The US Air Force has cleared its troubled KC-46 Pegasus tanker for more missions as it slowly introduces more and more capabilities for the aircraft.
Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, approved the third interim capability release (ICR) mission set for the tanker on October 13, allowing the KC-46 to refuel all variants of the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon during US Transportation Command tasked missions.
The previous two releases included limited refueling operations with the centerline drogue system mission set and the ability to refuel the C-17 Globemaster III, B-52H Stratofortress and KC-46 receivers using the air refueling boom mission set.
“The KC-46 can now support 62 percent of all receiver aircraft that request air refueling support from USTRANSCOM,” said Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, AMC Deputy Director of Strategy, Plans, Requirements and Programs and KC-46 Cross Functional Team Lead. “This step forward accelerates the critical projection and connection warfighting requirements the Pegasus brings to the joint force, even before it’s fully operational.”
This ICR allows the Pegasus aircraft and crews to accept operational taskings which would otherwise be filled by the KC-135 Stratotanker and KC-10 Extender, increasing the force’s air refueling capacity.
Despite existing restrictions and deficiencies, the KC-46 continues to demonstrate its growing operational capabilities, the service said. The Pegasus has completed over 6,000 missions, offloading over 35 million pounds of fuel, and making 26,000 boom and 1,500 drogue contacts since January 2019.
On July 9, 2021, the first ICR decision approved the KC-46A Pegasus to refuel aircraft using its centerline drogue system. The second ICR decision, which approved the KC-46 to refuel the B-52, C-17 and other KC-46 aircraft using its boom, was made August 5, 2021.
There is no timeline associated with the overall ICR plan, which instead focuses on establishing incremental confidence measures that allow the AMC commander and other senior leaders to qualitatively and quantitatively assess achievements at ICR milestones.
KC-46 is a widebody, multirole tanker designed for refueling, cargo and medical transport. While based on the commercial 767-2C airframe, the KC-46A has been plagued by a multitude of issues ranging from integrated fuel systems and refueling booms to its remote vision system which is crucial for safe air-to-air refueling in all lighting conditions.
Boeing began developing the KC-46A for the US Air Force in 2011 and delivered the first tanker in January 2019, following a two-year delay.
The air force’s newest tanker is scheduled to reach initial operational capability in 2024, which would represent a seven-year delay. As the tanker continues to grapple with issues, the service has started probing the market for a “bridge tanker program”, which would acquire commercial derivative tanker aircraft to supplement the Pegasus fleet.