KC-46 Refueling System Fix Faces 19-Month Delay
The KC-46’s new remote vision system (RVS) will not be operational until October 2025, a 19-month delay from the previous plan as the U.S. Air Force and Boeing negotiate subcontractor development timelines as well as both service and FAA airworthiness processes.
Boeing and Air Force officials had planned for the new RVS system to be operational in 2024, stemming from the April 2020 agreement between the two sides to overhaul the system’s cameras and sensors and redesign the boom operator station. The service in an Oct. 7 statement says the delay will involve no additional costs to the government, since there have been no changes to the government-furnished design specification that was on contract under the preliminary design review earlier this year.
The critical design review (CDR) for the RVS 2.0 overhaul is still ongoing, as the Air Force and Boeing still need to finalize a way ahead for airworthiness certification of the commercial-off-the-shelf cameras that will be installed. Those issues are due to be resolved by year’s end. Other noncritical actions are being addressed as well, but the closure is not needed to finish the CDR, the service says. As part of the agreement for the cameras, Boeing will pay about $125 million for nonrecurring engineering for wiring and other preparations, while the Air Force will pay to furnish the cameras.
“Our defense industrial base continues to face supply chain issues and we’re seeing effects in the acquisition schedules of technically complex systems, such as the KC-46 Remote Visual System 2.0,” Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, says in a statement. “We’ll continue to examine possible opportunities to accelerate the schedule to bring this increased operational capability to the tanker fleet. KC-46s will continue to support worldwide deployments to meet the daily Joint Force air refueling demands.”
Boeing, in a statement, says impacts to the global supply base are the primary reason for the delay, with supply chain shortages and longer lead times for complex computing equipment and other components needed for the system’s upgrades. The KC-46 is also the only tanker certified by both FAA and U.S. Air Force regulators, which contributes to the schedule.
“The re-baselined schedule for RVS 2.0 certification is reflective of estimated timelines for the complete and thorough regulatory review and certification from both regulators, which are engaged throughout the laboratory and flight test process,” Boeing says. “We support our regulators through the certification process, as much time as that requires. Boeing stands ready to support the U.S. Air Force as it operates the KC-46A around the globe today and to continue evolving it for the future with enhanced technological capabilities such as RVS 2.0.”
Boeing says it worked closely with U.S. Air Force engineers and aerial refueling operators through the design and development of the new system, ensuring that the RVS 2.0 is the “most technologically advanced remote vision system that has ever been developed, with state-of-the-art visual display for a realistic, 3D-immersive operator experience.”
The announcement comes weeks after Air Mobility Command (AMC) cleared its KC-46 fleet for global deployments, despite the aircraft not reaching its initial operational capability. AMC Commander Gen. Mike Minihan told Aviation Week at the time that it was not acceptable to have the tanker, which is the service’s most capable refueler, on the sidelines if needed.
“If you take that argument to the extreme, we would have an incredibly capable aircraft on the ramp [and] not utilizing the people that fly, fix and support it. And then when the fight came, we wouldn’t be ready to employ it,” he says “We’re willing to lose the war to make a point with a supplier, and it’s just not the way I’m oriented.”
In the meantime, Boeing and the Air Force have been installing a software-only “enhanced” remote vision system update that was delayed due to errors earlier this year. Minihan says he is not distinguishing between aircraft that have received this update in deciding which tankers to deploy.
In addition to the RVS replacement, the service and Boeing need to redesign a telescoping actuator in the refueling boom itself—a deficiency that keeps the KC-46 from being able to refuel light, slow aircraft like the A-10. This redesign is coming at the government’s cost, and a fix is expected to be finalized in 2024.