Esper Awaits Transcom Tanker Capacity Guidance

Credit: Boeing

Defense Secretary Mark Esper is awaiting a “range of options” from U.S. Transportation Command (Transcom) on how the Pentagon should tackle its lack of aerial refueling capacity.

House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee Chairman Donald Norcross (D-N.J.) said Feb. 26 during a full committee hearing that this is not a new issue facing the military. Regardless of Boeing’s engineering skill, implementing a fix for the troubled KC-46A Pegasus program likely means it will take three years before the brand-new tankers are considered operational, Norcross said.

“Why would we retire refuelers when we’re building up the capacity?” Norcross asked Esper.

Esper said he was sitting inside a KC-46 last week and was talked through the issues with the Remote Vision System (RVS) and the boom telescope actuator. This is an example of why Esper is conducting a combatant command review, he added.

The U.S. Air Force is proposing the retirement of 13 KC-135s and 16 KC-10s in fiscal 2021, according to its budget request. Transcom’s top unfunded priority is for aerial refueling because the Air Force’s proposed retirement of legacy tankers is before the projected availability of operational KC-46 aircraft.

“This creates a capacity bathtub with significant impacts to Combatant Command wartime and daily competition missions and negatively impacts senior leader decision space for mobilization if confronted with a crisis,” according to Transcom’s unfunded priorities list.

The combatant command is proposing “buying back” those aircraft for roughly $110 million. 

Transcom also proposes in fiscal 2022 and beyond any aerial refueling aircraft reductions would be determined in a “year-by-year review” based on KC-46 progress. The Pentagon acknowledges that the U.S. military is taking a risk by proposing the retirement of 29 legacy tankers in the fiscal 2021 budget while the successor, the Pegasus, is not considered operationally viable.

“We do have a requirement out there to keep 479 tankers, and we will continue to do that. The budget funds that,” Navy Vice Adm. Ron Boxall, resources and assessment director for the Joint Staff, said Feb. 10 during a Pentagon briefing.

Boxall said the Pentagon will watch the KC-46 program closely and adjust the tanker fleet as necessary to maintain the 479-tanker requirement.

The Air Force framed the KC-10 and KC-135 retirements as a tough choice but worth the risk. “We can’t continue to fund everything today that we have in our force today” because the service must pay for equipment the military will need in 2030, Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, deputy assistant Defense secretary for budget, said during a separate Feb. 10 Pentagon briefing.

The KC-46A program still faces unresolved Category 1 deficiencies revolving around the RVS and the boom telescope actuator. A Category 1 deficiency means the government has identified a risk that jeopardizes lives or critical assets. The problem with the RVS is what the Air Force calls a “rubber sheet” effect that distorts the image on the visual display used by the boom operator during refueling operations. The actuator on the boom needs to be more sensitive to smaller receiver aircraft, such as A-10s and F-16s. Boeing has agreed to pay for the RVS design fix, while the Air Force will finance the design change to the actuator.

“It’s really hard for us to consider the KC-46 part of our operational capacity,” Lt. Gen. Jon Thomas, deputy Air Mobility Command chief, told Aerospace DAILY.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein voiced his displeasure to Boeing and asked the company’s CEO to focus on the KC-46 program even as it is fixing the 737 MAX. “The Air Force continues to accept deliveries of tankers incapable of performing their primary operational mission,” Goldfein wrote in a January letter.

“The tanker is not capable of all of its missions and won’t be until the problems with the remote vision system are fixed,” Thomas said.