WASHINGTON — The US Air Force’s top civilian official said Wednesday that the service is considering a 5% reduction in the minimum number of aerial tankers it is required to keep in its fleet.
And Air Mobility Command announced later in the day that the KC-46A Pegasus tanker is now authorized to refuel approximately 97% of aircraft flown on US Transportation Command missions.
During an event at the Heritage Foundation think tank, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said the service plans to seek Congressional approval to reduce its tanker fleet requirements to a minimum. from 479 refueling aircraft to 455.
Congress set that requirement of 479 when it passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2019, which was based on a 2018 TRANSCOM study that found that number to be the minimum fleet size required in case of war. At the end of 2021, the Air Force had approximately 490 tankers in its fleet.
Kendall said a capability of at least 455 tankers would be “sufficient” to respond to a threat from China, which the military sees as the current U.S. challenge, as well as other missions. But as the Air Force carefully considers its priorities in a difficult fiscal environment, the service “can’t do it all all the time,” he said. And he warned that the service’s ability to respond to several major crises at once could be tested.
“Given the threats we face, the idea that we can wage a major war and a major contingency simultaneously is overblown,” Kendall said.
The Hudson Institute said in a November 2021 study that the Air Force’s refueling capability had become fragile and aged, and had little headroom to take on new missions. The study says this jeopardizes the nation’s ability to sustain combat against a major adversary if war breaks out.
Kendall also said the Air Force has grown increasingly concerned that tankers may face an increased threat of being shot down in combat. How to design a more combat-resistant tanker is one of the key questions facing the Air Force as it begins to imagine what its future KC-Z tanker should look like.
But, Kendall said, it’s still an open question and the Air Force hasn’t gone very far to find an answer.
He also reiterated that the Air Force has become “significantly less confident” that it will hold a competition for the KC-Y deck tanker, which will pave the way for the service’s next generation KC-Z. If the service does not hold a KC-Y competition, it will buy more KC-46 Pegasus aircraft from Boeing while retiring the old KC-10 and KC-135 tankers.
Kendall praised the KC-46 as a major “night and day” improvement over the KC-46. He acknowledged that the program had run into problems, including with its faulty original remote viewing system, and noted that aircraft manufacturer Boeing had “lost a huge amount of money on the program so far”.
But Kendall said the Air Force and Boeing are working on the KC-46 issues, and the service is on track to handle any planes that need aerial refueling.
More missions for the KC-46
Air Mobility Command announced after the Kendall event that its supreme commander, Gen. Mike Minihan, on Tuesday approved the seventh scheduled interim capability release mission for the Pegasus.
The KC-46 is now approved to refuel F-35B and F-35C fighter jets on TRANSCOM missions, AMC said. The latest set of missions also cleared the Pegasus to refuel the B-1B Lancer, C-135 variants, E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, EC-130H Compass Call, KC-10 Extender and P-8 Poseidon. on TRANSCOM missions.
“A credible and reliable KC-46A tanker capability is now available to our joint and international partners,” Minihan said.
A year ago, the commander said, the Pegasus was still not allowed to refuel planes on TRANSCOM missions. That changed in July 2021, when the first draft capability release allowing it to refuel planes with its central drug system was released.
A month later, the KC-46 had been cleared to refuel the B-52 Stratofortress, C-17 Globemaster and other Pegasus aircraft with its refueling boom during TRANSCOM missions.
More aircraft were gradually added in the months that followed. By Tuesday, the KC-46 could refuel 85% of the planes it needed for TRANSCOM missions.
The KC-46 conducted its first operational refueling of an allied international aircraft in April, with the refueling of Spanish EF-18 Hornets during an exercise at Moron Air Base in Spain, AMC said. The KC-46 was already authorized to refuel F-18s from Canada and Spain, and it is now certified to refuel aircraft from Finland, Italy, Australia, Malaysia and Switzerland.
A KC-46 from the 22nd Air Refueling Wing at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas also completed a 24.2-hour flight May 5-6, the longest flight in AMC history.
Stephen Losey is Defense News’ air warfare reporter. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special ops and air warfare. Prior to that, he covered Air Force leadership, personnel, and operations for Air Force Times.