WASHINGTON — The US Air Force on Tuesday stood up its first KC-46 training unit, but looking forward, the head of Air Mobility Command said the service may need more new refueling tankers than the current program of record.
With Air Force's 56th Air Refueling Squadron at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, now active, it can begin training KC-46A aircrew this fall. But Gen. Carlton Everhart, commander of the Air Mobility Command, has already started turning his gaze to potential follow-on tanker programs.
"As I look at our modernization, I look at 179 aircraft, and I go: Is that enough? I can tell you right now, because of the combatant war fighter needs that I have — and I serve nine combatant war fighters in the joint fight — I'm going to need more of those aircraft. Maybe not the KC-46. Maybe a KC-Y or KC-Z," he said, referring to the two tanker buys that would follow the current 179-aircraft program of record buy of the KC-46.
The Air Force has not cemented its plans for KC-Y or KC-Z procurement, but it is assumed that Boeing would offer an updated version of the KC-46, which would then compete against vendors hoping to grab the program away from the incumbent.
"Our proposal is to jump from the Y, and go straight into innovation with technology and go to the KC-Z," Everhart said.
The first KC-46 will be delivered to Altus in 2017, but training aerial refueling specialists is a "multiyear process," said Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, who leads Air Education and Training Command. The command is already evaluating which pilot training class will be the first to operate the KC-46 once the basic course is completed, he said.
The Air Force constructed five new facilities in order to support the KC-46 training mission, with the last one finishing construction last month, he said during an Aug. 30 news conference at the base.
"Timing-wise we’re right on schedule and doing what we need to be doing," he said. "These facilities are obviously critical to now get into, get set up, so that we can receive the KC-46 for delivery."
Oklahoma Republicans including Gov. Mary Fallin, Sens. James Inhofe and James Lankford, and Rep. Frank Lucas spoke during the activation ceremony, and Boeing executives were also in attendance.
Boeing is contractually obligated to deliver 18 certified KC-46s to the Air Force, with half of that number going to Altus and the others to McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. The company announced earlier this year that it would miss its initial August 2017 deadline, and instead will hand all of the tankers over to the service by January 2018.
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.