On May 5-6, a KC-46A Pegasus tanker assigned to the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell AFB, Kan., flew more than 24 hours straight–the longest mission in the history of Air Mobility Command (AMC), according to the U.S. Air Force. During the more than 9,000-mile journey, rotating pilots caught sleep every few hours, as the Boeing [BA]-built aircraft did dry refueling runs with another KC-46A, refueled four U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs by Lockheed Martin [LMT] and was refueled by another KC-46A from McConnell, the Air Force said.
A photo posted by the Air Force appears to show a KC-46A during the mission being refueled at night by another KC-46A.
Yet, KC-46A night refueling–important for special operations missions–is still limited for the tanker although it is able to perform night refueling with both planes alit, per AMC. The tanker is unable to do night vision goggle refueling “with complete blackout,” the command said. “The LWIR cameras on the boom currently don’t have the fidelity required.”
The plane’s original Remote Vision System (RVS) had five Long Wave Infrared (LWIR) “Atom” cameras by the France-based Sofradir–now part of Lynred. RVS 2.0 is to replace the two Sofradir LWIR boom sensor cameras for new boom sensor LWIR cameras by Oregon-based Sierra Olympic Technologies, Inc.
“The boom sensor Line Replaceable Units (LRUs) (2 per aircraft) each have a single LWIR camera (Sofradir Atom 1024) along with a single visible camera,” AMC said. “Additionally the panoramic sensor LRUs (3 per aircraft) each have a single LWIR camera (Sofradir Atom 1024). RVS 2.0 also uses LWIR cameras in two different pieces of the vision system. The new boom sensor LRUs (2 per aircraft) will each have a single LWIR camera (Sierra Olympic S A11588) along with dual visible cameras. There will be no change to the panoramic camera LRU for the initial RVS 2.0 program.”
AMC said that it has not yet conducted “additional testing for night vision imaging system receivers since the last reports and are awaiting RVS 2.0 implementation to the boom camera systems” and that “the new high definition Long-Wave Infrared cameras in RVS 2.0 are a significant increase in resolution from the current camera system.”
“While this reinforces the need for Boeing to bring RVS 2.0 online, there is not a high-volume demand for night-vision refueling, and those taskings are covered by select legacy tankers with that capability,” per AMC. “We remain confident in the KC-46A’s ability to meet worldwide refueling taskings-including combat operations.”
Boeing has said that the KC-46A’s RVS will provide easier night time refueling than on the KC-135s and KC-10s (Defense Daily, June 25, 2020). Such old model tankers rely on one wing tip light for night refueling by prone boom operators in the back of the aircraft, while the KC-46A’s RVS relies on a remote boom operator in the plane’s cockpit.
The Air Force and Boeing agreed on an RVS 2.0 redesign of the original RVS on April 2, 2020 to fix faulty RVS depth perception, which may lead to scraping of the boom on aircraft being refueled–damage that can be especially perilous for low-observable aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35 fighters.
Unlike the KC-135 but like the KC-10, the KC-46A, a modified Boeing 767 airliner, also has a hose-and-drogue system to refuel U.S. Navy and NATO planes. The Air Force has fielded 62 KC-46As out of a planned buy of 179.
While the KC-46A’s LWIR panoramic cameras, which help detect the distance of incoming aircraft, are not a critical RVS technology, such cameras “will not meet requirements to detect and recognize fighter sized aircraft within required distances absent significant hardware changes,” according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in January this year.
“Without a plan outlining a path forward towards maturing the critical technologies before the preliminary design review [for RVS 2.0], the program is at risk of facing additional cost increases to mature the new RVS, as well as encountering delays in developing a solution for refueling covert aircraft,” GAO said in that report.
The Air Force said this month that it foresees fielding RVS 2.0 for the KC-46A in October 2025–a delay of 19 months (Defense Daily, Oct. 7). In 2020, the Air Force said that by 2023 it planned to field RVS 2.0, which is to have 4K color cameras, operator stations with larger screens, a laser ranger for refueling aircraft distance measurement and boom assistance augmented reality.