The US Air Force (USAF) has announced a new order with Boeing worth over $2 billion for additional KC-46 Pegasus aerial refuelling aircraft.
The service confirmed the order in a 27 January contract, which covers 15 of the 767-derivative jets at a total price of $2.25 billion. Delivery of the aircraft will be completed by 2026.
Boeing confirms the deal, noting it represents the ninth production lot of the KC-46 type. The company says it is currently under contract with the USAF for 128 of the tanker jets, with 68 delivered and already operating.
Additionally, Boeing has existing Pegasus contracts to deliver six aircraft for Japan and four to Israel.
“The combat-ready KC-46A is transforming the role of the tanker for the 21st century,” says Boeing KC-46 programme manager James Burgess.
He adds Boeing is committed to “ensuring the Pegasus provides unmatched capabilities and continues to evolve for the US and its allies’ global mission needs”.
However, just as Boeing was touting the new order and the “interoperability efficiencies” it can create for allied operators of the KC-46, the Pentagon’s equipment test office announced it has found a new fault with one of Boeing’s favourite selling points about the type: its ability to double as a cargo transport.
The Department of Defense’s Office of the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation (OTE) in its annual report earlier this month notes USAF officials evaluating the KC-46 “assessed that a combination of individual cargo-related deficiencies merited generation of a Category I emergency deficiency report against overall KC-46A cargo operations capability”.
A Category I deficiency is described by the Pentagon as any fault “that could cause loss of life or catastrophic failure of a major weapon system”.
The KC-46 programme has logged numerous technical faults, and billions of dollars in associated charges, in recent years. The aircraft’s refuelling boom needed to be redesigned after it was discovered to be too stiff to engage with the lightweight Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack jet.
The much-touted Remote Vision System (RVS) meant to provide a range of optical enhancements to the boom operator was also found to be seriously deficient – with the video feed washing out under certain lighting conditions. Boeing has since agreed to redesign the system, which will be called RVS 2.0.
According to the OTE office, the latest technical issues with the KC-46 cargo system include “complex, unorganised cargo loading guidance” and “non-standard cargo limitations, causing aircrew confusion and requirement of onboard cargo inspections”.
The report also notes that problems with software used to calculate aircraft weight and balance “can increase loadmaster workload and require complex manual calculations, introducing potential human error”.
Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, the USAF Life Cycle Management Center (LCMC) says the KC-46 cargo system issues have been downgraded to a lower Category II deficiency. In comments to Air & Space Forces Magazine, the LCMC also says the issues will be resolved sometime in 2023.
In the past, Boeing has touted the KC-46’s cargo system as a value-added trait for operators unable to justify the price of a dedicated air tanker fleet.