The U.S. Air Force (USAF) will not use the new KC-46 Pegasus tanker unless absolutely necessary to fight a powerful adversary, the service Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Senate legislators on Mar. 3, 2020.
According to Air Force Magazine, the aircraft subpar remote vision system (RVS), Pegasus tanker’s most pressing issue, in fact had been continually circled back during the wide-ranging Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
RVS is supposed to let Airmen see where the plane’s refueling boom is in relation to an aircraft it is trying to gas up. At around 10 feet from the receiver aircraft, the RVS doesn’t focus well enough to connect, sometimes causing the operator to hit the nearby plane.
“We are meeting every day on that topic,” Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett said. “It is really one of the highest priorities in the building.”
Barrett added that the USAF is focused on finding find a solution to the RVS problem by the end of March.
Goldfein said that Boeing’s new Chief Executive Officer David Calhoun “committed to me that the KC-46 was his top military priority and he was going to do what was required to fix it. I have seen a change in the behavior of that company since he took over. That’s why we’re more confident sitting here today that we have a serious fix on the table.”
KC-46 is slated to be ready for operations in 2023 or 2024. But Goldfein still isn’t comfortable enough with the tanker to let it fly regular missions. Instead, the Air Force will only send it into battle with highly trained crews if absolutely necessary.
The KC-46A is the first phase in recapitalizing the U.S. Air Force’s aging tanker fleet. With greater refueling, cargo and aeromedical evacuation capabilities compared to the KC-135, the KC-46A is aimed to provide next generation aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and partner-nation receivers.
But, without an RVS fix in place, Airmen would not only deal with blurry vision but also issues like a blinding glare off of the receiver airplane on clear, sunny days.
“If we go to a high-end contingency, we will put every KC-46 we have into the fight,” Goldfein said of a conflict with a country like Russia or China. “We won’t use it for day-to-day operations, but it will be made available for a contingency.”
In addition to refueling, the KC-46A can accommodate a mixed load of passengers, cargo capabilities and aeromedical missions. Goldfein said the USAF is still in the process of certifying the KC-46 for aeromedical flights. The jets will begin aeromedical missions as soon as certification is complete.
KC-46 is a $32 billion, 179-jet program expected to deliver aircraft into the late 2020s, after the Air Force received its first Pegasus more than a year behind schedule. He added that the Air Force and Boeing also need to determine a schedule for retrofitting already-built tankers with the new RVS.
Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the committee’s top Democrat, worried that if a conflict breaks out between the U.S. and another military that requires the KC-46, Airmen who aren’t familiar with the tanker’s issues would endanger themselves or others. Goldfein answered that people will spend some time with the KC-46 during testing and that experienced crews will head into combat.
“When you’re on the receiving end, all you need is a stable boom,” Goldfein said. “Because you’re training on refueling all the time, the boom, is the boom, is the boom. It’s not going to matter that much for the receiver. We’ve just got to make sure that when that fighter, bomber, or what have you comes off and they’re low on gas and they’re in really bad territory, like I’ve been, that that connection happens and they get the fuel pass that they need.”
However, despite the issues the KC-46A is experiencing and weak Foreign Military Sales, on Mar. 3 US State Department has approved the sale of eight Pegasus tankers to Israel for an estimated $2.4 billion.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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