NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force on Monday said the KC-46A Pegasus refueling tanker is now cleared to carry out all refueling missions around the world on all aircraft — with one exception.
In a roundtable with reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference here, Air Mobility Command head Gen. Mike Minihan said he signed off on Friday on the final Interim Capability Release, opening up the Air Force’s 60 KC-46s to worldwide deployments. Minihan said that includes the B-2 and U.S. Strategic Command missions.
However, AMC clarified later the KC-46 still cannot refuel the A-10 Warthog due to a problem with the stiffness of its refueling boom and won’t be able to until the issue is fixed. The Air Force in 2019 awarded Boeing a contract worth up to $55.5 million to redesign the boom; that effort is still in the works.
The rollout of the Boeing-made tanker has had multiple bumps — such as a troubled Remote Vision System for controlling its boom that required a redesign, which itself was delayed several months. But on Monday, Minihan stood behind the Pegasus and said it has “enormous capability.”
“I have 100% confidence in [the Pegasus’] ability,” Minihan said. “The people that fly, fix and support it, love it. The people that refuel off it, love it.”
But more work remains, Minihan said, and AMC is now going to concentrate on putting into place the necessary fixes for the Pegasus. Until then, he said, there are still some limitations and workarounds crews must take into account.
For example, the original vision system’s picture can be distorted or difficult to see under certain lighting conditions or angles. This can sometimes put the tanker in danger of scraping the receiving aircraft with the boom.
And there are still some challenges that crews are having to work around, Minihan said, such as the ongoing vision problems with the original RVS. Minihan said that if the Pegasus’ crew is having trouble seeing through the RVS, for example, the air crew will position the plane differently so the angles or lighting conditions aren’t as problematic. He said the upgraded version of RVS, dubbed RVS 2.0, will fix this problem.
A comment from Boeing on AMC’s announcement was not immediately available.
The announcement of the Pegasus’ final Interim Capability Release follows the tanker’s recent first refueling mission during real-world operations, which took place in the Middle East area.
On Aug. 29, three KC-46s in the region for a training exercise at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar refueled two F-15E Strike Eagle fighters with the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron carrying out U.S. Central Command missions. A fourth Pegasus also there for a training exercise remained on standby.
The Air Force said in the release this mission marked the first time the KC-46′s Military Data Network communications system was successfully used in combat. This onboard system lets the Pegasus act as a secure node connecting an air operations center on the ground with other aircraft flying nearby, increasing awareness of what is happening on the battlefield.
“The KC-46 now officially joins the rest of the Air Force’s refueling fleet in meeting combatant command requirements around the world,” Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, the head of AMC’s KC-46 cross functional team, said in the release. “But the KC-46A is a game changer in its ability to transmit and exchange data between networks, arming warfighters with real-time battlefield awareness [and] extending the joint force’s reach, flexibility and endurance capabilities.”
Minihan also praised the KC-46′s connectivity and ability to expand airmen’s picture of the battlefield alongside its refueling capabilities.
“It’s not only giving situational awareness via the net, it’s also extending lethality via its refueling,” Minihan said.
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.