NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force said Monday that the KC-46A Pegasus tanker is now certified for all refueling missions around the world on all aircraft — with one exception.
Speaking to reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference here, Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Mike Minihan said he signed the final release of interim capabilities Friday, and the Air Force’s 60 KC-46s for worldwide assignments open. Minihan said this includes the B-2 and US Strategic Command missions.
However, AMC later clarified that the KC-46 still cannot refuel the A-10 Warthog due to an issue with its refueling boom stiffness, and will not be able to do so until the issue is resolved. The Air Force awarded Boeing a contract worth up to $55.5 million in 2019 for a boom redesign. these efforts are still in progress.
The Boeing-made tanker’s rollout had several bumps — like a malfunctioning remote vision system to control its boom, which required a redesign that was itself delayed by several months. But on Monday, Minihan sided with the Pegasus, saying he had “tremendous ability.”
“I have 100 percent confidence in that [the Pegasus’] ability,” Minihan said. “The people who fly it, fix it and support it love it. The people who fill it up love it.”
But more work remains, Minihan said, and AMC will now focus on making the necessary fixes for the Pegasus. Until then, he said, there are still some caveats and workarounds for crews to consider.
For example, the image from the original imaging system may be distorted or difficult to see under certain lighting conditions or angles. This can sometimes put the tanker in danger of scratching the receiving aircraft with the boom.
And there are still some challenges crews have to work around, Minihan said, such as the ongoing vision issues with the original RVS. Minihan said if the Pegasus crew had trouble seeing through the RVS, for example, the flight crew would reposition the plane so the angles or lighting conditions weren’t as problematic. He said the updated version of RVS, dubbed RVS 2.0, will fix this problem.
Comment from Boeing on the AMC announcement was not immediately available.
The announcement of Pegasus’ final Interim Capability Release follows the tanker’s recent first real-world refueling mission, which took place in the Middle East.
On Aug 29, three KC-46s in the region refueled two F-15E Strike Eagle fighters with the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron conducting U.S. Central Command missions for a training exercise at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. A fourth Pegasus also remained on standby for a training exercise.
The Air Force said in the press release that this mission marked the first time the KC-46’s military data network communications system had been successfully used in combat. This onboard system allows the Pegasus to act as a secure hub, connecting a ground operations center with other nearby aircraft, increasing awareness of what is happening on the battlefield.
“The KC-46 now officially joins the rest of the Air Force’s refueling fleet to meet the needs of combat commands around the world,” said Brig. Gen. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, the KC-46 cross-functional team leader by AMC, said in the press release. “But the KC-46A is a game changer in its ability to transmit and exchange data between networks, providing warfighters with real-time battlefield awareness [and] Expanding the reach, flexibility and endurance of the combined power.”
Minihan also praised the KC-46’s connectivity and ability to expand the airmen’s view of the battlefield alongside its refueling capabilities.
“Not only is there situational awareness over the net, it also extends lethality through refueling,” Minihan said.
Stephen Losey is an air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at the Air Force Times and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover US Air Force operations.