WASHINGTON ― The U.S. Air Force needs more flying tankers to bridge the gap between current capabilities and the next-generation KC-Z refueling aircraft it is planning. The Boeing KC-46A is one option, as is Lockheed Martin’s LMXT, which is a modified version of Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport.
The following are frequently asked questions about the KC-46A.
What is the KC-46A Pegasus?
The KC-46A Pegasus is the latest Boeing-designed tanker used for mid-air refueling of aircraft. In development for more than a decade, the KC-46A takes on operations previously handled by the KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender. It features boom and hose-and-drogue systems that are able to refuel all U.S., allied and coalition military aircraft compatible with international refueling procedures.
Who makes it?
The Air Force first contracted with Boeing in 2011 to manufacture 179 KC-46As to begin modernizing and replacing the Air Force’s more than 60-year-old KC-135 fleet. Manufactured at Boeing’s factory in Everett, Washington, the KC-46A is a variation of the Boeing 767 commercial passenger aircraft, and will come off the line as a “767-2C Provisioned Freighter that will eventually become a military-configured KC-46 tanker,” according to the 88th Air Base Wing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Is the KC-46A in service?
As of Dec. 5, 2022, Boeing said the KC-46A has flown more than 400 sorties per month and offloaded 94 million pounds of fuel to aircraft worldwide. It’s capable of holding more than 210,000 pounds of fuel at take-off.
Have there been problems with the KC-46A tanker?
Unlike the KC-135 and KC-10 it is designed to replace, the KC-46A refuels aircraft with its operators using a Remote Vision System of cameras and sensors to guide the boom into the receiving aircraft.
The aircraft has been been riddled with technical issues, including problems with the RVS, costing Boeing billions of dollars to fix and delaying its fuller integration into the Air Force.
The cameras and sensors can distort a boom operator’s view or make the picture hard to see in certain light, so tankers run the risk of scraping the boom on other aircraft mid-flight. The Air Force designated the problem as a category I deficiency, one of the most serious issues with an aircraft.
In January 2022, Boeing recorded a 14 percent drop in its defense business sales, partially due to the poor performance and technical issues of the KC-46A.
What is being done to address the RVS issue?
In April 2022, Boeing agreed to a plan with the U.S. Air Force that would replace the RVS with a new system ― the Remote Vision System 2.0. Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Samantha Morrison told Defense News in a statement that Boeing would cover the costs of the new RVS 2.0 updates needed for the KC-46A. The service hopes to begin installing the new system on jets in 2023.
Are the fixes working?
With its initial flight in December 2014, the KC-46 only got its first interim capability release mission ― a test of what aircraft can be refueled by the plane ― in July 2021 because of ongoing problems with the vision system.
After years of delays, the Air Force said in September 2022 the Pegasus is cleared to fly routine missions as tasked by U.S. Transportation Command on all aircraft but the A-10C Thunderbolt II attack plane. The jet is allowed to refuel aircraft worldwide despite multiple ongoing problems with the vision system, the refueling boom and other components.
“The KC-46A is a game-changer in its ability to transmit and exchange data between networks, arming warfighters with real-time battlefield awareness — extending the joint force’s reach, flexibility and endurance capabilities,” Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, Air Mobility Command’s KC-46A cross-functional team lead, said in a release.
How many KC-46A tankers does the Air Force want?
The Air Force has asked Congress to lower the minimum number of tankers needed in the Air Force’s tanker fleet. Congress set the minimum number of tankers needed in case a war broke out at 479 in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which was based on a U.S. Transportation Command study in 2018.
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, at a Heritage foundation event, said that he believes 455 tankers would be adequate to counter adversaries.
How much has the KC-46A program cost?
The tanker has officially cost Boeing more to fix than the total price of the contract it signed with the Air Force. Since that first flight in 2014, Boeing has had to foot the bill to resolve its myriad design flaws. While Boeing signed a $4.9 billion deal with the Air Force to build the tanker, the company had accumulated almost $7 billion in charges owed as of October 2022.
Air Force Times Senior Reporter Rachel Cohen contributed to this story.
Editor’s note: This story was updated July 27 to more accurately reflect the age of the KC-135, and on Dec. 5 to include new information.
Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.