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New KC-46A tanker can now refuel all but one aircraft in the US Air Force fleet

KC-46A interim capability releases
US Air Force file photo of the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker conducting receiver compatibility tests with a C-17 Globemaster III

The US Air Force’s new KC-46A Pegasus has been cleared to refuel aircraft on all missions as part of the final Interim Capability Release mission set.

Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command, approved the KC-46A Pegasus for worldwide deployments to meet combatant command taskings effective September 14.

The only aircraft the new aerial refueling tanker still cannot refuel is the A-10, due to issues with the tanker’s boom.

“We are ready to use this aircraft globally in any fight, without hesitation,” Minihan said.

The KC-46A recently completed an employment concept exercise in the US Central Command area of operations, during which it was evaluated while filling real-world taskings in support of combat operations, supplementing other tanker aircraft in theater.

During the exercise, the KC-46A refueled its first operationally-tasked mission in a combat zone when it refueled two F-15E Strike Eagles assigned to the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. As part of that same mission, the aircraft conducted the first successful combat use of the Military Data Network, an onboard communications system that allows the KC-46 to serve as a secure interface between the on-ground Air Operations Center and airborne aircraft operating in its vicinity, thereby providing increased battlespace situational awareness.

The US Air Force has been gradually introducing more mission sets, referred to as “interim capability releases” by the service, for the tanker since July last year.

Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, AMC’s KC-46A Cross Functional Team lead, described the significance of fielding the aircraft on a global scale.

“The KC-46 now officially joins the rest of the Air Force’s refueling fleet in meeting combatant command requirements around the world,” Samuelson said. “But the KC-46A is a game changer in its ability to transmit and exchange data between networks, arming warfighters with real-time battlefield awareness – extending the joint force’s reach, flexibility, and endurance capabilities.”

During the exercise, the KC-46A completed 206 flight hours offloading 1.46 million pounds of fuel to 66 aircraft.

The decision also marked the closing of the final Interim Capability Release, a 15-month process that ensured the KC-46A can refuel all applicable aircraft to meet the needs of combatant commanders.

“We have rapidly operationalized this aircraft to support the joint force,” Minihan said. “We’re taking a hard look at our entire toolkit to make sure we extract maximum value to be ready for a high-end fight.”

The air force is still working with Boeing on fixing the Remote Vision System, which is expected to be completed in 2023, allowing the tanker to achieve initial operational capability.

Issues with the KC-46A have led the US Air Force to start probing the market for a “bridge tanker program”, which would acquire commercial derivative tanker aircraft to supplement the Pegasus fleet.