If 2020 was a struggle for much of America, it proved a turning point for the Air Force’s beleaguered KC-46 program. Air Force and Boeing Company officials now see strength in a program that had long been a sore point for both.
“How excited we are about the KC-46,” Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition Will Roper told reporters in September. “How odd it is to say that, especially in the five-sided building, but we’re making amazing progress. And I think for everyone, the contractor Boeing, for the Air Force, I think we’ve turned a new page, and we’re excited about that.”
The KC-46 started the year with four “Category One” deficiencies, the most serious being the boom operator’s remote vision system (RVS). The camera distorted and, in some light, obscured the boom operator’s view. In addition, repeated incidents of tools and trash found inside aircraft after delivery forced repeated delivery suspensions in 2019.
But soon after the global pandemic struck, the Air Force and Boeing agreed on a wholesale RVS redesign and closed out an issue that rendered the aircraft’s cargo locks unreliable. While the KC-46 is still late on its testing schedule—and Boeing has announced about $1 billion in additional cost overruns above the previously announced $4.8 billion—the company assured its investors there’s a bright future for the tanker.
The new remote vision system ‘far exceeds the imagination of what we were even talking about back in 2011.’Michael Hafer, Boeing’s director of global sales and marketing
“The tanker’s been a drag on us for three or four years … but we are beginning to clear the hurdle with our customer with respect to performance in their fleet and their need for that tanker,” Boeing CEO David L. Calhoun said during a quarterly earnings report in October. He said the KC-46 will “begin to transition next year” into a strength for the company.
Fixing the RVS
The new remote vision system is the biggest reset for the tanker since it began production. The RVS redesign aims to fix the primary reason the aircraft is still at least three years away from being fully operational.
The new system, developed in concert with the Air Force’s 711th Human Performance Wing, will include new, higher-definition 4K color cameras; a larger and higher resolution screen for the boom operator; a laser ranger to accurately measure the distance between the boom and the aircraft it is refueling; and augmented reality.
The system “far exceeds the imagination of what we were even talking about back in 2011,” said Michael W. Hafer, director of Boeing’s KC-46 global sales and marketing. Boeing is covering the $551 million development costs, but the Air Force is making that possible by allowing the company to receive $882 million in payments withheld for noncompliance issues. The two struck the deal in April, as Boeing was reeling from the nationwide shutdown due to COVID-19, and financial markets were in freefall.
“We wanted to send a clear signal in the deal that this is our tanker for the future,” said Roper at the time.
By autumn, Boeing was down-selecting subsystems. The company expects to deliver 12 aircraft kits in 2023 and begin installing the redesigned vision system on new aircraft in 2024.
“I’m very encouraged with the open collaboration between Boeing and the Air Force on that,” said Air Mobility Command boss Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost in September. She indicated that beyond meeting Boeing’s goal, “we will do everything we can to accelerate” the development timeline.
In the meantime, Boeing is developing an interim fix. “RVS 1.5” tweaks system software to improve performance and could be fielded in the second half of 2021.
Van Ovost said she saw some of the improvements during a visit to Boeing in early September and its images appeared to be clearer. Hafer said the first flight tests for RVS 1.5 wrapped in early August, focusing on “dynamic image stability” and reducing problems caused by shadows and glare. “We’ve actually brought up some improvements in both hardware and software that eliminates most of that,” he said.
Whether the improvements are good enough remains in question, according to Van Ovost. “The proof is in the pudding when it comes to whether or not it actually would provide operational, additional capability, or additional safety to the boom operator and to our receiver aircraft,” Van Ovost said. “If I can’t increase operational capability … then there may not be a whole lot of reason to put it on the airplane and retrofit airplanes. Because if I have to take airplanes out of cycle to do that, then I have less access to those aircraft. So it’ll be what our boom operators, our testers have to say about the final configuration.”
She also said she would nix RVS 1.5 tweaks if they meant the permanent fix would be delayed.
“There’s nothing that we would do that would slow down getting to 2.0 and getting it on our airplane,” she said. “That’s the most important thing: to get to the full requirements that we agreed to … RVS 2.0 at no cost to the government.”
She added: “If it slips RVS 2.0 installation at all, I would not be in favor of slipping because that’s the end game, that’s the requirement that we set out and that Boeing agreed to deliver.”
In June, the Air Force officially pushed back its full-rate production decision until 2024—seven years later than the original goal. Officials said initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) cannot be completed until the RVS problems are resolved and the production configuration can be tested.
“Accordingly, the Air Force will defer the KC-46 Full-Rate Production decision until after the completion of IOT&E, and the receipt of the statutorily required Beyond Low-Rate Production report from DOT&E,” the Air Force said. “Given its confidence in deficiency resolution timelines for both the aerial refueling boom and remote vision system, the Air Force is rescheduling the KC-46’s Full Rate Production Decision milestone to late fiscal year 2024.”
As of September, the tanker had made more than 17,700 contacts and passed more than 22 million pounds of fuel, according to Boeing. The aircraft had flown a “coronet” deployment (escorting fighters over long distances to provide them with fuel) of a group of Navy F/A-18 tankers, additionally refueling the Navy’s Blue Angels during the spring “Salute to America” tour across the country. It also flew a long-distance aeromedical evacuation training sortie covering five bases to test that capability.
“As opportunities come up, we like to exercise the portions of the envelope that reopen this airplane as much as possible with our Total Force that’s flying the airplane,” Van Ovost said in an interview. “We want to accelerate the capability of the training for these aircraft, the simulation capability, so that we can move as much as possible into the simulator and minimize training time on the physical airplane itself.”
Future block upgrades, called Pegasus Combat Capability, or PC2, will improve communications, survivability, and possibly add autonomy, Hafer said. New radios, survivable communications, and “a resilient communications node” for secure voice and data links across multiple networks could be ready in two to four years.
Roper stated in September that RVS 2.0 and future upgrades promise a potential “all the way up to the doorstep of semi-autonomous and autonomous tanking.”
“The Air Force has committed to put in those algorithms, because when you build a properly designed RVS, you’ve done everything needed to do autonomous tanking,” he said. “The only thing you’re missing are the algorithms to actually do it. … We don’t have requirements for … tanking autonomously, we don’t know where, when, how. [But] now’s a great time to start studying that, and to do it in conjunction with what comes next.”
Hafer said Boeing is “setting the framework” for autonomy. “We’re spending some of our independent research dollars on developing that capability,” he said. “ It’s just a new and exciting field.”
Reliably providing fuel in contested areas will become a “strategic question” for the Air Force, Roper said.
“How can you defend a tanker against an onslaught of fighters who know that every tanker you kill is like killing a lot of fighters, or bombers, or drones it supports,” Roper said. “We’re definitely going to be thinking about autonomy as a way to change the risk calculus, having something smaller without people [so] that we could take more risk.”
Meeting a Coming Shortfall
Solving all the KC-46’s problems will help meet future tanking demand, but it won’t solve all the Air Force’s tanking problems. Even with RVS and other upgrades, the service still faces a shortfall in overall tanker capacity.
U.S. Transportation Command leaders argued last spring that Air Force plans to retire 29 KC-10s and KC-135s in 2021 were premature and risky. Fiscal 2021 defense policy bills, still not completed at press time, include language blocking many of the planned retirements.
“The op tempo is actually quite high,” said TRANSCOM boss U.S. Army Gen. Stephen R. Lyons in August. “We have not yet met our program objective of 479 tankers. We will be healthy in the outyears,” but not until the KC-46 is fully deployable, he added.
To help fill the gap, the Air Force said in late October it is moving forward on its “bridge tanker,” previously known as “KC-Y,” in an open competition to replace KC-135s. Van Ovost, speaking at the virtual Airlift/Tanker Association conference, said Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett has committed to the “nondevelopmental” program based on an existing aircraft. The goal is to immediately follow KC-46 deliveries with the new tanker, beginning in about 2027.
Two existing tankers meet this criteria: upgraded KC-46s and the Airbus A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport, which lost to the KC-46. No specific schedule for this program has been announced, nor is there a clear plan for setting the requirements for a third new tanker—the KC-Z.
“We’re still undergoing basic studies on the types of attributes that this aircraft would have,” Van Ovost said. “Whether it’s autonomous, or whether there’s a pilot in it; whether it needs to be stealth-like, or just needs to be really large.”