Boeing sees opportunities for the KC-46 tanker in the Middle East, stressing that the 767 deriviative is designed as a military aircraft from the ground up.

In a briefing aboard a US Air Force (USAF) KC-46 in the Dubai air show static park, Boeing business development executive Sean Martin said the company is seeing significant interest in the tanker regionally.

“We are seeing a very increased desire for the capability in this region… the capability is the right size, the right fit for this region,” says Martin.

He lists several attributes that the company feels make the KC-46 a better option than airliners that are converted to tankers, such as having “hardening” baked in during the production process.

He says the KC-46 can withstand electromagnetic pulses that can be caused by nuclear explosions, and which render electronics unusable. The aircraft is also resistant to small arms fire, and can operate in an environment that has been compromised by chemical warfare.

Moreover, the aircraft can operate in what he calls “covert mode”, whereby it uses no visible light during nighttime operations.

The USAF has taken delivery of 76 examples from a total order of 179. The service had been eyeing a “bridge tanker” requirement, also known as KC-Y, as it continues to replace its Boeing KC-135 fleet. 

Lockheed Martin had been teamed with Airbus Defence & Space to offer the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) for the contest, which it was calling the LMXT. However, the US airframer recently withdrew its bid, potentially opening the way for additional KC-46 sales. 

Martin notes that Boeing will be supporting the KC-46 through at least 2040. “We’d like to think that we are a great platform that’s out there doing missions every day for the air force, and we’d love the opportunity to continue to do that… but the [Department of Defense] and the air force will make that decision.”

Martin says that progress is being made on the jet’s troubled remote vision system (RVS), which allows operators sitting behind the cockpit to refuel receiving aircraft using screens and 3D goggles.

The new system will present refuelling operators a more realistic picture of receiving aircraft. A critical design review of ‘RVS 2.0’ is pending.

Previous USAF reviews of the platform revealed a string of deficiencies, the most serious of which are rated as Category I. The Pentagon describes a Category I deficiency as any fault “that could cause loss of life or catastrophic failure of a major weapon system” – the aircraft’s RVS system accounts for two Category I deficiencies.

“When you look at it from a numbers standpoint, the numbers are really not that drastic from a Category I standpoint,” says Martin. “The good part of it is that we are working through them.”

An additional four Category I items are related to aircraft systems. “All of the deficiencies have a clear path to closure,” says Boeing.

Martin would not be drawn on the potential for the UAE to order the KC-46. The country had an apparent interest in the type in 2019 to complement its three A330 MRTTs, but in 2021 decided to obtain two more of the Airbus type.

Cirium fleets data suggests that Saudi Arabia might have a requirement for new tankers. While it has six new A330 MRTTs, it also operates seven KE-3As, a derivative of the 707, with an average age of 37.2 years.