The USAF wants to cut 29 KC-135s and KC-10s, but the House and Senate’s drafts of the 2021 defense policy bill blocks KC-135 divestment while allowing some KC-10s to retire in phases over time.
US Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons, the head of US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) said on Oct. 7 2020 he sees new “momentum” to protect some legacy tanker aircraft from retirement to avoid an oncoming “train wreck” of a tanker shortage while the new KC-46 is delayed.
As reported by Air Force Magazine, the looming tanker shortage is the No. 1 problem facing the command. Active-duty KC-135s and KC-10s are the “most stressed in the mobility enterprise,” Lyons said, and those aircraft are the “most relevant to any crisis or surge.”
Boeing is eight years later than the company was originally expected to start delivering fully capable KC-46s: the Pegasus in fact is plagued with issues—most notably with its remote vision system (RVS)—that make it unprepared to deploy until at least 2023.
“We were in a perfectly predictable train wreck, to be honest with you, because we had counted on the fielding of the KC-46, and we had banked on the divestitures of the legacy fleet to bring on the new weapon system,” Lyons pointed out. “But you can appreciate, with the delays, that that was not going to occur. And so, we’ve gotten some positive momentum.”
The US Air Force (USAF) wants to cut 29 KC-135s and KC-10s, but the House and Senate’s drafts of the 2021 defense policy bill blocks KC-135 divestment while allowing some KC-10s to retire in phases over time. The Senate version would block the retirement altogether.
TRANSCOM has repeatedly called on Congress to keep older tankers flying longer until the KC-46 is ready: according to Lyons in fact the USAF’s plan to retire KC-135 and KC-10 aircraft would create a “dip in operational capability in day-to-day operations.”
Lyons said he is pleased with Boeing’s progress toward fixing the RVS, which allows airmen to see the aircraft they are trying to refuel.
The improved RVS 2.0 that Boeing will install on the KC-46 includes LiDAR (light detecting and ranging) sensors that could allow autonomous aerial refueling.
On Apr. 2, 2020 in fact Boeing agreed to fix the KC-46’s troubled Remote Vision System by creating an overhauled RVS 2.0 with new hardware and software. USAF acquisition executive Will Roper explained that those changes would include the addition of 4K high-definition cameras that will display imagery in color as well as modern processors and LiDAR (light detecting and ranging) sensors that could allow autonomous aerial refueling sand that will help improve depth perception.
With the help of scientists and engineers from both enterprises, the USAF will lead design reviews and approve specifications to drive the partnership toward initial fielding in 2023.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Christopher Okula