Air Force’s Problem-Plagued New Tanker Likely Won’t Deploy for 3 Years or More

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A KC-46A Pegasus from McConnell Air Force Base’s total force team, 22nd Air Refueling Wing and 931st ARW, sits on the taxiway at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, August 26, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Daniel de La Fé)
A KC-46A Pegasus from McConnell Air Force Base’s total force team, 22nd Air Refueling Wing and 931st ARW, sits on the taxiway at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, August 26, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Daniel de La Fé)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- It doesn't look as if the problems plaguing the U.S. Air Force's KC-46 Pegasus tanker will be over anytime soon.

Because of previously reported problems -- and some unforeseen new ones -- Gen. Maryanne Miller, head of Air Mobility Command, confirmed the Air Force's newest tanker aircraft, made by Boeing Co., won't be likely to deploy to a combat zone for at least three years. Additionally, AMC may ask the Air Force to slow the retirement of older KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft, Miller said Wednesday.

"I'd love to slow down the retirement because I have to keep [refueling] booms in the air, but we'll see how this requirement plays out," Miller told reporters during a roundtable discussion here at the annual Air, Space and Cyber conference.

The deployment pause and potential retirement delay is due to unsolved technical deficiencies in the KC-46 including a glitch with the software inside the Remote Vision System. The RVS permits the in-flight operator to view the refueling system below the tanker.

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"It's my hope that Boeing recognizes and shares my level of concern and urgency in this matter," Miller said.

The KC-46 has had many issues, including problems with how the boom connects and disconnects from specific aircraft, as well as a new "Category 1" deficiency, defined as a critical flaw that impacts the development, schedule and potentially safety of the aircraft. Defense News recently reported the Pegasus has been prohibited from carrying cargo or additional personnel for the time being because cargo locks -- which secure equipment into place within the aircraft -- recently unlocked during a flight.

Miller said the Air Force and Boeing will work through the latest problem, but added she's "most concerned" over the RVS, which for the time being doesn't allow an airman to look at a clear, aligned visual of the boom connecting to another aircraft. The first tankers were delivered despite that problem.

"Eight months have passed since our first delivery, and Boeing has not made any progress in addressing those [Category 1] deficiencies," she said.

"Boeing has not presented a solution that has met all the parameters," she said of the RVS, but added there is now "hard science" to diagnose the problem. "In a couple months ... what I'm looking for [is] a pass-fail grade for Boeing on this," she said.

While Miller didn't describe the characteristics behind each box the aerospace company has to check, she said the Air Force had nine total requirements.

The general said she chose not to send the KC-46 to the latest AMC-led Mobility Guardian airlift exercise in Washington in order for airmen to get more acquainted with the few aircraft they have.

The Air Force has only accepted 19 KC-46 aircraft since January. The planes have been delivered toMcConnell Air Force Base, Kansas, and Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma.

KC-46 deliveries have also been halted or delayed a number of times this year over the discovery of foreign object debris -- trash, tools, nuts and bolts, and other miscellaneous items -- scattered inside the aircraft. Loose objects are dangerous because they can cause damage over time.

Miller said Boeing now has procedures in place to avoid FOD.

"We will work through these," she said of overall technical problems. "The pressure is on to get [the KC-46] into the fight. Out teams will work together to get to the solutions to get this into the fight."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her at @oriana0214.

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