The US Air Force (USAF) will pay Boeing $184 million for a package to upgrade communication systems on the KC-46A Pegasus aerial tanker.

Boeing said on 31 March it has won a contract to enhance “line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight communications technologies with anti-jamming and encryption features”.

KC-46A Pegasus connects with an F-15 Strike Eagle for an aerial refueling test over California in 2018 - 970

Source: US Air Force

A US Air Force KC-46A tops off an F-15 Strike Eagle fighter

“The KC-46A is built to integrate cutting-edge capabilities directly into the DNA of the aircraft as the needs of the mission evolve,” says James Burgess, Boeing KC-46 programme manager.

Boeing describes the KC-46A as offering “more-secure communications and more data integration than any tanker”.

“The KC-46A is transforming the role of the tanker for the 21st century and will continue to expand its battle space network capabilities,” the company notes.

The USAF recently doubled down on the problem-plagued tanker, when senior officials said they will likely cancel the so-called “bridge tanker” programme. The service will instead buy additional KC-46s and focus on designing a new, clean-sheet stealthy tanker.

That platform, formerly referred to as KC-Z, is known as the Next Generation Air-refuelling System.

Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, in remarks on 16 January, said the service is seeking to move its tanker fleet away from transport or commercial-based designs and toward platforms custom built for a high-threat environment.

“Traditionally, we could take a commercial grade of aircraft and turn it into a tanker or transport,” Kendall noted. “They’re not designed with a high set of requirements for survivability or resilience, and the threats are taking that freedom away from us.”

In the meantime, the USAF has moved the KC-46 into full operational status, despite multiple engineering faults blamed on Boeing.

The aircraft’s refuelling boom initially was not compatible with lighter tactical jets, including Fairchild Republic A-10 Warthogs. Boeing is also redesigning the refuelling boom Remote Vision System after design flaws prevented the original system from working in all flight conditions.

Despite those challenges, the USAF has been putting the KC-46 through its paces. The service completed a record-setting 36h roundtrip endurance flight between New Hampshire and Guam in November, as well as a limited-crew refuelling the month before.