broken, the Remote [Vision] System.”

“I’m really focused right now in that leg, with regard to tankers, because we know we need 487 tankers out there so I have to extend the life of the current fleet, at the same time try and pull to the left that future fleet,” he said. “We have enough airlift to do the job.” Next year’s planned DoD budget submission will address the tanker issue and recapitalize sealift with used commercial vessels, Esper said.

The Pentagon depends on its fleet of more than 450 KC-135s and KC-10s for refueling, as the Air Force works to fix defects in the KC-46’s RVS and field that aircraft. Last month, the Air Force said that it has fielded 38 KC-46s.

In June, the Air Force said it would delay KC-46’s timeline for Initial Operational Test & Evaluation, as well as a full-rate production for the program until at least fiscal year 2024 (Defense Daily, June 10). 

In testimony before a Senate Armed Services Committee panel last month, Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, called KC-46  an “extremely problematical program” and criticized the Air Force’s fixed-firm price contract arrangement with Boeing as inadequate to address KC-46 technical problems.