USAF Clears KC-46 To Deploy Long Before Official Operational Decision

KC-46 tanker
Boeing’s KC-46 is now able to be deployed for combat worldwide, following a decision from Air Mobility Command.
Credit: Airman 1st Class Joshua Hastings/U.S. Air Force

The U.S. Air Force’s mobility chief, Gen. Mike Minihan, has decided he cannot wait any longer with his Boeing KC-46 fleet. Air Mobility Command needs its Pegasus aircraft ready to deploy now, even if the fixes to its troubled Remote Vision System are still years away.

More than 60 tankers are on Air Force ramps now, and Minihan wants them ready to go if a fight breaks out in the Pacific, even if they have to fly with limitations—such as adjusting refueling tracks on the fly, avoiding sunlight so boom operators do not see washed out views of the receivers they are topping up—and even as the service and Boeing are still hammering out a timeline to begin fixing that Remote Vision System (RVS).

  • Review of needed aircraft fix is still underway
  • The service seeks new tanker ideas
  • L3Harris and Embraer offer KC-390 to U.S.

“America demands it. The [Department of Defense] demands it. And everybody that’s gonna be a customer of that platform demands it, all right?” Minihan said at the recent Air Force Association (AFA) annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference outside Washington. “So I’m not going to get out of my lane when it comes to acquisition authority and playing chicken on semantics and interactions at the high level with [Boeing]. But I’m not off my demand, nor am I off my mission to put fuel in the air. It’s the most capable aircraft in my inventory right now; it already is making an enormous impact. [There are] 60 in the fleet, and I would not for one second play politics with the defense industry when it comes to the mission of my command.”

Minihan on Sept. 14 cleared the KC-46 to be tasked operationally for almost all receiver aircraft, clearing it to be deployed for combat operations around the world. The decision came about a week after the KC-46 flew its first combat sortie, topping up Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles in the Middle East. The KC-46 can fly almost all refueling operations, except for select nuclear operations and filling up the A-10—which requires a separate fix to the boom.

The decision comes before the Air Force and Boeing have finished the critical design review of the Remote Vision System 2.0, a complete overhaul of the cameras, sensors and boom operator’s station in the aircraft first announced in the spring of 2020. The review was supposed to be completed by the end of September and will likely extend the RVS 2.0 installation and initial operational capability beyond the original 2024 timeline. The service says it needs to finalize details on a set of panoramic cameras and an overall schedule before this review can close.

Minihan said his decision is based on his 10 years in Pacific commands—looking at intelligence that a conflict could occur sooner rather than later in the region as China builds up an Air Force specifically designed to counter the U.S. and expands its pressure on Taiwan. He said his goal is to have the mobility fleet ready for a fight in the region by next August, when a major exercise is planned across the Pacific focused on airlift and refueling operations in the region.

While Minihan said he has serious concerns about the deficiencies with the KC-46, both on the RVS and a “stiff boom” problem with an actuator on the boom itself that also needs to be replaced, the idea that he would keep the Pegasus limited in the face of this schedule is unacceptable.

“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 told Aviation Week. “We’re willing to lose the war to make a point with a supplier, and it’s just not the way I’m oriented.”

As the Air Force progresses with the KC-46 and a decision on whether to continue a competition for a KC-Y “bridge tanker.” Boeing and Lockheed Martin are the likely KC-Y competitors—the latter with a modified Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport—but the service is accelerating its push for a next-generation refueler. This concept, called KC-Z, looks to change the technology used for the mission, integrating features such as increased situational awareness and data links, autonomy and possibly stealth.

“I don’t think we should limit ourselves on our approach to tanking. We need to make a sharp departure from being confined by 1950s- and ’60s-style aircraft to how we execute tanking operations,” Minihan said.

The Air Force has accelerated its studies for the program. It is set to start an initial preanalysis of alternatives research next year before an official analysis of alternatives (AOA) in 2024. This moves the AOA up by about six years from previous plans.

Minihan said he will look at all potential ideas for new ways to do tanking, such as long-endurance gliders that could stay aloft for extended periods to be available for fueling, more pods on other aircraft to pass fuel similar to the U.S. Navy’s approach with F/A-18s, towed aircraft that could be detached for fueling or other missions.

“Those easy concepts . . . should be fully on the table when it comes to tanking, not just [for] the China challenge but worldwide challenges,” he said. “I’m for the intellectual investment of any concept that helps us get after a more relevant style of tanking.”

Two companies announced a new refueling offering to the service at the Air Force Association conference. Embraer and L3Harris partnered to offer the KC-390 with a refueling boom as an “agile” tanker. The KC-390 would be able to operate from smaller airfields than larger KC-46s and KC-135s, including dirt strips, which L3Harris says is relevant for the Air Force’s push for agile combat employment.

“U.S. Air Force strategic planners have stated agile combat employment will require refueling platforms optimized to support a disaggregated approach to air dominance in contested logistics environments,” L3Harris CEO Christopher Kubasik said.

The KC-390 is an operational refueler for the Brazilian Air Force, though just with a probe-and-drogue system. L3Harris would develop the boom that is needed for U.S. Air Force aircraft to enable it to provide up to 75,000 lb. of fuel.

While U.S. leaders encourage development and new thinking, there seemed to be hesitance to buying a tactical-level aircraft that will be smaller than the current strategic--level refueler fleet and in addition to special operations C-130s that can also provide fuel.

“When we receive the last KC-46s at the end of this decade, we will still have hundreds of Eisenhower-era KC-135s in our fleet that must be recapitalized,” U.S. Transportation Command head Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost said at AFA. “In order to maintain this demonstrated advantage, this nation must invest in the next generation of strategic mobility.” She adds that additional flexible tankers could be helpful, but only if the cost is low enough not to limit more important recapitalization.

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.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.