Eying growing and distinct threats that may require the United States and Israel to conduct long-range airstrikes, both militaries urgently need to replace their aging aerial refueling fleets with the modernized KC-46A. The problem is the aircraft has been plagued by development challenges and delays.
The good news is there are steps the U.S. and Israel can take together to avoid further delays and reduce the time it takes for Israel’s Air Force to use its KC-46s in real-world missions once the new tanker arrives.
An announcement Tuesday that Boeing and the U.S. Air Force have agreed on a plan to further upgrade the aircraft’s problematic Remote Vision System is a positive sign. Regardless, even as Iran continues to inch toward a nuclear weapons capability, Israel knows it likely won’t receive its first KC-46 from the United States until 2025 or later. That’s a problem given Israel’s reliance on decades-old 707 refuelers that are increasingly expensive, difficult to maintain and lack some of the capabilities of the KC-46.
This is a concern for the United States, too. When the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced the administration’s approval of the sale of KC-46s to Israel in March 2020, the agency noted that “the sale improves Israel’s national security posture as a key U.S. ally,” lessens the burden on U.S. aerial refueling assets and serves U.S. national interests.
At this point, to expedite the delivery of the KC-46 to Israel and lock in Jerusalem’s place in the queue for the aircraft, the most important thing is to finalize the contract for the Israeli KC-46 aircraft. If this contract is not signed by August, the delivery of the KC-46 to Israel may be delayed by an additional year.
But finalizing the contract is not enough, and the U.S. Air Force should not stop there.
Israel’s Air Force needs the ability to employ its KC-46s in operations against adversaries. That requires Israeli pilots who know how to fly the aircraft and use its avionics, crews that can operate the KC-46′s refueling capabilities, fighter pilots who know how to receive fuel from the tanker, and ground personnel who possess the requisite maintenance and sustainment know-how. That’s a daunting list of capabilities that will take time to develop.
Once Israel receives its KC-46s, it could take months before they’re ready to be employed in vital, real-world operations. The good news, however, is that these capabilities can be developed in both the United States and Israel long before the first Israeli KC-46s arrive.
The U.S. Air Force should start by allotting training slots for Israeli pilots, crew members and maintainers in the appropriate KC-46-related courses in fiscal 2023 and fiscal 2024. The goal should be for Israel to have the necessary personnel trained in advance of the earliest possible arrival date of the KC-46.
This flight crew training is conducted at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma, consisting of academic, simulator and flight portions. In anticipation of receiving KC-46s, Tokyo sent Japan Air Self-Defense Force personnel to Altus to complete this training, and the U.S. Air Force should ensure Israelis have the same opportunity. An initial cadre of Israeli KC-46 maintenance personnel, who would later train other Israelis, could also be trained in the United States.
Admittedly, as the U.S. Air Force ramps up its fielding of the KC-46, many of these training programs and schools may have limited slots, and the Pentagon cannot afford to delay the training of American airmen. To avoid that scenario and ensure Israel has the necessary personnel trained in time, Congress should work with the Air Force now to ensure the U.S. KC-46 training base has the necessary resources, personnel and throughput for FY23 and beyond.
Once the Israeli personnel are trained, the Pentagon and Israel’s Defense Ministry should use the U.S. Air Force’s Military Personnel Exchange Program to embed some Israeli pilots as well as crew and maintenance personnel in U.S. Air Force units already operating the KC-46. That will create valuable opportunities for Americans and Israelis to share best practices, increasing the readiness of both air forces and improving their ability to operate together.
As a potential hurdle to this plan, some might cite the fact that the U.S. Air Force is not expected to declare the KC-46 has reached initial or full operational capability before 2024, but that misses the point.
The U.S. Air Force’s KC-46s have already flown over 10,000 missions since January 2019, operating above every continent except for Antarctica. That includes four U.S. KC-46s operating from Morón Air Base in Spain and conducting air refueling over Germany and Poland for U.S. fighters and bombers bolstering NATO’s eastern front following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Despite some of its development challenges, the KC-46 is already approved to refuel 85% of the aircraft in the Pentagon’s inventory that are capable of aerial refueling.
Accordingly, once Israelis start to complete the KC-46 training in the U.S., there will be ample opportunities to embed them in U.S. Air Force KC-46 units conducting operations.
To reinforce these programs, Air Mobility Command, working with Central Command, should also look for opportunities to forward deploy U.S. KC-46s to Israel for a few weeks or months, just as Air Mobility Command is already doing in Europe. That would help Israelis prepare for the arrival of their own KC-46s and answer open questions regarding the tanker’s ability to refuel Israeli F-16I fighter aircraft.
From an American perspective, such a plan would also support the Pentagon’s dynamic force employment concept and the Air Force’s agile combat employment concept.
Dynamic force employment, introduced in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, seeks to employ U.S. combat power with more agility and flexibility. As commander of U.S. European Command, Gen. Tod Wolters testified on March 29 the concept’s goal is “to demonstrate operational unpredictability to adversaries, improve deterrence and support allies.”
Similarly, the Air Force describes its doctrine of agile combat employment as a means “to assure allies and partner nations of US support, alter adversary or enemy understanding of friendly intentions and capabilities, posture to deter aggression, or gain a positional advantage.”
The temporary forward deployment of U.S. KC-46s to Israel would directly support these American warfighting concepts.
In addition, the Air Force should consider sending KC-46s to participate in future iterations of the Greek-hosted Iniochos military exercise and the Israeli-hosted Blue Flag exercise. That would enhance U.S.-Israel military interoperability and provide Israeli fighter pilots with opportunities to practice refueling with the KC-46 in a realistic training environment.
If the U.S. Air Force and Congress act now to help Israel prepare for the arrival of its KC-46s, they can minimize the time between receipt of the aircraft and their employment in combat operations. That will be good for both Israel and the United States.
Bradley Bowman is senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Enia Krivine is senior director of the Israel Program.