New KC-46 Schedule Means Overhauls Required Even As Tankers Deploy
The U.S. Air Force and Boeing are finally closing the redesign of the KC-46A’s troubled Remote Vision System—a large-scale overhaul of cameras and sensors, plus a redesigned boom-operator station to fix the deficiencies that have limited and delayed the new tanker’s path toward becoming operational.
Closing this design, a process that began when the two sides were at an impasse and blaming each other but has since progressed to a much-improved working relationship, has been the easy part. Now the Air Force and Boeing are planning how to complete the Remote Vision System (RVS) 2.0 overhaul, along with multiple other upgrades to the aircraft’s drain masts and auxiliary power unit plus a fix for the boom itself, while not taking the aircraft out of service for an extended period.
- Multiple fixes needed beyond the Remote Vision System
- Fixes to be completed between 2024 and 2027
“We are working very closely . . . to limit the reduction of aircraft availability on where we need it to be,” says Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, the Air Force’s KC-46 cross-functional team lead. “We are working so that we can actually phase that in so that we don’t lose operational utility out of the aircraft beyond a certain threshold that we’re willing to do. We know that there is going to be some reduction.”
These fixes are due to be completed between 2024 and 2027, when tankers would need to pause from operations for this significant work. The Air Force is still determining how long that will take for each tanker and is looking at flexible ways to schedule aircraft—if one unit needs to deploy, another at home could take its place. In the worst case, all fixes would take a tanker away from an operational unit for several weeks to months at a time, in addition to regular maintenance.
Air Mobility Command (AMC) made headlines in mid-September when the unit’s boss, Gen. Mike Minihan, announced he had approved the KC-46 for deployment worldwide, though official designation of initial operational capability will not come until the new RVS is installed. A new schedule announced in October puts this in late 2025, and the service is still evaluating its schedule for the other major fix—replacing an actuator in the boom that is causing a stiffness problem that blocks the KC-46 from refueling slower aircraft, such as the A-10.
“I’m very pleased with the KC-46,” Minihan told Aviation Week in late October. “It’s extremely capable. It has deficiencies that need to be fixed. Now that it’s on step with the combat deployment and capable on everything but the A-10, I’m going to partner with Boeing and all the other stakeholders that have anything to do with it so that we get those deficiencies met and addressed as quickly as possible.”
The new October 2025 timeline for the RVS 2.0 fix is a 19-month slip from the original time frame. Samuelson says the extension reflects expected issues with suppliers providing equipment. It could also take longer for new systems to be certified for flight.
Just because the command says the KC-46 can deploy does not mean that will happen quickly. The announcement came approximately one year after the start of AMC’s Interim Capability Release plan, during which the tanker was evaluated and approved to pass fuel to all receiving aircraft. In addition, three Employment Concept Exercise scenarios sent groups of KC-46s to Europe, the Pacific and the Middle East for small-scale deployment operations to put crews through their paces.
The Air Force deployment model places units in four six-month-long stages—deployed or on call for a short-notice tasking, a reset period to recuperate at the home base, preparing to deploy or ready, during which units will participate in high-end pre-deployment exercises such as Red Flag. The entire cycle takes about 24 months, and KC-46 units just receiving their full complement of aircraft and crews are beginning to be worked into this cycle. Meanwhile, tankers could be available if needed to surge to a combatant command, Samuelson says.
“We’ve demonstrated through proof-of-concept and out in real-world operations that we can make what we have work. That doesn’t alleviate industry’s responsibility to fix the deficiencies,” Minihan says. “As we move off of getting it out there and focused on the timelines to integrate it back in, it’s an adjustment that needs to be accounted for. What I don’t want is a continuous slip. What I need to do is make sure that as the adjustments and challenges get scheduled, we don’t put any more burden on the operational line than it already has.”
The KC-46 is not ready for all operations, besides the A-10 restriction. The tanker is not cleared for night-vision, or covert refueling operations during which the tanker lights are off and the receiving pilot wears night-vision goggles. KC-135s are filling this gap, and Samuelson says the shortfall is not significant.
KC-46s are also not yet cleared for all nuclear operations in support of U.S. Strategic Command, but this is not because of a technical issue. Samuelson says KC-46 units need to train for the mission specifically, for unique command-and-control requirements, and then be certified. Once units are up to speed on the aircraft, they will eventually train for these requirements and be evaluated. For now, the mission is also performed by the KC-135s.
The KC-46 fleet still faces the deficiencies with the first “1.0” RVS system, including washed-out views in direct sunlight and shadows that make it nearly impossible for a boom operator to connect to a receiver. Crews can work around this through steps such as changing the location of the refueling tracks in the sky to avoid the light situations—but that would be difficult in a wartime scenario. Boeing has rolled out an interim, software-only update to give boom operators more settings to help. This is not necessarily a “game changer” for deployments, but it can help reduce the load placed on boom operators, Samuelson says.
The RVS 2.0 overhaul is the game changer that will dramatically increase the tanker’s capability, and it is “important that Boeing and the program office produce this in the best time frame,” Samuelson says.
The Air Force says it needs Boeing to build 1.25 tankers per month on average to be able to retire its KC-10s on schedule. Boeing did not meet that mark earlier in 2022, delivering just one in the third quarter of the fiscal year. This backlog eased in late October, when three tankers left Boeing’s Seattle facility within about one week.
Samuelson, who is set to retire this year, will be the last cross-functional team lead for the tanker. In his role, he has gathered input from across the Air Force—including the Guard, Reserve, AMC and Program Office in the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center—to oversee the KC-46’s progress.
The program was in a much different position when Samuelson came to the job more than two years ago, he says. At that time, there was infighting within the Air Force and Boeing about who was to blame for the tanker’s issues and who should be responsible for fixing them. Just a few months earlier, then-Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein wrote to then-incoming Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun complaining that he needed more focus from the company on the tanker. The KC-46’s operations were so limited that a request for a pre-game flyover at Fenway Park in Boston required a general officer’s signoff.
“If you asked me even two years ago: ‘Would we be at deployment?’ I would have told you ‘no way,’” Samuelson says.