US aerospace and defense giant Boeing has received contracts worth US$3.14 billion to manufacture 19 KC-46A aerial refueling aircraft for the US Air Force (USAF) and Israel.
Of the 19 aerial refuelers, the USAF has ordered 15 under a $2.2 billion production contract. The remaining four will be delivered to Israel, for which the cost must not exceed $927 million.
The work on the KC-46A production will take place in Boeing’s Seattle facility and is expected to be completed by November 30, 2025.
The contract for Lot 8 comes roughly 20 months after the contract for Lot 7 was awarded to Boeing in January 2021, which also comprised 15 tankers, costing $2.12 billion. The USAF intends to acquire 179 KC-46s by 2027.
However, the KC-46 is plagued by multiple design problems that have led the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) to warn the USAF to reconsider its purchase of the refueler.
The Various Problems With KC-46 Tankers
The KC-46 Pegasus is a modified version of the Boeing 767 airliner, designed to replace the aging KC-135 Stratotanker, also made by Boeing. The aircraft can refuel planes at a rate of 1,200 gallons per minute with the help of its 55-foot fly-by-wire refueling boom.
The most troubling issue for the aerial tanker is the problems related to its boom and vision system. The boom is a rigid telescoping tube extended to and inserted into a receptacle on the receiving aircraft for refueling.
The Pegasus has a Remote Vision System (RVS), developed by Rockwell Collins, which is a network of cameras and sensors that boom operators use to maneuver the refueling boom into the other aircraft.
However, the system does not work as intended, as there have been discrepancies between the motion shown by the RVS and what happens mid-air.
These distortions in the images, and sometimes even blackouts on the tanker’s displays, are caused by shadows or direct sunlight and have raised concerns about the boom scraping a receiving aircraft.
The USAF and Boeing have been working on a replacement design for years, called the RVS 2.0. The final design was approved in April 2022, with Boeing agreeing to foot the bill for upgrades; however, the installation is not scheduled to begin until 2024.
The latest Lot 8 contract also covers the cost of “the non-recurring engineering design and test for the Remote Vision System 2.0 and the Air Refueling Operator Station 2.0 mission equipment and installation, pre-delivery integrated logistics support, and technical publications,” the contract award states.
“The Air Force now plans to commit to the new design…before all of the technologies are adequately developed – risking further delays and increased costs,” the GAO report in January cautioned, adding, “our recommendations to the Air Force include that it fully assess and test the KC-46 technologies.”
There was also a problem with the design of the boom itself. During aerial refueling, the tanker and the receiving aircraft are supposed to work together to connect the boom’s nozzle to the aircraft’s receptacle.
However, it was found that several aircraft within the USAF could not generate enough thrust required to connect. The USAF later awarded Boeing 55.5 million to fix it.
Also, only last month, a KC-46A tanker flying a delegation of American lawmakers was forced to make an emergency landing because its boom was unintentionally deployed. In the video showing the incident, the boom can be seen scraping along the runway as the tanker touched down.
KC-46 makes an emergency landing at McGuire AFB in New Jersey after the aircraft’s refuelling boom failed to retract. The aircraft was carrying a congressional delegation of 16 staffers from the offices of U.S. Senators at the time of the incident.
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After the tanker demonstrated its ability to refuel other jets, there was a malfunction in the cable used to retract the boom into the fuselage, leaving it hanging outside the aircraft.
KC-46A Tanker Could Play An Important Role In Israeli Airstrike On Iran
As stated earlier, four KC-46As will be delivered to the Israeli Air Force (IAF), whose interest in the aerial tanker has been known for many years.
In 2020, the US State Department approved the possible sale of up to eight refuelers, and in 2021, the Israeli Defense Ministry signed an agreement to purchase the aircraft.
As EurAsian Times has discussed, the KC-46A can play an essential role in a potential Israeli strike on Iran. Many experts had called it the second most important acquisition after F-35 stealth fighters.
While Israel does have fifth-generation F-35 stealth fighters, the jets cannot fly to Iran and come back without refueling, requiring the F-35s to land at a friendly base near Iran.
With the KC-46 tanker, Israel can have around a dozen of its bomber aircraft in the air for up to 12 hours with a range of over 11,000 kilometers. This could give the Israeli military a massive advantage in any operations against Iran, located about 1000 kilometers from the Israeli borders.
Israel had asked the US to fast-track the delivery of the refueler, apparently for preparations to strike Iran but the Biden administration rejected the request, claiming that the first jet would not be delivered until 2024.
It is believed that the US is delaying tanker deliveries to Israel to prevent Tel Aviv from going ahead with a plan to launch airstrikes on Iran that could create a major crisis in the Middle East.
However, the Israeli Air Force has also reportedly extended the range of its F-35 jets to fly to Iran without needing mid-air refueling. It is unclear exactly how this range extension was achieved, but the new capability can allow the IAF to conduct aerial strikes against Iran and its nuclear facilities.
Israel also reportedly simulated a massive strike against Iran involving hundreds of aircraft during the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF’s) Chariots of Fire series of exercises between May and June making its intensions very clear.