WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has started conducting operational KC-46 missions using the aircraft’s refueling boom, marking another small step forward for fielding the troubled tanker.
U.S. Transportation Command can now task the Boeing KC-46 tanker to refuel C-17 cargo planes, B-52 bombers and other KC-46s using its refueling boom. Previously, the KC-46 was only permitted to use its centerline drogue for refueling operations requested by TRANSCOM.
The decision was made by Air Mobility Command head Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost on Aug. 5 and announced by the service on Aug. 6.
“We have reviewed many of the KC-46 operational employment criteria over the past several months and it was clear we were ready for another milestone,” said Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, who leads the KC-46 cross-functional team.
Although a fully mission-capable aircraft is still “a few years away,” the Air Force hopes to accelerate the fielding of the KC-46 by incrementally approving it for operations, Samuelson added.
According to an Air Force statement, the KC-46 has safely refueled the C-17, B-52 and KC-46 more than 4,700 times since October 2020 during training and exercises. By allowing the KC-46 to take on operational missions refueling these aircraft, the service hopes to decrease the workload on legacy KC-135 and KC-10 tankers.
Air Force leaders have asserted the service will not declare the KC-46 operational until all its critical technical deficiencies are resolved. The program currently has six category 1 deficiencies on the books. Those issues impose a risk to either safety or operations.
Two recently discovered problems are “well on track to being resolved,” Paul Waugh, the Air Force’s program executive for mobility and training aircraft, told reporters on Tuesday. They include a software issue involving the KC-46′s flight management system and cracking of the drain tube, experienced while flying in freezing temperatures.
However, the biggest problem requires a redesign of the aircraft’s Remote Vision System —which feeds video imagery to the boom operator during a refueling — and the new system will not be ready for production until at least 2023.
Boeing delivered the newest KC-46 on Aug. 6 to Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma. The company slowed down the pace of KC-46 deliveries this spring due to the pandemic but is set to ramp up to two a month, Waugh said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.