RAF FAIRFORD, England — The U.S. Air Force’s next budget proposal will likely show whether it is going to hold a competition for its next aerial refueling tanker or buy more KC-46 Pegasus aircraft from Boeing.
The Air Force needs more tankers to bridge the gap between current capabilities and the next-generation KC-Z tanker it is planning. The KC-46 is one option, as is Lockheed Martin’s LMXT tanker, which is a modified Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport.
In recent months, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has suggested the Air Force could opt to skip the competition for the bridge tanker, dubbed the KC-Y, and instead buy more KC-46 planes.
In a roundtable with reporters at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in England on July 16, U.S. Air Force acquisition chief Andrew Hunter said that he will be the one who decides on a potential competition, in consultation with Kendall and Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown.
Hunter said by this fall, the service will have collected the information it needs to chart a course. He will need some time to digest and consider the information, and make sure Air Force officials are in agreement on the way ahead.
“You can expect us to have our plan” as the Air Force moves into the 2024 budget cycle, Hunter said.
Kendall told reporters in a March that studies into what the Air Force will need for its future tanker led it to start reconsidering whether a competition is necessary. The requirements for this tanker “started to look like a modified KC-46, more than they do a completely new design.”
The suggestion has been criticized by some lawmakers. Rep. Jerry Carl, R-Alabama, last month introduced an amendment during the House Armed Services Committee’s markup of the National Defense Authorization Act that would have required the Air Force to hold a competition for the KC-Y. That amendment was voted down.
“We cannot let the DoD, the Air Force, any branch of the government continue to run away with our checkbook and do what they want to do,” Carl said at the time. “They have to be responsible.”
Hunter said that in addition to figuring out what the Air Force’s requirements will be for its bridge tanker, it must consider what mix of aircraft it will need in its fleet to decide how big of a buy it will make.
When asked whether he is confident enough in Boeing and the Pegasus to consider going with more of them, he pointed to the improvement in the KC-46′s capabilities over the last year.
“Compared to a year ago at this time … we’d say ‘We’re not using the KC-46, it’s not really operational,’” Hunter said. “There’s been a huge sea change in the last year, and Air Mobility Command has really cleared the way for operational use of the KC-46.”
Last month, AMC announced the KC-46 had been approved to refuel 97% of the aircraft flown on U.S. Transportation Command missions.
And a year from now, Hunter predicted the Air Force will have a “very robust and operationally viable KC-46.”
He acknowledged quality control issues Boeing has had with the KC-46, most notably multiple problems with debris left in some planes when they were delivered to the Air Force, and said he wouldn’t minimize those problems. But, he said, their work has improved since then.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.