Pentagon Should Explore Renting Refuelers Amid KC-46 Delays, General Says

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A F-16 receives fuel from a KC-46 Pegasus.
A F-16 flown by Maj Spencer Bell, 40th Flight Test Squadron test pilot, receives fuel from a KC-46 Pegasus during a flutter mission at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Dec. 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. John Raven)

The head of U.S. Transportation Command says the Pentagon should seriously explore an air refueling leasing program with the defense industry while the Air Force works with Boeing Co. to fix its newest tanker, the KC-46 Pegasus.

Army Gen. Stephen Lyons said Tuesday that the aerial refueling element "is the most stressed and probably the one that's pushing the red line or exceeding the red line" when it comes to the Defense Department's deploy-to-dwell targets, or the time U.S. troops spend performing their mission versus being at home.

"We have to figure out a way to mitigate the delayed fielding of the KC-46," he said. Tanker leasing could reduce the load on airmen.

"We are taking a look at that," Lyons said during an event hosted by the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.

Related: Major Problem with New Air Force Tanker Has Been Fixed, Service Says

An immediate, positive effect of leasing would be relieving the stress put on refueling operators and pilots, he said. "We wouldn't be able to employ that capability in a contested environment, but nonetheless … much like we do on airlift, it would be able to take the pressure off."

The effort could also include tanker leasing opportunities for the commercial airlift industry already working with TRANSCOM. 

Lt. Gen. Jon Thomas, deputy chief of Air Mobility Command, told Defense News last month that such a move would need to meet set parameters, such as Federal Aviation Administration standards and Defense Department certification requirements. That limits the type of refueling aircraft that can be used, such as tankers with a boom versus a hose and drogue.

The officials' comments come as the Air Force tries to deal with the KC-46's problems.

Earlier this month, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein sent a letter to Boeing asking it to pay close attention to the tanker even as the company deals with setbacks with its 737 Max passenger aircraft.

"We require your attention and improved focus on the KC-46," Goldfein said, as first reported by Bloomberg News. "The Air Force continues to accept deliveries of a tanker incapable of performing its primary operational mission."

The KC-46's many issues include problems with how its boom connects and disconnects from other aircraft; foreign object debris, such as trash, tools, nuts and bolts, found scattered inside multiple planes; a glitch in its Remote Vision System's software; and a recently rectified problem with faulty cargo locks.

In September, Gen. Maryanne Miller, head of Air Mobility Command, confirmed the KC-46 isn't likely to deploy to a combat zone for at least three years given these setbacks.

As a result, AMC has been weighing how to potentially slow the retirement of older KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft, she said.

Lyons on Tuesday agreed the planned retirements need to be reconsidered.

"Our sizing is accurate" for the airlift requirement in an era of great power competition, he said.

"[But] in the aerial refueling area, we're behind. If we're not careful, we're going to see a real dip in taskable tails for the joint force," Lyons said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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