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Troubled KC-46 tankers cleared for limited ops, Air Force says

Air Force's Boeing KC-46 tankers (Ken Fielding/WikiCommons)

The Air Force has cleared its KC-46 aerial refueling tanker for limited, non-combat flights operations even though it needs a new refueling system, new boom, and more testing with some of the military’s most important fighters, bombers, and attack jets.

Those modifications will keep the Boeing-made planes away from the battlefield for at least two more years, said Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the head of Air Mobility Command. Van Ovost said the decision to put some of the KC-46s into the air would free up heavily used, decades-old KC-135 and KC-10 tankers for overseas missions.

“What changes with this approach is we will now commit the KC-46 to execute missions similar to the ones they’ve been conducting over the past few years in the operational test and evaluation plan, but can now include operational taskings from U.S. Transportation Command,” Van Ovost said during a Wednesday call with reporters.

The KC-46 is cleared to gas up B-52 bombers and F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 fighters over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans as the warplanes fly from U.S. bases to points overseas. The tankers can also carry passengers and cargo and perform aeromedical evacuation flights.

“What’s helped us get to this point is the seasoning of our aircrew and maintainers,” Van Ovost said. “Through execution of more than 60 percent of the KC-46A operational test and evaluation plan, they’ve increasingly demonstrated proficiency and propensity to open the envelope on the missions they’re flying.”

The KC-46 still cannot refuel an A-10 attack jet until the tanker’s refueling boom is redesigned. It also cannot gas up the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, or the B-1 bomber, because test trials with those planes are unfinished.

Earlier this month, Van Ovost hinted that the KC-46 might see more action despite the needed redesigns. The decision to start using the tankers in limited operations came after Air Force and congressional leaders flew refueling missions on two KC-46 aircraft last weekend.

“I remain confident that accepting the KC-46A with known deficiencies offers the fastest route to fielding a fully operational weapon system,” Van Ovost said. “That said, serious deficiencies and restrictions remain with the KC-46A weapon system, and Boeing is still responsible for installing Remote Visual System 2.0 and redesigning the boom telescope actuator.”

The KC-46 was supposed to be ready for operations in 2017, but the plane has faced numerous development and quality control issues. it is not expected to be war-ready until late 2023. Boeing has lost more than $5 billion on the project.

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