US Air Force Won’t Use Its Brand New Boeing Tanker Planes Except in an Emergency. A Fix Expected by 2023 or 2024
USAF has already accepted 30 and continues to accept more
The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of eight KC-46A Pegasus tankers to Israel, which is in the process of selecting a replacement for its aging Boeing 707-based tankers.
This comes as the U.S. Air Force has revealed that it is looking at new delays in developing critical fixes for its KC-46As and that there is still no clear schedule for when existing aircraft will actually receive those modifications.
In the meantime, the service won’t be using the Pegasuses it has now for routine combat or non-combat aerial refueling missions, except in an emergency.
This is interesting given that earlier today Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein told members of Congress that his service was still working with Boeing to develop a path forward for fixing the KC-46A’s long-troubled Remote Vision System (RVS) and that he expected the revised system to be ready for fielding between 2023 and 2024. Last year, the estimate was that this work would be complete by either 2022 or 2023.
“Right now we are in final negotiations with the company on the fix, so I’ve got to be a little careful about how much detail I go into,” he explained during the hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Mar. 3. “But I did have a follow-up conversation with the [Boeing] CEO [Dave Calhoun] and I told him that not only the quality of a serious hardware fix is important, but also time. Because the longer we wait to get that operational, the longer we’re having to extend KC-135s, KC-10s, and it just continues to add up.”
Reports had emerged in January that the Air Force was not happy with Boeing’s proposals for fixing the RVS. At the same time, the service has said that it feels its relationship with the company has been on a more positive track since former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg resigned in December 2019 over a raft of issues, including the 737 MAX scandal. Calhoun took over as CEO in January.
The issues with the RVS are well-established and have been known for some time now. You can read more about the specifics in these past War Zone pieces. The basic crux of the matter is that the system can’t be trusted to provide an accurate picture of what is going on at the rear of the plane to boom operators sitting in the main cabin of the KC-46A. This, in turn, increases the risks to the tanker and any receiving aircraft of serious accidents.
Goldfein also said that there is still no firm schedule for when it will begin actually taking delivery of KC-46As with the RVS fixes or how long it might take to integrate them into the Pegasuses that Air Force has already accepted. As of December 2019, the service had received 30 of these tankers, the bulk of which are assigned to operational units. However, there are no plans to use them for aerial refueling missions until the improved vision system arrives.
“If we go to a high-end contingency, we will put every KC-46 we have into the fight,” Goldfein said. “We won’t use it for day-to-day operations, but it will be made available for a contingency.”
This was clearly meant to be reassuring, but is actually a pretty damning assessment of the aircraft’s utility in its present form.
Goldfien is saying is that the Air Force would have to commit tankers to operations during a major conflict, potentially against a near-peer such as Russia or China, that it is not comfortable using for routine missions where the stakes are infinitely lower.
This comes as the Air Force has proposed retiring 13 KC-135s and 16 KC-10s in the 2021 Fiscal Year, a plan that increasingly appears dead on arrival in Congress. U.S. Army General Stephen Lyons, head of U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), publicly decried this proposal during his own trip to Capitol Hill last week.
Concerns about tanker capacity have been mounting for a while now, amid the persistent troubles with the KC-46A, and there is growing talk about seeking out other alternatives, such as contractor-operated tankers for non-combat missions. The Air Force has said that it could use the Pegasuses for cargo-carrying and medical evacuation missions in the interim.
It’s not clear what all this might mean for any future Israeli KC-46As, or those destined for other foreign operators. Japan, the first and so far only confirmed customer beyond the U.S. Air Force, has orders for two Pegauses and Boeing says it will deliver the first one in 2021, years before the RVS fix is scheduled to be ready.
It’s hard to see how KC-46As will be able to significantly improve the capabilities of any Air Force, including Israel’s, until Boeing can demonstrate that they can reliably perform their primary aerial refueling mission.
Source: The Drive