U.S. Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) is re-examining tanker requirements and collaborating with the combatant commands to alleviate risk associated with the retirements of Boeing [BA] KC-135 and KC-10 tankers and the delayed fielding of fully operational Boeing KIC-46A Pegasus tankers, Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the head of USTRANSCOM, told House Armed Services Committee legislators on March 31.
During a joint hearing of the HASC seapower/projection forces and readiness panels, Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.), a major general in the National Guard, asked Van Ovost whether the U.S. has sufficient aerial refueling capacity to retire aging tankers this year and in fiscal 2023, given that the U.S. Air Force is not to be ready to field the fix for the Boeing KC-46A tanker’s Remote Vision System (RVS) until fiscal 2024.
“We have just completed a Mobility Capability Requirements Study, and as I look at the total capacity of air refueling now that the KC-46 is a bit delayed coming online, we are at elevated risk, should we have multiple wartime demands, so-called ‘stack demands,’ on this aircraft,” Van Ovost replied. “However, there are mitigation opportunities that I’m working with the combatant commanders on. Indeed, now that the new National Defense Strategy has come out, we are taking a relook at the requirements for air refueling, especially when we think about refueling in a contested environment and in the Pacific. Today, I can meet our wartime demands.”
Kelly then suggested that such a re-examination of tanker requirements is advisable, given that “the world environment…has changed…with the Russian invasion of Ukraine” last month.
The Air Force is to field 179 KC-46As by 2029 to replace the KC-135s and KC-10s. At that time, the Air Force tanker fleet would consist of the 179 KC-46As and some 300 remaining KC-135s.
Van Ovost said that USTRANSCOM is working with the Air Force on “continuous recapitalization” of the tanker fleet after Boeing delivers the 179th KC-46A in 2029. Any future tankers would likely have some KC-46A features, such as multimodal refueling and advanced data links.
The KC-46A program has been working to resolve a number of issues beyond RVS.
The Controlled Unclassified Information (CUI) version of the Pentagon Director of Operational Test and Evaluation’s (DOT&E) fiscal 2021 report said that the KC-46A Pegasus “is vulnerable in a cyber-contested environment” and that specific vulnerabilities and their effect on the KC-46A mission will be available in the classified initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) report annex. IOT&E for the KC-46A began in May 2019.
The end of IOT&E and a full-rate production decision for the KC-46A are not expected until fiscal 2024 because of problems with the aircraft’s RVS, the refueling boom, the modified ALR-69A radar warning receiver (RWR) by Raytheon Technologies [RTX] and the Tactical Situational Awareness System (TSAS) by Raytheon’s Collins Aerospace.
In addition, the KC-46A’s susceptibility reduction equipment “is immature and does not currently support KC-46A survivability due to significant system problems,” per the CUI version of DOT&E’s fiscal 2021 report. “The Air Force recently accomplished sprint software development to solve aircrew interface problems with the TSAS and RWR, but the updated systems are currently undergoing troubleshooting tests to resolve further anomalies.”