Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Air Mobility Command commander, discussed the command’s approach for increasing operational use of the KC-46 during a media roundtable at the Air Force Association’s virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium, Feb. 24, 2021.
As the KC-46 program works toward full operating capability, AMC plans to implement a conditions-based approach to incrementally certify mission sets in order to expand tanker capacity in support of joint force operational taskings.
“AMC is working hard to ensure U.S. Transportation Command has the tanker capacity necessary to meet Joint Force requirements,” said Van Ovost. “To meet these requirements, we are exploring a variety of options or ‘tanker levers’ to relieve stress on today’s force, including a limited, operational use of the KC-46 on a conditions-based approach.”
Despite operational restrictions and deficiencies, the KC-46 continues to demonstrate its growing operational capacity by executing daily training missions, such as airlifting cargo and passengers, and executing boom and drogue air refueling. Since Oct. 1, 2020, the KC-46 fleet has executed more than 650 missions across the globe in all three of its mission sets, including cross-ocean aerial refueling fighter drags, known as coronets, aeromedical evacuation missions, and cargo and passenger movements. Additionally, through execution of more than 60 percent of the KC-46 Operational Training and Evaluation plan, KC-46 aircrew and maintainers have increasingly demonstrated proficiency and propensity to open the envelope on missions they’re flying.
“What changes with this approach is we will now commit the KC-46 to execute missions similar to those they’ve been conducting over the past few years in the Operational Test and Evaluation plan, but can now include operational tasking from USTRANSCOM,” said Van Ovost. “Through this conditions-based approach, we expect to increase overall tanker capacity by bringing daily taskable KC-46 operational capabilities at scale and predicted reliability for joint force employment.”
There is no timeline associated with certifying these capabilities and instead the focus will be on confidence measures that allow the AMC commander and other senior leaders to qualitatively and quantitatively assess achievements in mission set milestones. If confidence measures are not met, then a particular mission set will not be certified for operational use.
USTRANSCOM and U.S. Air Force leaders were briefed on this approach and are receptive of AMC’s efforts to find additional capacity to support joint force requirements. Earlier this week, AMC flew several members of Congress, along with Acting Air Force Secretary John Roth and U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, aboard several KC-46s from Pease Air National Guard Base, New Hampshire, and McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas. During those orientation flights, two KC-46s refueled multiple F-15s and F-16s, as well as one another, to showcase how well the aircraft and aircrew are performing, as well as the challenges that remain.
While Full Operational Capability is still years away, AMC hopes to accelerate maturation of the KC-46 weapon system through increased operational use.
Van Ovost pointed out that under this approach, the command hopes to reach maturity faster in all facets of the KC-46 weapon system, adding that it does so by providing additional “seasoning” opportunities for crews and helping to identify and correct potential challenges in maintenance and sustainment.
“When serious deficiencies are fixed and a fully functioning RVS 2.0 and a redesigned boom are installed, this approach ensures we will be that much closer to an aircraft, aircrew and system that’s fully operational and combat ready,” added Van Ovost.
While AMC seeks to provide increased operational capability to a stressed tanker fleet, Category-I and II deficiencies still need to be resolved, including the upgraded Remote Visual System 2.0, slated for initial fielding in late 2023. The aircraft also requires a redesign of the Boom Telescope Actuator. Until those deficiencies and others are cleared, the KC-46 will not achieve Full Operational Capability.