Key point: The gap comes at the same time that the Air Force insists it needs more tankers.
The U.S. Air Force just admitted that its new aerial tanker doesn’t work. But the service still wants to keep buying the flawed refuelers while also retiring older tankers that everyone knows work just fine.
The Air Force has decided it would deploy Boeing new KC-46 tanker only in the event of a major war, the service's chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein told U.S. Transportation Command and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
Aviation Week was the first to report the news.
The Air Force won't, however, use the KC-46 in day-to-day operations supporting training or missions over the Middle East or Afghanistan. Not until Boeing can fix problems with the twin-engine tanker's boom system.
In defending the KC-46, Goldfein is signaling that the Air Force will stick with the KC-46 despite its problems. And, pending Congressional approval, also will push forward with a controversial plan to retire early 29 KC-135 and KC-10 tankers.
The Air Force in 2011 selected the KC-46 to replace a portion of its roughly 500-strong tanker fleet. As of early 2020 the service has around 30 KC-46s at training and test bases in California, Oklahoma, New Hampshire and Kansas.
The flying branch wants to acquire as many as 179 KC-46s. Each new tanker costs $240 million, counting development costs.
The KC-46 with its 767 airframe is bigger and, in theory, more efficient than existing KC-135s are with their 707 airframes. But the KC-46 relies on a so-called "Remote Vision System" -- in essence, a suite of high-resolution cameras -- to give the boom operator a view behind the plane. The operator steers the boom to plug into the refueling receptacles of receiving planes.
The cameras don’t work. "The problem with the RVS is what the Air Force calls a 'rubber sheet' effect that distorts the image on the visual display used by the boom operator during refueling operations," Aviation Week explained.
The boom itself also has problems.
“The boom's issues became apparent during developmental flight testing, when pilots of lighter receiver aircraft – such as Fairchild Republic A-10s and Lockheed Martin F-16s – reported they needed more force to connect and disconnect their aircraft from the boom, as compared to older tankers, like the KC-135 and KC-10,” Flight Global reported.
“The additional force required can cause the receiving aircraft to suddenly lunge and collide with the boom, damaging the aircraft’s glass cockpit canopy or tail,” Flight Global continued. “It can also damage the boom.”
“There’s profound problems with the system,” Goldfein said.
Boeing reportedly is developing fixes for both problems. In the meantime, the Air Force continues to buy KC-46s. It wants to acquire 15 of the planes over the next five years while also retiring the 29 older tankers. That means around a five-percent reduction in the service's aerial refueling capacity.
Goldfein downplayed the cut. “What we’re talking about is [retiring] three percent of the entire KC-135 fleet,” he told Aviation Week.
The gap comes at the same time that the Air Force insists it needs more tankers.
In September 2018 the Air Force announced it would ask Congress for the money to grow from 312 squadrons to 386 over the next decade. The additional 74 squadrons include five new bomber units and 14 new units flying tankers.
The shortfalls are related. Although America's bombers can fly thousands of miles on internal fuel, they require frequent refueling in order to strike distant targets from their permanent bases in Missouri, Texas and South Dakota.
If you buy more bombers, you must also buy more tankers to support the bombers. But the current trend is toward fewer tankers, not more.
To be fair, the Air Force is struggling to expand in any category. The service wants to grow the bomber fleet from today’s 158 B-1s, B-2s and B-52s to a force of more than 200 B-52s and new B-21s. But the Air Force’s 2021 budget proposal cuts 17 B-1s, potentially shrinking the bomber fleet before B-21s begin entering service.