Air Force Approves KC-46A Tanker for Worldwide Deployment, Including Combat Operations

The Pegasus tanker offloaded 1.46 million pounds of fuel to 66 aircraft over the course of 206 flight hours.

Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker

The U.S. Air Force approved the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker for worldwide deployment, including support of combat operations, following a recent employment concept exercise in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. [Courtesy: U.S. Air Force]

Boeing's [NYSE: BA] KC-46A Pegasus tanker is now approved for worldwide deployment, including in support of combat operations, according to the U.S. Air Force's Air Mobility Command (AMC).

The development follows a recent combat employment concept exercise and wraps up a 15-month Interim Capability Release that ensures the tanker could refuel all aircraft, Air Force officials said. 

“We have rapidly operationalized this aircraft to support the joint force,” Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of AMC, said in a statement Monday. “We are ready to use this aircraft globally in any fight, without hesitation."

The KC-46A represents the Air Force’s first phase of recapitalizing its aging tanker fleet and is capable of refueling most fixed-wing, receiver-capable aircraft, as well as airlifting up to 65,000 pounds of cargo.

During the exercise, which occurred in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, the KC-46A offloaded 1.46 million pounds of fuel to 66 aircraft over the course of 206 flight hours. While the Air Force did not specify where the exercise occurred, the CENTCOM area of operations is a 4 million square-mile area stretching from Egypt to Kazakhstan.

As part of the exercise, a KC-46A also refueled two McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle fighters using the Military Data Network, which allows the tanker to act as an interface between the Air Operations Center on the ground and airborne aircraft. 

“The KC-46 now officially joins the rest of the Air Force’s refueling fleet in meeting combatant command requirements around the world,” said Brig. Gen. Ryan Samuelson, AMC’s KC-46A Cross Functional Team lead. “But the KC-46A is a game changer in its ability to transmit and exchange data between networks, arming warfighters with real-time battlefield awareness—extending the joint force’s reach, flexibility, and endurance capabilities.”

While the Air Force has lifted all restrictions for the KC-46, the aircraft's Remote Vision System remains challenged owing to occasional shadows and direct sun washouts that appear on tanker video displays, which can lead to the boom scraping aircraft during refueling operations, Air & Space Forces Magazine reported. Boeing is currently developing a display upgrade that is on track to be installed in 2024, the magazine said.

Interest in the aircraft's air-to-air refueling capabilities is growing, Boeing said earlier this summer, indicating it expected to announce a new international buyer for the KC-46A tanker by the end of the year. 

The tanker is based upon the Boeing 767 airframe and can accommodate 18 military standardized pallets in cargo configuration, a capability that makes it desirable to many international militaries. 

Six international militaries have approached Boeing about purchasing the aircraft since 2020, a company official said in June.

The Air Force began flying the aircraft in early 2019, and under its current contract, is set to receive 179 copies of the air-to-air refueler.

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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