Forget F-22 and F-35s: The KC-46 Might Be the Most Crucial Plane in the Air Force

Dan Goure

Key Point: Advancements like the KC-46 will be crucial in U.S. power projection. 

Last week, the KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling aircraft passed one of its two final milestones prior to entering service with the U.S. Air Force. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted the platform a supplemental type certificate. The KC-46 had previously received the FAA’s amended type certificate which addressed its basic airworthiness and performance. This second certificate addresses the aircraft’s refueling and mission avionics systems. While the Pegasus still must be granted its military type certificate, which covers specialized military functions and systems, all testing required for this certificate has been accomplished.

Now nothing stands in the way of the KC-46 entering service. This is a rather remarkable achievement for a program that only began in 2011 and which even late last year was struggling to resolve problems with parts of its refueling system. The Air Force is now scheduled to receive its first production tanker this month with the remaining 17 aircraft required under the original contract to be delivered no later than April 2019.

The KC-46 is primarily intended to replace the aging KC-135 Stratotanker. The KC-46 will be a substantial improvement over the KC-135 regarding the amount of fuel it can deliver and its cargo capacity. Equally important, the maintenance costs associated with the KC-135 are becoming prohibitive. One reason the Air Force began pursuit of a new tanker at the turn of the millennium is that it could see the writing on the wall concerning the costs of maintaining the KC-135 fleet. Since 2001, with the expansion of global air operations as part of the war on terror, the tanker fleet has been employed more intensively than had been anticipated with a resulting increase in wear and tear on the aircraft and a sharp rise in maintenance costs.

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