KC-46 Cleared To Operationally Refuel F-22s, F-35As

A KC-46A Pegasus connects with an F-35 Lightning II in the skies over California.
Credit: U.S. Air Force/Ethan Wagner

The Boeing KC-46A Pegasus has been cleared to operationally refuel stealth aircraft, with the tanker now able to top up F-22s and F-35As.

The U.S. Air Force also has cleared the new refueling tanker to be available for certain short-notice alert missions.

U.S. Transportation Command boss Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost told lawmakers during a March 31 House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing that the tanker has been cleared to refuel the fifth-generation fighters operationally as part of the ongoing Interim Capability Release (ICR) plan.

The KC-46 can also now serve on “Bravo” and “Charlie” alert. Bravo means aircraft and aircrew are available to depart in about 3 hr., and Charlie means aircraft and aircrew can enter crew rest within 2 hr. after notification and are able to be placed on rapid alert within about 12 hr., according to Air Force regulations.

Van Ovost, then the commander of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command (AMC), announced the Interim Capability Release plan last year as a way to alleviate operational strain on KC-135s and KC-10s. Under the plan, the KC-46 would be cleared by TRANSCOM to fuel receivers as part of a regular assignment by the Tanker Airlift Control Center that oversees daily mobility missions. But the KC-46 is not able to be deployed for combat missions and the assignments are for operations such as training, exercises and supporting combat aircraft as they deploy.

AMC in a statement said its commander, Gen. Mike Minihan, made the decision in February.

“Our data shows that the KC-46A can now support nearly 85% of USTRANSCOM air refueling taskings, so we’re not going to hold back on offering this additional capacity to the Joint Force,” says Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, AMC’s deputy director of strategy, plans, requirements and programs and the KC-46 Cross Functional Team lead. 

The move to clear F-22s and F-35s to receive fuel from the KC-46 is notable because of a longstanding concern with the tanker’s Remote Vision System (RVS). A lack of clarity in the RVS raised concerns about the refueling boom scraping receiver aircraft, which would damage the low-observable coating of the fighters. The tanker has not yet been cleared to operationally refuel the Northrop Grumman B-2 stealth bomber.

There have been four ICR “releases” announced by AMC, with the last in December 2021 clearing the KC-46 to operationally refuel AC-130Js, HC-130Js, MC-130Js, C-5Ms and E-Gs. Previous announcements cleared the KC-46 to operationally refuel B-52s, C-17s, other KC-46s and all variants of the F-15 and F-16 with the tanker’s boom. The aircraft was first cleared to refuel F/A-18s with its centerline drogue.

The RVS is undergoing a redesign, called RVS 2.0, with the system undergoing its critical design review. The new system is expected to be installed beginning in 2024. 

As of March 21, the service has 57 KC-46s in its inventory. 

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.