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US Air Force clears KC-46 tanker for limited refueling ops

KC-46 Pegasus limited refueling operations
A KC-46A refuels a US Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet off the coast of Maryland, July 1, 2020. Photo: US Navy

The US Air Force has given its green light for the KC-46A Pegasus tanker to start limited refueling operations with the centerline drogue system mission set.

The first Interim Capability Release (ICR) that will allow these operations was approved by Air Mobility Command commander Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost on July 9.

This decision provides more daily “taskable” operational capabilities to the joint team and increases capacity for tanker fleet requirements, the service said in a release.

“The last six months of operational use and programmatic evaluation indicate conditions have been met for ICR declaration of the centerline drogue system mission set,” said Van Ovost. “This decision reflects a risk-informed, data-driven, constraint-analyzed approach to releasing KC-46A operational capabilities to the joint force.”

The ICR plan was announced by Van Ovost in February as the command looks for ways to meet the joint force’s extensive aerial refueling requirements while the Air Force continues tanker recapitalization and divestiture efforts.

“This has required AMC to explore a variety of options or ‘tanker levers’ to relieve stress on today’s force,” said Van Ovost at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in February. “Increasing KC-46A operational use is the single largest lever available to bring additional air refueling capacity to meet joint force requirements as the tanker fleet is recapitalized to meet the needs of our combatant commanders.”

The Air Force added it continues to conduct boom air refueling with fighter, bomber and transport aircraft for training, exercise, demonstration and familiarization missions before formally operationalizing the capability. The ICR concept provides a data-driven approach to certify these capabilities incrementally as the program moves toward full operational capability (FOC).

“ICR codifies for operational use what we’re already executing daily as the KC-46A makes progress on its initial operational test and evaluation, or IOT&E, plan,” said Van Ovost. “This is about bringing increased, predictable, and taskable tanker capacity to the joint team today.”

In February, Van Ovost clarified there is no timeline associated with the ICR plan, which instead focuses on establishing confidence measures that allow the AMC commander and other senior leaders to qualitatively and quantitatively assess achievements in ICR milestones. If confidence measures are not met, then ICR on a particular mission set will not be declared.

While AMC seeks to provide increased operational capability to a stressed tanker fleet, Category-I deficiencies still need to be resolved, including the upgraded remote vision system 2.0 and a redesign of the boom telescope actuator. The KC-46A will not achieve FOC until those deficiencies are cleared.

Although FOC is still years away, substantial progress continues, the service noted. The FOC could be reached in 2023, when Boeing delivers the first tankers equipped with the reworked remote vision system.

“We’ve been simultaneously seasoning our aircrew and maintainers while identifying and wringing out deficiencies in the growing Pegasus fleet,” said Van Ovost. “We are flying and operating today with the KC-46A mission sets despite restrictions, including cross-ocean aerial refueling fighter movements, Aeromedical Evacuation missions, and cargo and passenger movements. The KC-46 is on a positive rate of climb!”