Air Force aerial refueling facing critical gaps as KC-46 deliveries lag, top official says

A U.S. Air Force F-16 receives fuel from a KC-46 Pegasus, the service's new tanker, during a mission over Florida, Dec. 12, 2019. The Air Force may have to employ aging tankers longer than planned or rely on private contractors to fill the gaps caused by delays in developing and fielding the KC-46.


By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 29, 2020

Boeing's failure to deliver its new KC-46 Pegasus aerial refuelers on schedule could force the military to rely either on private defense contractors or keep using aging tankers to meet its needs, the U.S. Transportation Command’s top officer said.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to mitigate the delayed fielding of the KC-46,” Gen. Stephen Lyons said Tuesday, while speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington D.C.

The Air Force has already planned on the retirement of a select number of its KC-135 Stratotankers and KC-10 Extenders, even as the Boeing-run KC-46 program struggles to develop and field new tankers, he said.

“If we’re not careful we’re going to see a real dip, a bathtub, in taskable tails for the joint force,” Lyons said, referring to the number of mission-ready tankers. He said he was working with the Air Force to fill in the gaps, “so we have continuous coverage of the joint force while we work through the issues ... with the KC-46.”

The Air Force has been seeking to replace its Eisenhower-era KC-135 since the early 2000s. The service has 153 of the refuelers in active duty units and another 243 in the National Guard and Reserve, the Air Force says on its website.

In 2008, the service selected a modified tanker version of the Airbus A330 commercial airliner over Boeing’s offer of a 767 derivative. But that decision was nullified after Boeing complained about the selection process, and in 2011 Boeing won the renewed tender for a tanker capable of mid-flight refueling of fighter planes and other aircraft.

However, Boeing has failed to provide the tankers since winning the $44 billion project. The company had promised to deliver 18 combat-ready aircraft by 2017, but Air Force leaders said this fall that likely won’t happen for several more years.

In the meantime, the Air Force has taken delivery of 30 tankers for training purposes, while Boeing continues to fix some of the aircraft’s problems, including an issue with the cameras used to guide the extended 59-foot boom into a fuel receptacle on the receiving plane.

Some solutions to the tanker shortfall include the “ability to retain some number of legacy tails,” Lyons said, referring to the KC-135s and KC-10s.

Leasing commercial tankers would “take pressure off the force,” he said, but limits include not being able to employ private tankers in a combat environment.

“I think it’s worth a look,” he said.

Aerial refueling is “the most stressed” capability across Transportation Command, Lyons said.

Stars and Stripes reporter Slobodan Lekic contributed to this report.

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U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles refuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over Qatar, Dec. 18, 2019. The Air Force may have to employ aging tankers like the KC-135 longer than planned or rely on private contractors to fill the gaps caused by delays in developing and fielding the new KC-46.

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